Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Making of an American > I. The Meeting on the Long Bridge
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.
 
I. The Meeting on the Long Bridge
 
ON the outskirts of the ancient town of Ribe, on the Danish north seacoast, a wooden bridge spanned the Nibs River when I was a boy—a frail structure, with twin arches like the humps of a dromedary, for boats to go under. Upon it my story begins. The bridge is long since gone. The grass-grown lane that knew our romping feet leads nowhere now. But in my memory it is all as it was that day nearly forty years ago, and it is always summer there. The bees are droning among the forget-me-nots that grow along shore, and the swans arch their necks in the limpid stream. The clatter of the mill-wheel down at the dam comes up with drowsy hum; the sweet smells of meadow and field are in the air. On the bridge a boy and a girl have met.   1
 
 
 
Our Stork.
 
   He whistles a tune, boy-fashion, with worsted jacket slung across his arm, on his way home from the carpenter shop to his midday meal. When she has passed he stands looking after her, all the music gone out of him. At the other end of the bridge she turns with the feeling that he is looking, and, when she sees that he is, goes on with a little toss of her pretty head. As she stands one brief moment there with the roguish look, she is to stand in his heart forever—a sweet girlish figure, in jacket of gray, black-embroidered, with schoolbooks and pretty bronzed boots—   2
   “With tassels!” says my wife, maliciously—she has been looking over my shoulder. Well, with tassels! What then? Did I not worship a pair of boots with tassels which I passed in a shop window in Copenhagen every day for a whole year, because they were the only other pair I ever saw? I don’t know—there may have been more; perhaps others wore them. I know she did. Curls she had, too—curls of yellow gold. Why do girls not have curls these days? It is such a rare thing to see them, that when you do you feel like walking behind them miles and miles just to feast your eyes. Too much bother, says my daughter. Bother? Why, I have carried one of your mother’s, miss! all these—there, I shall not say how long—and carry it still. Bother? Great Scott!   3
   And is this going to be a love story, then? Well, I have turned it over and over, and looked at it from every angle, but if I am to tell the truth, as I promised, I don’t see how it can be helped. If I am to do that, I must begin at the Long Bridge. I stepped on it that day a boy, and came off it with the fixed purpose of a man. How I stuck to it is part of the story—the best part, to my thinking; and I ought to know, seeing that our silver wedding comes this March. Silver wedding, humph! She isn’t a week older than the day I married her—not a week. It was all in the way of her that I came here; though at the time I am speaking of I rather guessed than knew it was Elizabeth. She lived over there beyond the bridge. We had been children together. I suppose I had seen her a thousand times before without noticing. In school I had heard the boys trading in her for marbles and brass buttons as a partner at dances and games—generally trading off the other girls for her. She was such a pretty dancer! I was not. “Soldiers and robbers” was more to my taste. That any girl, with curls or without, should be worth a good marble, or a regimental button with a sound eye, that could be strung, was rank foolishness to me until that day on the bridge.   4
   And now I shall have to recross it after all, to tell who and what we were, that we may start fair. I shall have to go slow, too, for back of that day everything seems very indistinct and strange. A few things stand out more clearly than the rest. The day, for instance, when I was first dragged off to school by an avenging housemaid and thrust howling into an empty hogshead by the ogre of a schoolmarm, who, when she had put the lid on, gnashed her yellow teeth at the bunghole and told me that so bad boys were dealt with in school. At recess she had me up to the pig-pen in the yard as a further warning. The pig had a slit in the ear. It was for being lazy, she explained, and showed me the shears. Boys were no better than pigs. Some were worse; then—a jab at the air with the scissors told the rest. Poor father! He was a schoolmaster, too; how much sorrow it might have spared him had he known of this! But we were too scared to tell, I suppose. He had set his heart upon my taking up his calling, and I hated the school from the day I first saw it. Small wonder. The only study he succeeded in interesting me in was English, because Charles Dickens’s paper, All the Year Round, came to the house with stories ever so much more alluring than the tedious grammar. He was of the old dispensation, wedded to the old ways. But the short cut I took to knowledge in that branch I think opened his eyes to some things ahead of his time. Their day had not yet come. He lived to see it dawn and was glad. I know how he felt about it. I myself have lived down the day of the hogshead in the child-life of New York. Some of the schools our women made an end of a few years ago weren’t much better. To help clean them out was like getting square with the ogre that plagued my childhood.   5
   I mind, too, my first collision with the tenement. There was just one, and it stood over against the castle hill, separated from it only by the dry moat. We called it Rag Hall, and I guess it deserved the name. Ribe was a very old town. Five hundred years ago or so it had been the seat of the fighting kings, when Denmark was a power to be reckoned with. There they were handy when trouble broke out with the German barons to the south. But the times changed, and of all its greatness there remained to Ribe only its famed cathedral, with eight centuries upon its hoary head, and its Latin School. Of the castle of the Valdemars there was left only this green hill with solemn sheep browsing upon it and ba-a-a-ing into the sunset. In the moats, where once ships sailed in from the sea, great billowy masses of reeds ever bent and swayed under the west wind that swept over the meadows. They grew much taller than our heads, and we boys loved to play in them, to track the tiger or the grizzly to its lair, not without creeping shudders at the peril that might lie in ambush at the next turn; or, hidden deep down among them, we lay and watched the white clouds go overhead and listened to the reeds whispering of the great days and deeds that were.   6
 
 
Ribe, from the Castle Hill.
 
   The castle hill was the only high ground about the town. It was said in some book of travel that one might see twenty-four miles in any direction from Ribe, lying flat on one’s back; but that was drawing the long bow. Flat the landscape was, undeniably. From the top of the castle hill we could see the sun setting upon the sea, and the islands lying high in fine weather, as if floating in the air, the Nibs winding its silvery way through the green fields. Not a tree, hardly a house, hindered the view. It was grass, all grass, for miles, to the sand dunes and the beach. Strangers went into ecstasy over the little woodland patch down by the Long Bridge, and very sweet and pretty it was; but to me, who was born there, the wide view to the sea, the green meadows, with the lonesome flight of the shore-birds and the curlew’s call in the night-watches, were dearer far, with all their melancholy. More than mountains in their majesty; more, infinitely more, than the city of teeming millions with all its wealth and might, they seem to me to typify human freedom and the struggle for it. Thence came the vikings that roved the seas, serving no man as master; and through the dark ages of feudalism no lord long bent the neck of those stout yeomen to the yoke. Germany, forgetting honor, treaties, and history, is trying to do it now in Slesvig, south of the Nibs, and she will as surely fail. The day of long-delayed justice, when dynasties by the grace of God shall have been replaced by government by right of the people, will find them unconquered still.   7
   Alas! I am afraid that thirty years in the land of my children’s birth have left me as much of a Dane as ever. I no sooner climb the castle hill than I am fighting tooth and nail the hereditary foes of my people whom it was built high to bar. Yet, would you have it otherwise? What sort of a husband is the man going to make who begins by pitching his old mother out of the door to make room for his wife? And what sort of a wife would she be to ask or to stand it?   8
   But I was speaking of the tenement by the moat. It was a ramshackle, two-story affair with shiftless tenants and ragged children. Looking back now, I think likely it was the contrast of its desolation with the green hill and the fields I loved, of its darkness and human misery and inefficiency with the valiant fighting men of my boyish dreams, that so impressed me. I believe it because it is so now. Over against the tenement that we fight in our cities ever rises in my mind the fields, the woods, God’s open sky, as accuser and witness that His temple is being so defiled, man so dwarfed in body and soul.   9
 
 
The View the Stork got of the Old Town.
 
   I know that Rag Hall displeased me very much. I presume there must have been something of an inquiring Yankee twist to my make-up, for the boys called me “Jacob the delver,” mainly because of my constant bothering with the sewerage of our house, which was of the most primitive kind. An open gutter that was full of rats led under the house to the likewise open gutter of the street. That was all there was of it, and very bad it was; but it had always been so, and as, consequently, it could not be otherwise, my energies spent themselves in unending warfare with those rats, whose nests choked the gutter. I could hardly have been over twelve or thirteen when Rag Hall challenged my resentment. My methods in dealing with it had at least the merit of directness, if they added nothing to the sum of human knowledge or happiness. I had received a “mark,” which was a coin like our silver quarter, on Christmas Eve, and I hied myself to Rag Hall at once to divide it with the poorest family there, on the express condition that they should tidy up things, especially those children, and generally change their way of living. The man took the money—I have a vague recollection of seeing a stunned look on his face—and, I believe, brought it back to our house to see if it was all right, thereby giving me great offence. But he did the best for himself that way, for so Rag Hall came under the notice of my mother too. And there really was some whitewashing done, and the children were cleaned up for a season. So that the eight skilling were, if not wisely, yet well invested, after all.   10
 
 
The Domkirke.
 
 
 
Within the Domkirke.
 
   No doubt Christmas had something to do with it. Poverty and misery always seem to jar more at the time when the whole world makes merry. We took an entire week off to keep Christmas in. Till after New Year’s Day no one thought of anything else. The “Holy Eve” was the greatest of the year. Then the Domkirke shone with a thousand wax candles that made the gloom in the deep recesses behind the granite pillars seem deeper still, and brought out the picture of the Virgin Mary and her child, long hidden under the whitewash of the Reformation, and so preserved to our day by the very means taken to destroy it. The people sang the dear old hymns about the child cradled in the manger, and mother’s tears fell in her hymnbook. Dear old mother! She had a house full, and little enough to manage with; but never one went hungry or unhelped from her door. I am a believer in organized, systematic charity upon the evidence of my senses; but—I am glad we have that one season in which we can forget our principles and err on the side of mercy, that little corner in the days of the dying year for sentiment and no questions asked. No need to be afraid. It is safe. Christmas charity never corrupts. Love keeps it sweet and good—the love He brought into the world at Christmas to temper the hard reason of man. Let it loose for that little spell. January comes soon enough with its long cold. Always it seems to me the longest month in the year. It is so far to another Christmas!   11
 
 
Mother.
 
   To say that Ribe was an old town hardly describes it to readers at this day. A town might be old and yet have kept step with time. In my day Ribe had not. It had never changed its step or its ways since whale-oil lanterns first hung in iron chains across its cobblestone-paved streets to light them at night. There they hung yet, every rusty link squeaking dolefully in the wind that never ceased blowing from the sea. Coal-oil, just come from America, was regarded as a dangerous innovation. I remember buying a bottle of “Pennsylvania oil” at the grocer’s for eight skilling, as a doubtful domestic experiment. Steel pens had not crowded out the old-fashioned goose-quill, and pen-knives meant just what their name implies. Matches were yet of the future. We carried tinderboxes to strike fire with. People shook their heads at the telegraph. The day of the stage-coach was not yet past. Steamboat and railroad had not come within forty miles of the town, and only one steam factory—a cotton mill that was owned by Elizabeth’s father. At the time of the beginning of my story, he, having made much money during the early years of the American war through foresight in having supplied himself with cotton, was building another and larger, and I helped to put it up. Of progress and enterprise he held an absolute monopoly in Ribe, and though he employed more than half of its working force, it is not far from the truth that he was unpopular on that account. It could not be well otherwise in a town whose militia company yet drilled with flint-lock muskets. Those we had in the school for the use of the big boys—dreadful old blunderbusses of the pre-Napoleonic era—were of the same pattern. I remember the fright that seized our worthy rector when the German army was approaching in the winter of 1863, and the haste they made to pack them all up in a box and send them out to be sunk in the deep, lest they fall into the hands of the enemy; and the consternation that sat upon their faces when they saw the Prussian needle-guns.   12
   The watchmen still cried the hour at night. They do, for that matter, yet. The railroad came to town and the march of improvement struck it, after I had gone away. Century-old institutions were ruthlessly upset. The police force, which in my boyhood consisted of a man and a half—that is, one with a wooden leg—was increased and uniformed, and the night watchmen’s chant was stopped. But there are limits to everything. The town that had been waked every hour of the night since the early Middle Ages to be told that it slept soundly, could not possibly take a night’s rest without it. It lay awake dreading all sorts of unknown disasters. Universal insomnia threatened it; and within a month, on petition of the entire community, the council restored the songsters, and they squeak to this day. This may sound like exaggeration; but it is not. It is a faithful record of what took place and stands so upon the official minutes of the municipality.   13
 
 
The Deserted Quay.
 
   When I was in Denmark last year, I looked over some of those old reports, and had more than one melancholy laugh at the account of measures taken for the defence of Ribe at the first assault of the Germans in 1849. That was the year I was born. Ribe, being a border town on the line of the coveted territory, set about arming itself to resist invasion. The citizens built barricades in the streets—one of them, with wise forethought, in front of the drug store, “in case any one were to faint” and stand in need of Hoffman’s drops or smelling-salts. The women filled kettles with hot water in the houses flanking an eventual advance. “Two hundred pounds of powder” were ordered from the next town by foot-post, and a cannon that had stood half buried a hundred years, serving for a hitching-post, was dug up and put into commission. There being a scarcity of guns, the curate of the next village reported arming his host with spears and battle-axes as the next best thing. A rumor of a sudden advance of the enemy sent the mothers with babes in arms scurrying north for safety. My mother was among them. I was a month old at the time. Thirty years later I battled for the mastery in the police office in Mulberry Street with a reporter for the Staats-Zeitung whom I discovered to be one of those invaders, and I took it out of him in revenge. Old Cohen carried a Danish bullet in his arm to remind him of his early ill-doings. But it was not fired in defence of Ribe. That collapsed when a staff officer of the government, who had been sent out to report upon the zeal of the Ribe men, declared that the town could be defended only by damming the river and flooding the meadows, which would cost two hundred daler. The minutes of the council represent that that was held to be too great a price to pay for the privilege of being sacked, perhaps, as a captured town; and the citizen army disbanded.   14
 
 
Downstream, where Ships sailed once.
 
   If the coming of the invading army could have been timed to suit, the sea, which from old was the bulwark of the nation, might have completed the defences of Ribe without other expense to it than that of repairing damages. Two or three times a year, usually in the fall, when it blew long and hard from the northwest, it broke in over the low meadows and flooded the country as far as the eye could reach. Then the high causeways were the refuge of everything that lived in the fields; hares, mice, foxes, and partridges huddled there, shivering in the shower of spray that shot over the road, and making such stand as they could against the fierce blast. If the “storm flood” came early in the season, before the cattle had been housed, there was a worse story to tell. Then the town butcher went upon the causeway at daybreak with the implements of his trade to save if possible, by letting the blood, at least the meat of drowned cattle and sheep that were cast up by the sea. When it rose higher and washed over the road, the mail-coach picked its way warily between white posts set on both sides to guide it safe. We boys caught fish in the streets of the town, while red tiles flew from the roofs all about us, and we enjoyed ourselves hugely. It was part of the duty of the watchmen who cried the hours to give warning if the sea came in suddenly during the night. And when we heard it we shivered in our beds with gruesome delight.   15
   The people of Ribe were of three classes: the officials, the tradesmen, and the working people. The bishop, the burgomaster, and the rector of the Latin School headed the first class, to which my father belonged as the senior master in the school. Elizabeth’s father easily led the second class. For the third, it had no leaders and nothing to say at that time. On state occasions lines were quite sharply drawn between the classes, but the general kindliness of the people caused them at ordinary times to be so relaxed that the difference was hardly to be noticed. Theirs was a real neighborliness that roamed unrestrained and without prejudice until brought up with a round turn at the barrier of traditional orthodoxy. I remember well one instance of that kind. There lived in our town a single family of Jews, well-to-do tradespeople, gentle and good, and socially popular. There lived also a Gentile woman of wealth, a mother in the strictly Lutheran Israel, who fed and clothed the poor and did no end of good. She was a very pious woman. It so happened that the Jewess and the Christian were old friends. But one day they strayed upon dangerous ground. The Jewess saw it and tried to turn the conversation from the forbidden topic.   16
   “Well, dear friend,” she said, soothingly, “some day, when we meet in heaven, we shall all know better.”   17
   The barrier was reached. Her friend fairly bristled as she made reply: “What! Our heaven? No, indeed! We may be good friends here, Mrs—, but there—really, you will have to excuse me.”   18
 
 
A Cobblestone-paved Alley.
 
   Narrow streams are apt to run deep. An incident which I set down in justice to the uncompromising orthodoxy of that day, made a strong impression on me. The two concerned in it were my uncle, a generous, bright, even a brilliant man, but with no great bump of reverence, and the deacon in the village church where they lived. He was the exact opposite of my uncle: hard, unlovely, but deeply religious. The two were neighbors and quarrelled about their fence-line. For months they did not speak. On Sunday the deacon strode by on his way to church, and my uncle, who stayed home, improved the opportunity to point out of what stuff those Pharisees were made, much to his own edification. Easter week came. In Denmark it is, or was, custom to go to communion once a year, on Holy Thursday, if at no other season, and, I might add, rarely at any other. On Wednesday night, the deacon appeared, unbidden, at my uncle’s door, craving an interview. If a spectre had suddenly walked in, I do not suppose he could have lost his wits more completely. He recovered them with an effort, and bidding his guest welcome, led him courteously to his office.   19
   From that interview he came forth a changed man. Long years after I heard the full story of it from my uncle’s own lips. It was simple enough. The deacon said that duty called him to the communion table on the morrow, and that he could not reconcile it with his conscience to go with hate toward his neighbor in his heart. Hence he had come to tell him that he might have the line as he claimed it. The spark struck fire. Then and there they made up and were warm friends, though agreeing in nothing, till they died. “The faith,” said my uncle in telling of it, “that could work in that way upon such a nature, is not to be made light of.” And he never did after that. He died a believing man.   20
   It may be that it contributed something to the ordinarily democratic relations of the upper-class men and the tradespeople that the latter were generally well-to-do, while the officials mostly had a running fight of it with their incomes. My father’s salary had to reach around to a family of fourteen, nay, fifteen, for he took his dead sister’s child when a baby and brought her up with us, who were boys all but one. Father had charge of the Latin form, and this, with a sense of grim humor, caused him, I suppose, to check his children off with the Latin numerals, as it were. The sixth was baptized Sextus, the ninth Nonus, though they were not called so, and he was dissuaded from calling the twelfth Duodecimus only by the certainty that the other boys would miscall him “Dozen.” How I escaped Tertius I don’t know. Probably the scheme had not been thought of then. Poor father! Of the whole fourteen but one lived to realize his hopes of a professional career, only to die when he had just graduated from the medical school. My oldest brother went to sea; Sophus, the doctor, was the next; and I, when it came my time to study in earnest, refused flatly and declared my wish to learn the carpenter’s trade. Not till thirty years after did I know how deep the wound was I struck my father then. He had set his heart upon my making a literary career, and though he was very far from lacking sympathy with the workingman—I rather think that he was the one link between the upper and lower strata in our town in that way, enjoying the most hearty respect of both—yet it was a sad disappointment to him. It was in 1893, when I saw him for the last time, that I found it out, by a chance remark he dropped when sitting with my first book, “How the Other Half Lives,” in his hand, and also the sacrifice he had made of his own literary ambitions to eke out by hack editorial work on the local newspaper a living for his large family. As for me, I would have been repaid for the labor of writing a thousand books by witnessing the pride he took in mine. There was at last a man of letters in the family, though he came by a road not down on the official map.   21
 
 
Father.
 
   Crying over spilt milk was not my father’s fashion, however. If I was to be a carpenter, there was a good one in town, to whom I was forthwith apprenticed for a year. During that time, incidentally, I might make up my mind, upon the evidence of my reduced standing, that school was, after all, to be preferred. And thus it was that I came to be a working boy helping build her proud father’s factory at the time I fell head over heels in love with sweet Elizabeth. Certainly I had taken no easy road to the winning of my way and my bride; so reasoned the town, which presently took note of my infatuation. But, then, it laughed, there was time enough. I was fifteen and she was not thirteen. There was time enough, oh, yes! Only I did not think so. My courtship proceeded at a tumultuous pace, which first made the town laugh, then put it out of patience and made some staid matrons express the desire to box my ears soundly. It must be owned that if courting were generally done on the plan I adopted, there would be little peace and less safety all around. When she came playing among the lumber where we were working, as she naturally would, danger dogged my steps. I carry a scar on the shin-bone made with an adze I should have been minding when I was looking after her. The forefinger on my left hand has a stiff joint. I cut that off with an axe when she was dancing on a beam close by. Though it was put on again by a clever surgeon and kept on, I have never had the use of it since. But what did a finger matter, or ten, when she was only there! Once I fell off the roof when I must crane my neck to see her go around the corner. But I hardly took note of those things, except to enlist her sympathy by posing as a wounded hero with my arm in a sling at the dancing-school which I had joined on purpose to dance with her. I was the biggest boy there, and therefore first to choose a partner, and I remember even now the snickering of the school when I went right over and took Elizabeth. She flushed angrily, but I didn’t care. That was what I was there for, and I had her now. I didn’t let her go again, either, though the teacher delicately hinted that we were not a good match. She was the best dancer in the school, and I was the worst. Not a good match, hey! That was as much as she knew about it.   22
   It was at the ball that closed the dancing-school that I excited the strong desire of the matrons to box my ears by ordering Elizabeth’s father off the floor when he tried to join in before midnight, the time set for the elders to take charge. I was floor committee, but how I could do such a thing passes my understanding, except on the principle laid down by Mr. Dooley that when a man is in love he is looking for fight all around. I must have been, for they had to hold me back by main strength from running away to the army that was fighting a losing fight with two Great Powers that winter. Though I was far under age, I was a big boy, and might have passed; but the hasty retreat of our brave little band before overwhelming odds settled it. With the echoes of the scandal caused by the ball episode still ringing, I went off to Copenhagen to serve out my apprenticeship there with a great builder whose name I saw among the dead in the paper only the other day. He was ever a good friend to me.   23
   The third day after I reached the capital, which happened to be my birthday, I had appointed a meeting with my student brother at the art exhibition in the palace of Charlottenborg. I found two stairways running up from the main entrance, and was debating in my mind which to take, when a handsome gentleman in a blue overcoat asked, with a slight foreign accent, if he could help me. I told him my trouble, and we went up together.   24
 
 
My Childhood’s Home.
 
   We walked slowly and carried on quite an animated conversation; that is to say, I did. His part of it was confined mostly to questions, which I was no way loth to answer. I told him about myself and my plans; about the old school, and about my father, whom I took it for granted he knew; for was he not the oldest teacher in the school, and the wisest, as all Ribe could testify? He listened to it all with a curious little smile, and nodded in a very pleasant and sympathetic way which I liked to see. I told him so, and that I liked the people of Copenhagen well; they seemed so kind to a stranger, and he put his hand on my arm and patted it in a friendly manner that was altogether nice. So we arrived together at the door where the red lackey stood.   25
   He bowed very deep as we entered, and I bowed back, and told my friend that there was an example of it; for I had never seen the man before. At which he laughed outright, and, pointing to a door, said I would find my brother in there, and bade me good-by. He was gone before I could shake hands with him; but just then my brother came up, and I forgot about him in my admiration of the pictures.   26
   We were resting in one of the rooms an hour later, and I was going over the events of the day, telling all about the kind stranger, when in he came, and nodded, smiling at me.   27
   “There he is,” I cried, and nodded too. To my surprise, Sophus got up with a start and salaamed in haste.   28
   “Good gracious!” he said, when the stranger was gone. “You don’t mean to say he was your guide? Why, that was the King, boy!”   29
   I was never so astonished in my life and expect never to be again. I had only known kings from Hans Christian Andersen’s story books, where they always went in coronation robes, with long train and pages, and with gold crowns on their heads. That a king could go around in a blue overcoat, like any other man, was a real shock to me that I didn’t get over for a while. But when I got to know more of King Christian, I liked him all the better for it. You couldn’t help that anyhow. His people call him “the good king” with cause. He is that.   30
   Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, we boys loved him as a matter of course; for had he not told us all the beautiful stories that made the whole background of our lives? They do that yet with me, more than you would think. The little Christmas tree and the hare that made it weep by jumping over it because it was so small, belong to the things that come to stay with you always. I hear of people nowadays who think it is not proper to tell children fairy-stories. I am sorry for those children. I wonder what they will give them instead. Algebra, perhaps. Nice lot of counting machines we shall have running the century that is to come! But though we loved Andersen, we were not above playing our pranks upon him when occasion offered. In those days Copenhagen was girt about with great earthen walls, and there were beautiful walks up there under the old lindens. On moonlight nights when the smell of violets was in the air, we would sometimes meet the poet there, walking alone. Then we would string out irreverently in Indian file and walk up, cap in hand, one after another, to salute him with a deeply respectful “Good evening, Herr Professor!” That was his title. His kind face would beam with delight, and our proffered fists would be buried in the very biggest hand, it seemed to us, that mortal ever owned,—Andersen had very large hands and feet,—and we would go away gleefully chuckling and withal secretly ashamed of ourselves. He was in such evident delight at our homage.   31
   They used to tell a story of Andersen at the time that made the whole town laugh in its sleeve, though there was not a bit of malice in it. No one had anything but the sincerest affection for the poet in my day; his storm and stress period was then long past. He was, it was said, greatly afraid of being buried alive. So that it might not happen, he carefully pinned a paper to his blanket every night before he went to sleep, on which was written: “I guess I am only in a trance.”  1 Needless to say, he was in no danger. When he fell into his long sleep, the whole country, for that matter the whole world, stood weeping at his bier.   32
   Four years I dreamt away in Copenhagen while I learned my trade. The intervals when I was awake were when she came to the town on a visit with her father, or, later, to finish her education at a fashionable school. I mind the first time she came. I was at the depot, and I rode with her on the back of their coach, unknown to them. So I found out what hotel they were to stay at. I called the next day, and purposely forgot my gloves. Heaven knows where I got them from—probably borrowed them. Those were not days for gloves. Her father sent them to my address the next day with a broad hint that, having been neighborly, I needn’t call again. He was getting square for the ball. But my wife says that I was never good at taking a hint, except in the way of business, as a reporter. I kept the run of her all the time she was in the city. She did not always see me, but I saw her, and that was enough. I watched her home from school in the evening, and was content, though she was escorted by a cadet with a pig-sticker at his side. He was her cousin, and had given me his word that he cared nothing about her. He is a commodore and King Christian’s Secretary of Navy now. When she was sick, I pledged my Sunday trousers for a dollar and bought her a bouquet of flowers which they teased her about until she cried and threw it away. And all the time she was getting more beautiful and more lovable. She was certainly the handsomest girl in Copenhagen, which is full of charming women.   33
   There were long spells when she was away, and when I dreamt on undisturbed. It was during one of these that I went to the theatre with my brother to see a famous play in which an assassin tried to murder the heroine, who was asleep in an armchair. Now, this heroine was a well-known actress who looked singularly like Elizabeth. As she sat there with the long curls sweeping her graceful neck, in imminent danger of being killed, I forgot where I was, what it was, all and everything except that danger threatened Elizabeth, and sprang to my feet with a loud cry of murder, trying to make for the stage. My brother struggled to hold me back. There was a sensation in the theatre, and the play was held up while they put me out. I remember King George of Greece eying me from his box as I was being transported to the door, and the rascal murderer on the stage looking as if he had done something deserving of praise. Outside, in the cold, my brother shook me up and took me home, a sobered and somewhat crestfallen lad. But, anyhow, I don’t like that kind of play. I don’t see why the villain on the stage is any better than the villain on the street. There are enough of them and to spare. And think if he had killed her!   34
   The years passed, and the day came at last when, having proved my fitness, I received my certificate as a duly enrolled carpenter of the guild of Copenhagen, and, dropping my tools joyfully and in haste, made a bee-line for Ribe, where she was. I thought that I had moved with very stealthy steps toward my goal, having grown four years older than at the time I set the whole community by the ears. But it could not have been so, for I had not been twenty-four hours in town before it was all over that I had come home to propose to Elizabeth; which was annoying but true. By the same sort of sorcery the town knew in another day that she had refused me, and all the wise heads wagged and bore witness that they could have told me so. What did I, a common carpenter, want at the “castle”? That was what they called her father’s house. He had other plans for his pretty daughter.   35
   As for Elizabeth, poor child! she was not yet seventeen, and was easily persuaded that it was all wrong; she wept, and in the goodness of her gentle heart was truly sorry; and I kissed her hands and went out, my eyes brimming over with tears, feeling that there was nothing in all the wide world for me any more, and that the farther I went from her the better. So it was settled that I should go to America. Her mother gave me a picture of her and a lock of her hair, and thereby roused the wrath of the dowagers once more; for why should I be breaking my heart over Elizabeth in foreign parts, since she was not for me? Ah, but mothers know better! I lived on that picture and that curl six long years.   36
 
 
The Picture her Mother gave me.
 
   One May morning my own mother went to the stagecoach with me to see me off on my long journey. Father stayed home. He was ever a man who, with the tenderest of hearts, put on an appearance of great sternness lest he betray it. God rest his soul! That nothing that I have done caused him greater grief in his life than the separation that day is sweet comfort to me now. He lived to take Elizabeth to his heart, a beloved daughter. For me, I had been that morning, long before the sun rose, under her window to bid her good-by, but she did not know it. The servants did, though, and told her of it when she got up. And she, girl-like, said, “Well, I didn’t ask him to come;” but in her secret soul I think there was a small regret that she did not see me go.   37
   So I went out in the world to seek my fortune, the richer for some $40 which Ribe friends had presented to me, knowing that I had barely enough to pay my passage over in the steerage. Though I had aggravated them in a hundred ways and wholly disturbed the peace of the old town, I think they liked me a little, anyway. They were always good, kind neighbors, honest and lovable folk. I looked back with my mother’s blessing yet in my ears, to where the gilt weather-vanes glistened on her father’s house, and the tears brimmed over again. And yet, such is life, presently I felt my heart bound with a new courage. All was not lost yet. The world was before me. But yesterday the chance befell that, in going to communion in the old Domkirke, I knelt beside her at the altar rail. I thought of that and dried my eyes. God is good. He did not lay it up against me. When next we met there, we knelt to be made man and wife, for better or worse; blessedly, gloriously for better, forever and aye, and all our troubles were over. For had we not one another?   38

Note 1. In Danish: “Jeg er vist skindód.” [ back ]

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