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WHAT OLD JOHANNA TOLD

 

THE wind moans in the old willow tree!

It is as if one heard a song;the wind sings it,thetree tells it.If you don't understand it,then ask Johannain the almshouse;she knows,she was born here in thedistrict.

Years ago,when the highway still lay here,the treewas already big and remarkable.It stood where it yetstands,outside the tailor's whitened framework house, close to the pool,which at that time was so big that thecattle were watered there,and there in the warm summerthe little children ran about naked and splashed about inthe water.Close up under the tree was a milestone;it hasfallen down now,and bramble branches grow over it.

On the other side of the rich squire's farm the newhigh road was made,the old road became the field road, the pool a puddle,overgrown with duckweed;when afrog jumped down,the green was separated and one sawthe black water;round about it grew,and still grow,thebuckbean and gold irises.

The tailor's house became old and crooked,the roofa hotbed for moss and house-leek;the dovecote fell inand the starlings built there,the swallows hung nest afternest on the gable of the house and under the roof,just as ifit was a lucky dwellingplace.That was here at one time; now it has become lonely and silent.Alone and weak- willed,"Poor Rasmus",as they called him,lived here;hehad been born here,he had played here,he had sprungover the fields and the hedges,splashed as a little child inthe open pool,clambered up in the old tree.

It lifted its great branches with pomp and beauty,asit lifts them still,but the storm had already twisted thetrunk a little,and time had given it a crack;now wind andweather have laid earth in the crack,where grass and greenthings grow,yes,even a little rowan tree has planted itselfthere.

When the swallows came in the spring,they flewabout the tree and the roof,they plastered and mendedtheir old nests,but poor Rasmus let his nest stand andfall as it liked;he neither mended nor propped it."Whatis the use!"was his adage,and it was also his father's.

He remained in his home,the swallows flew awayfrom it,but they came again,the faithful creatures.Thestarling flew away,but it came again and whistled itssong;once Rasmus knew how to whistle in competitionwith it;now he neither whistled nor sang.

The wind moaned in the old willow treeit stillmoans,it is as if one heard a song;the wind sings it,thetree tells it;if you do not understand it,then ask old Johanna in the almshouse;she knows,she is wise in old af- fairs,she is like a chronicle book,with legends and oldmemories.

When the house was new and good,the village tailorIvar Olse moved into it with his wife Maren;respectable, industrious people,both of them.Old Johanna was at thattime a child,she was the daughter of the maker of wood-en shoes,one of the poorest in the neighbourhood.Manya nice piece of bread and butter she got from Maren,whohad no lack of food.Maren stood well with the squire'swife;she was always laughing and glad,she never allowed herself to be disheartened,she used her tongue, but also her hands;she wielded her needle as well as hertongue,and looked after her house and her children; there were eleven of them.

"Poor people have always a nest full of youngones!"grumbled the squire;"if one could drown themlike kittens,and only keep one or two of the strongest,there would be less misfortune!"

"God bless me!"said the tailor's wife,"childrenare a blessing of God;they are a joy in the house,eachchild is another Lord's Prayer!if things are straitened,and one has many mouths to feed,then one strives all theharder,finds ways and means in all respectability.OurFather does not let go,if we do not let go!"

The squire's lady gave her her countenance,bowedin a friendly way,and patted Maren on the cheek:shehad done that many times,even kissed her,but that waswhen she was little,and Maren her nurse-maid.Theyhad thought much of each other,and still did so.

Every year at Christmas,came winter supplies fromthe big house to the tailor's house;a barrel of milk,apig,two geese,a stone of butter,cheese and apples.Itwas a help to the larder.Ivar Olse looked quite contentedthen,but soon came his old adage,"what is the use!"

Everything was clean and neat in the house,curtainsat the windows,and flowers,both carnations and balsams. A sampler hung in a picture frame,and close beside it acomposition in rhyme:Maren Olse herself had composed it; she knew how rhymes ought to go.She was almost a littleproud of the family name"Olse".It was the only word inthe Danish language that rhymed with"Polse"(sausage)."That is always something in which one is superior to otherpeople,"she said,and laughed.She always kept her goodhumour,and never said like her husband,"What is theuse!"Her adage was,"Hold to yourself and our Father!"She did that,and it kept everything together.The childrenthrove,grew too big for the nest,went far,and behavedthemselves well.Rasmus was the youngest;he was such alovely child,and one of the great artists in the town borrowed him for a model,and that as naked as when he cameinto this world.The picture hung now in the king'spalace,where the squire's lady had seen it and recognizedlittle Rasmus,although he had no clothes on.

But now bad times came.The tailor had pains,gotrheumatism in both hands,great knots came into them,and no doctor could help him,not even the wise Stine who"doctored".

"One must not be disheartened!"said Maren."It isno use to hang the head!now that we no longer have father's two hands to help,I must see about using mine thequicker.Little Rasmus also can use the needle!"

He already sat on the board,whistling and singing;he was a happy boy.

The mother said that he must not sit there all day;itwas a sin against the child;he must also run about andplay.

The shoemaker's little Johanna was his best playmateshe belonged to still poorer people than Rasmus.She wasnot beautiful;she was barelegged;her clothes hung intatters,she had no one to look after them,and it neveroccurred to her to do it herself;she was a child,and asglad as a bird in our Lord's sunshine.

Rasmus and Johanna played beside the milestoneand the big willow tree.

He had high thoughts;he meant to be a fine tailorsome day and live in the town,where there were masterswho had ten men on the board;he had heard that fromhis father;there he would be a man,and there he wouldbe a master,and then Johanna could come and visit him,and if she knew how to cook,she could make the food forthem all and have her own big room.

Johanna dared not really believe this,but Rasmusbelieved that it really would happen.So they sat underthe old tree and the wind moaned in the leaves and thebranches:it was as if the wind sang and the tree spoke.

In the autumn every single leaf fell and the raindripped from the bare branches.

"They will grow green again!"said Mother Olse.

"What is the use!"said the man."New year,newcare for a living!"

"The larder is full!"said the wife."We have tothank our good lady for that.I am healthy and have goodstrength.It is sinful of us to complain!"

The squire's family were at their country home forChristmas,but the week after the New Year they went totown,where they spent the winter in enjoying themselves:they went to ball and festivals with the king himself.

The lady had got two expensive dresses from France;they were of such stuff,and such cut and sewing that thetailor's Maren had never seen the like before.She askedthe lady if she might come up to the house and bring herhusband also,to see the dresses.Such things had neverbeen seen by a country tailor.

He saw them and had never a word to say,before hecame home,and what he said,was only what he alwayssaid,"What is the use!"and this time his word was true.

The family went to town;balls and parties had begun there,but in the midst of the enjoyment the squiredied,and the lady could not wear the lovely dresses.She was so sorrowful,and dressed from head to foot inblack mourning clothes;not so much as a white strip wasto be seen;all the servants were in black,even the statecoach was draped with fine black cloth.

It was a bitter,frosty night,the snow glittered andthe stars shone.The heavy guncarriage came from thetown with the body to the private chapel,where it was tobe placed in the family vault.The steward and the parishbeadle sat on horseback with torches before the churchyardgate.The church was lighted up,and the priest stood inthe open church door to receive the body.The coffin wascarried up into the choir and all the people followed it.Thepriest made a speech and a psalm was sung.The lady wasin the church,she had driven there in the blackdrapedstate carriage;it was black inside and out,and the likehad never been seen in the district before.

They talked the whole winter about the squire'sfuneral.

"One saw there what this man signified!"said thecountry people."He was nobly born and he was noblyburied!"

"What is the use of that!"said the tailor."Nowhe has neither life nor property.We have still one ofthese!"

"Don't say such things!"said Maren,"he

has everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom!"

"Who has told you that,Maren?"said the tailor."Dead men are good manure!but this man was too superiorto make profit to the earth,he must lie in a chapel vault!"

"Don't talk so unChristianlike!"said Maren."I tellyou again,he has everlasting life!"

"Who has told you that,Maren?"repeated the tailor.And Maren threw her apron over little Rasmus so that hemight not hear the conversation.She carried him over tothe turf-house and wept.

"The talk you heard over there,little Rasmus,wasnot your father's;it was the wicked one who wentthrough the room,and took your father's voice!Say'OurFather'.We will both say it!"She folded the child'shands.

"Now I am glad again!"she said;"hold fast byyourself and our Father!"

The year of mourning was ended,the widow wasdressed in half-mourning,and she was quite lighthearted.There were rumours that she had a wooer and alreadythought of a second marriage.Maren knew something ofit,and the priest knew a little more.

On Palm Sunday,after the service,the banns werepublished for the marriage of the widow and her betrothed.He was a sculptor,the name of his occupationwas not well known;at that time Thorwaldsen and his artwere not yet in the mouths of the people.The new squirewas not of noble birth,but yet a very splendid man;hewas one who was something no one understood,they said;he carved statues,was clever in his work,young andgoodlooking.

"What use is that!"said the tailor Olse.

On Palm Sunday the banns were published from thepulpit,and then followed psalm-singing and communion.The tailor,his wife,and little Rasmus were in thechurch;the parents went to the communion,Rasmus satin the pewhe was not confirmed yet.There had been alack of clothes lately in the tailor's house.The old onesthey had,had been turned again and again,sewed andpatched;now all three were in new clothes,but black,asif for a funeral;they were dressed in the covering fromthe mourning-coach.The man had got a coat and trousersfrom it,Maren a high-necked dress,and Rasmus a wholesuit to grow in till his confirmation.Both the inside andoutside covering of the mourningcoach had been used.No one need know what it had been used for before,butpeople got to know it very quickly;the wise woman Stine,and others just as wise,who did not live by their wisdom,said that the clothes would bring sickness into the house."One dares not dress oneself in the trappings of a hearseexcept to drive to the grave."

The shoemaker's Johanna wept when she heard thattalk;and when it happened that the tailor grew worsefrom day to day,it would assuredly appear who was to bethe victim.

And it showed itself.

The first Sunday after Trinity,tailor Olse died,andnow Maren was alone to keep the whole thing together;sheheld to that,to herself,and to our Father.

The following year Rasmus was confirmed;then hewent to town as apprentice to a big tailor,not with twelvemen on the board,but with one:little Rasmus could becounted as a half:he was glad looked contented,but

little Johanna wept;she thought more of him,than sheherself knew.The tailor's wife remained in the old houseand carried on the business.

It was just at that time that the new high road wasopened;the old one,past the willow tree and the tailor'shouse,became the field way,the pond became overgrown, duckweed covered the little pool of water that remained, the milestone fell downit had nothing to stand up for,but the tree held itself up,strong and beautiful;the windwhistled in the leaves and branches.The swallows flewaway,the starlings flew away,but they came again in thespring,and when they came back for the fourth time,Ras-mus came back to his home.He had finished his apprenticeship,was a goodlooking but slender young fellow;nowhe would tie up his knapsack and go to see foreign lands;his mind was bent on that.But his mother hung on to him; home was best!all the other children were scattered,hewas the youngest,the house should be his.He could getplenty of work if he would stay in the district and be atravelling tailor,sew fourteen days at one farm,and four-teen days at another.That was also travelling.And Rasmusfollowed his mother's advice.So he slept again under theroof of his birthplace,and sat again under the old willowtree,and heard it moan.

He was goodlooking,and could whistle like a bird,and sing both new and old songs.He was in favour at allthe big farms,particularly at Klaus Hansen's,who was thesecond richest farmer in the district.

His daughter Elsie was like the loveliest flower,andshe was always laughing;there were people who were soillnatured as to say that she only laughed to show her pretty teeth.

She was ready to laugh,and always in the humour toplay pranks.

They fell in love with each other,but neither ofthem said it in so many words.

So he went about and became heavyhearted;he hadmore of his father's than his mother's disposition.Thehumour only came when Elsie came,then they bothlaughed,joked,and played tricks,but although therewas good opportunity,he said never a word of his love."What is the use!"was his thought."Her parents lookfor riches for her,and that I have not got;it were wisestto go away from here!"But he could not go away from thefarm;it was as if Elsie had bound him with a thread:hewas like a trained bird for her,he sang and whistled forher pleasure and after her will.

Johanna,the shoemaker's daughter,was servant onthe farm there,engaged in menial work;she drove themilkcart out to the field,where she,with the othergirls,milked the cows;she had even to drive the manurewhen that was wanted.She never went up to the bigroom,and so did not see much of Rasmus or Elsie,butshe heard that they were as good as engaged.

"Rasmus comes into prosperity,"said she,"I cannot grudge him that!"And her eyes became wet,althoughthere was nothing to cry for.

It was market day in town.Klaus Hansen drove intoit and Rasmus was with him;he sat by the side of Elsieboth going and coming.He was overwhelmed with love,but said never a word about it.

"He might say something to me about the thing!"thought the girl,and she was right."If he will not speak,then I will give him a fright!"

And soon people were saying on the farm that therichest farmer in the neighbourhood had made love toElsie,and so he had,but no one knew what answer shehad given him.

Thoughts buzzed about in Rasmus's head.

One evening Elsie put a gold ring on her finger andasked Rasmus what it meant.

"Engagement,"said he.

"And witn whom,do you think?"asked she.

"With the rich farmer,"said he.

"You have hit it!"said she,nodded,and slippedaway.

But he also slipped away,came home to his mother'shouse like a madman,and packed his knapsack.Outinto the wide world would he go;his mother wept,but itwas of no use.He cut himself a stick from the old willow,he whistled as if he were in a good humour,he wasgoing out to see the grandeur of the world.

"It is a great trial for me!"said the mother."Butfor you it is,no doubt,the beat thing to go away,andso I must just submit to it.Hold to yourself and ourLord,and so I will get you home glad and contentedagain!"

He went by the new high road,and there he sawJohanna driving a load of manure.She had not noticedhim,and he did not want her to see him,so he sat himself behind the hedge,and hid thereand Johannadrove past.

Out into the world he went,and no one knew

where;his mother thought he would come home againbefore the year was finished:"He has now somethingnew to see and to think about,but he will get back intothe old folds again,which cannot be ironed out with anypressing-iron.He has a little too much of his father'sdisposition.I would rather he had mine,the poor child!but he will come home,he cannot give the old houseand me the slip."

The mother would wait a year and a day;Elsiewaited only a month,then she went secretly to the wisewoman Stine,who could"doctor",read fortunes in

cards and coffee,and knew more than her Lord's

Prayer.She knew also where Rasmas was.She couldread that in the coffeegrounds.He was in a foreigntown,but she could not read the name of it.There werein that town soldiers and girls.He thought either of tak- ing a musket or one of the girls.

Elsie could not bear to hear that.She would willingly give her savings to buy him off,but no one mustknow that she had done it.

And old Stine promised that he would come back;she knew an art,a dangerous art for the person concerned,but it was the last resource.She would set thepot on to boil for him,and then he must come away fromthe place where he happened to be;he must come home,where!the pot boiled and his dearest one waited:monthsmight pass before he came,but come he must,if therewas life in him.

Without resting,night and day he must travel,overlake and mountain,be the weather mild or hard,howevertired he was.He should come home,he must come

home.

The moon was in the first quarter;it must be so forthe exercise of that art,said old Stine.It was stormyweather,the old willow tree cracked:Stine cut off atwig,and tied it into a knot,it would help to draw Ras- mus home to his mother's house.Moss and house-leekwere taken from the roof of the house,put into the pot,which was set on the fire.Elsie must now tear a leaf outof a psalmbook;she accidentally tore out the last one,the one with the list of misprints."It will do quite aswell!"said Stine,and threw it in the pot.

Many kinds of things must go into the gruel,whichmust boil and constantly boil until Rasmus came home.The black cock in Stine's room must lose its red comb,itwas put in the pot.Elsie's thick gold ring must also goin,and she would never get it again,Stine told her beforehand.Stine was so wise.Many things which we donot know the names of went into the pot;it stood constantly on the fire,or on glowing embers,or hot ashes.Only she and Elsie knew about it.

The moon waxed and waned;and always Elsie cameand asked,"Do you not see him coming?"

"Much I know,"said Stine,"and much I see,butthe length of the way for him I cannot see.Now he is overthe first mountain!now he is on the sea in bad weather!The way is long through the great woods,he has blisterson his feet,he has fever in his body,but he must goon!"

"NO!no!"said Elsie,"I am sorry for him!"

"He cannot be stopped now!for if we do that hewill drop dead on the highway!"

A year and a day had gone.The moon shone roundand big,the wind moaned in the old tree,a rainbow inthe moonshine was seen in the sky.

"That is the sign of confirmation!"said Stine."NowRasmus is coming."

But he came not.

"The waiting-time is long!"said Stine.

"Now I am tired of it!"said Elsie.She came less of-ten to Stine and brought her no new gifts.Her heart be-came lighter,and one fine morning everybody in the neighbourhood knew that Elsie had said"Yes"to richestfarmer.

She went to look at the farm and the fields,the cattleand the furniture.Everything was in good order,there wasnothing to delay the wedding for.

It was held with great festivity for three days.Therewas dancing to flute and violin.Every one in the neighbourhood was invited.Mother Olse was there also;andwhen the gaiety was at an end,and the guests had said"Thanks",and the musicians had gone,she went homewith the remnants of the feast.

She had only fastened the door with a pin;that wastaken off,the door stood open,and there stood Rasmus.He had come home,come at this hour.Lord,how he

looked!skin and bone only,pale and yellow was he!

"Rasmus!"said the mother,"is it you, I see?Howpoorly you look!but I am glad in my heart that I haveyou!"

And she gave him of the good food she had broughthome from the feasta piece of steak,and a wedding tart.

He had,in these last days,he said,thought often ofhis mother,his homestead,and the old willow tree.It waswonderful how often in his dreams he had seen the tree andthe barelegged Johanna.Elsie he did not even name.Hewas ill and must go to bed;but we do not believe that thepot was the cause of this,or that it had exercised any power over him;only old Stine anb Elsie believed that,butthey spoke to no one about it.

Rasmus lay in a fever;it was infectious,so no onesought the tailor's house except Johanna,the shoemaker'sdaughter.She wept to see how miserable Rasmus was.

The doctor wrote out a prescription for him;he wouldnot take the medicine,"What is the use?"said he.

"Yes,then you will be yourself again,"said themother."Hold fast to yourself and our Lord!If I couldonly see you put on flesh again,hear you whistle andsing,I would willingly lay down my life."

And Rasmus got better of his illness,but his mothertook it;our Lord called her and not him.

It was lonely in the house,and it grew poorer."Heis worn out,"said the neighbours."Poor Rasmus!"A wildlife had he led on his travels,that,and not the blackpot which boiled,had sapped his strength and givenhim unrest in his body.His hair became thin andgrey;he did not care to do anything properly.

"What good can that do?"said he.He sought thepublic house rather than the church.

One autumn evening,in wind and rain,he struggled along the dirty road from the public house to hishome:his mother had long ago been laid in her grave.The swallows and the starling had also gone,the faithful creatures;Johanna the shoemaker's daughter hadnot gone;she overtook him on the way and accompanied him a little bit.

"Pull yourself together,Rasmus!"

"What good can that do?"said he.

"That is a bad motto you have!"said she."Remember your mother's word:'Hold to yourself and ourLord!'You don't do that,Rasmus!that one ought,and that one shall.Never say'What good can thatdo?'for then you pull up the root of all your actions."

She accompanied him to the door of his house,and there she left him.He did not stay inside,butwent and sat himself on part of the fallen nilestone.

The wind moaned in the branches of the tree,itwas like a song,it was like a talk.Rasmus answeredit;he talked aloud,but no one heard it,except thetree and the moaning wind.

"I am getting cold!It is time to go to bed.Sleep!sleep!"

And he went,not towards the house but to thepool,where he stumbled and fell.The rain poureddown,the wind was icy cold,but he did not notice it:but when the sun rose,and the crows flew over thepool,he wakened,halfdead.If he had laid his headwhere his feet lay,he would never have got up again,the green duckweed would have been his shroud.

Later in the day Johanna came to the tailor's house;she was his help;she got him taken to the hospital.

"We have known each other from childhood,"saidshe;"your mother has given me both meat and drink,I can never repay her for it!You will get your health again,you will be able to live yet."

And our Lord willed it that he should live,but it wasup and down with the health and the mind.The swallowsand the starlings came and went and came again;Rasmusbecame old before his time.Lonely he sat in the house, which became more and more dilapidated.He was poor, poorer now than Johanna.

"You have no faith,"said she,"and if we have notour Lord,what have we?You should go to communion! you have not been there since your confirmation."

"Well,what good can that do?"said he.

"If you say that and believe it,so let it be!Unwillingguests the Lord will not see at His Table.Think,however,of your mother and your childhood's days!You were atthat time a good,Godfearing boy.May I read a psalm foryou?"

"What good can that do?"said he.

"It always comforts me,"said she.

"Johanna,you have become one of the holy ones!"and he looked at her with heavy,tired eyes.And Johannaread the psalm,but not from the bookshe did not haveone,she knew it by heart.

"Those were beautiful words,"said he,"but I couldnot quite follow.It is so heavy in my head!"

Rasmus had become an old man,but Elsie was nolonger young either,if we are to mention her;Rasmus never did.She was a grandmother;a little flippant girl washer grandchild,the little one played with the other childrenin the village.Rasmus came,leaning on his stick;hestood still,looked at the children's play,smiled to them,old times shone into his thoughts.Elsie's grandchild pointed at him."Poor Rasmus!"she shouted;the other childrenfollowed her example and shouted"Poor Rasmus!"andfollowed the old man with shrieks.

It was a grey,heavy day,and several like it followed,but after grey and heavy days there comes a sunshiny one.

It was a lovely Whitsuntide,the church was decorated with green birch branches,there was the smell ofthe woods,and the sun shone over the church pews.Thebig altar candles were lighted,it was communion;Johanna was amongst those kneeling there,but Rasmus was notamongst them.Just that morning our Lord had calledhim.With God are compassion and mercy.

Many years have passed since then;the tailor'shouse stands there still,but no one lives there,it mayfall with the first storm.The pool is covered with reeds anbuckbean.The wind moans in the old tree,it is as ifone heard a song;the wind sings it,the tree tells it;ifyou don't understand it,then ask old Johanna in the almshouse.

She lives there,she sings her psalm,the one shesang for Rasmus; she thinks of him,prays to our Lord forhim,the faithful soul that she is.She can tell about the past times,the memories,which moan in the old tree.

 


 

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