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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Peasant’s Thoughts
By Johanna Ambrosius (1854–1939)
 
Translation of Miss H. Geist

THE FIRST snow, in large and thick flakes, fell gently and silently on the barren branches of the ancient pear-tree, standing like a sentinel at my house door. The first snow of the year speaks both of joy and sadness. It is so comfortable to sit in a warm room and watch the falling flakes, eternally pure and lovely. There are neither flowers nor birds about, to make you see and hear the beautiful great world. Now the busy peasant has time to read the stories in his calendar. And I, too, stopped my spinning-wheel, the holy Christ-child’s gift on my thirteenth birthday, to fold my hands and to look through the calendar of my thoughts.  1
  I did not hear a knock at the door, but a little man came in with a cordial “Good morning, little sister!” I knew him well enough, though we were not acquaintances. Half familiar, half strange, this little time-worn figure looked. His queer face seemed stamped out of rubber, the upper part sad, the lower full of laughing wrinkles. But his address surprised me, for we were not in the least related. I shook his horny hand, responding, “Hearty thanks, little brother.” “I call this good luck,” began little brother: “a room freshly scoured, apples roasting in the chimney, half a cold duck in the cupboard; and you all alone with cat and clock. It is easier talking when there are two, for the third is always in the way.”  2
  The old man amused me immensely. I sat down on the bench beside him and asked after his wife and family. “Thanks, thanks,” he nodded, “all well and happy except our nestling Ille. She leaves home to-morrow, to eat her bread as a dressmaker in B——.”—“And the other children, where are they?” “Flown away, long ago! Do you suppose, little sister, that I want to keep all fifteen at home like so many cabbages in a single bed?” Fifteen children! Almost triumphantly, little brother watched me. I owned almost as many brothers and sisters myself, and fifteen children were no marvel to me. So I asked if he were a grandfather too.  3
  “Of course,” he answered gravely. “But I am going to tell you how I came by fifteen children. You know how we peasant folk give house and land to the eldest son, and only a few coppers to the youngest children. A bad custom, that leads to quarrels, and ends sometimes in murder. Fathers and mothers can’t bring themselves to part with the property, and so they live with the eldest son, who doles out food and shelter, and gets the farm in the end. So, in time, a family has some rich members and more paupers. Now, we’d better sell the land and let the children share alike; but then that way breaks estates too. I was a younger child, and I received four hundred thalers;—a large sum forty years ago. I didn’t know anything but field work. The saying that ‘The peasant must be kept stupid or he will not obey’ was still printed in all the books. So I had to look about for a family where a son was needed. One day, with my four hundred thalers in my pocket, I went to a farm where there was an unmarried daughter. When you go a-courting among us, you pretend to mean to buy a horse. That’s the fashion. With us, a lie doesn’t wear French rouge. The parents of Marianne (that was her name) made me welcome. Brown Bess was brought from the stable, and her neck, legs, and teeth examined. I showed my willingness to buy her, which meant as much as to say, ‘Your daughter pleases me.’ As proud as you please, I walked through the buildings. Everything in plenty, all right, not a nail wanting on the harrow, nor a cord missing from the harness. How I strutted! I saw myself master, and I was tickled to death to be as rich as my brother.  4
  “But I reckoned without my host. On tiptoe I stole into the kitchen, where my sweetheart was frying ham and eggs. I thought I might snatch a kiss. Above the noise of the sizzling frying-pan and the crackling wood, I plainly heard the voice of my—well, let us say it—bride, weeping and complaining to an old house servant: ‘It’s a shame and a sin to enter matrimony with a lie. I can’t wed this Michael: not because he is ugly; that doesn’t matter in a man, but he comes too late! My heart belongs to poor Joseph, the woodcutter, and I’d sooner be turned out of doors than to make a false promise. Money blinds my mother’s eyes!’ Don’t be surprised, little sister, that I remember these words so well. A son doesn’t forget his father’s blessing, nor a prisoner his sentence. This was my sentence to poverty and single-blessedness. I sent word to Marianne that she should be happy—and so she was.  5
  “But now to my own story. I worked six years as farm hand for my rich brother, and then love overtook me. The little housemaid caught me in the net of her golden locks. What a fuss it made in our family! A peasant’s pride is as stiff as that of your ‘Vous’ and ‘Zus.’ My girl had only a pair of willing hands and a good heart to give to an ugly, pock-marked being like me. My mother (God grant her peace!) caused her many a tear, and when I brought home my Lotte she wouldn’t keep the peace until at last she found out that happiness depends on kindness more than on money. On the patch of land that I bought, my wife and I lived as happily as people live when there’s love in the house and a bit of bread to spare. We worked hard and spent little. A long, scoured table, a wooden bench or so, a chest or two of coarse linen, and a few pots and pans—that was our furniture. The walls had never tasted whitewash, but Lotte kept them scoured. She went to church barefoot, and put on her shoes at the door. Good things such as coffee and plums, that the poorest hut has now-a-days, we never saw. We didn’t save much, for crops sold cheap. But I didn’t speculate, nor squeeze money from the sweat of the poor. In time five pretty little chatterboxes arrived, all flaxen-haired girls with blue eyes, or brown. I was satisfied with girls, but the mother hankered after a boy. That’s a poor father that prefers a son to a daughter. A man ought to take boys and girls alike, just as God sends them. I was glad enough to work for my girls, and I didn’t worry about their future, nor build castles in the air for them to live in. After fifteen years the boy arrived, but he took himself quickly out of the world and coaxed his mother away with him.”  6
  Little brother was silent, and bowed his snow-white head. My heart felt as if the dead wife flitted through the room and gently touched the old fellow’s thin locks. I saw him kneeling at her death-bed, heard the little girls sobbing, and waited in silence till he drew himself up, sighing deeply:—  7
  “My Lotte died; she left me alone. What didn’t I promise the dear Lord in those black hours! My life, my savings, yea, all my children if He would but leave her to me. In vain. ‘My thoughts are not thy thoughts, saith the Lord, and My ways are not thy ways.’ It was night in my soul. I cried over my children, and I only half did my work. At night I tumbled into bed tearless and prayerless. Oh, sad time! God vainly knocked at my heart’s door until the children fell ill. Oh, what would become of me if these flowers were gathered? What wealth these rosy mouths meant to me, how gladly would they smile away my sorrow! I had set myself up above the Lord. But by my children’s bedside I prayed for grace. They all recovered. I took my motherless brood to God’s temple to thank Him there. Church-going won’t bring salvation, but staying away from church makes a man stupid and coarse.  8
  “But I am forgetting, little sister. I started to tell you about my fifteen children. You see I made up my mind that I had to find a mother for the chicks. I wouldn’t chain a young thing to my bonds, even if she understood housekeeping. I held to the saying, ‘Equal wealth, equal birth, equal years make a good match.’ When an old widower courts a young girl he looks at her faults with a hundred eyes when he measures her with his first wife. But a home without a wife is like spring without blossoms. So, thinking this way, I chose a widow with ten children.”  9
  Twirling his thumbs, little brother smiled gayly as he looked at me. “Five and ten make fifteen, I thought, and when fifteen prayers rise to heaven, the Lord must hear. My two eldest stepsons entered military service. We wouldn’t spend all our money on the boys and then console our poor girls with a husband. I put three sons to trades. But my girls were my pride. They learned every kind of work. When they could cook, wash, and spin, we sent them into good households to learn more. Two married young. Some of the rest are seamstresses and housekeepers. One is a secretary, and our golden-haired Miez is lady’s-maid to the Countess H——. Both these girls are betrothed. Miez is the brightest, and she managed to learn, even at the village school. So much is written about education nowadays,” (little brother drew himself up proudly as he added, “I take a newspaper,”) “but the real education is to keep children at work and make them unselfish. They must love their work. Work and pray, these were my rules, and thank Heaven! all my children are good and industrious.  10
  “Just think, last summer my dear girls sent me a suit of fine city clothes and money to go a journey, begging their old father to make them a visit. Oh, how pretty they looked when they showed me round the city in spite of my homespun, for I couldn’t bring myself to wear the fine clothes, after all. The best dressed one was our little lady’s-maid, who had a gold watch in her belt. So I said: ‘Listen, child, that is not fit for you.’ But she only laughed. ‘Indeed it is, little father. If my gracious lady makes me a present, I’m not likely to be mistaken for her on that account.’—‘And girls, are you contented to be in service?’—‘Certainly, father: unless there are both masters and servants the world would go out of its grooves. My good Countess makes service so light, that we love and serve her. Yes, little father,’ added Miez, ‘my gracious mistress chose Gustav for me, and is going to pay for the wedding and start us in housekeeping—God bless her!’ Now see what good such a woman does. If people would but learn that it takes wits to command as well as to obey, they would get along well enough in these new times of equality. Thank heaven! we country folk shan’t be ruined by idleness. When I saw my thatched roof again, among the fir-trees, I felt as solemn as if I were going to prayers. The blue smoke looked like incense. I folded my hands, I thanked God.”  11
  Little brother arose, his eyes bright with tears. He cast a wistful look toward the apples in the chimney: “My old wife, little sister?”—“Certainly, take them all, little brother, you are heartily welcome to them.”—“We are like children, my wife and I, we carry tidbits to each other, now that our birds have all flown away.”—“That is right, old boy, and God keep thee!” I said. From the threshold the words echoed back, “God keep thee!”  12
 
 
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