Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/An old-fashioned Christmas-Eve

Translation of "En gammeldags Juleaften" (1843)

2691226Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I — An old-fashioned Christmas-Eve
1859Peter Christen Asbjørnsen,
translated by George Webbe Dasent



The wind whistled in the leafless boughs of the old maples and limes just opposite my windows. The snow was drifting down the street, and the heavens were as dull and dark as any December sky can be in Christiania. My mind was dark and dull too. It was Christmas Eve; but it was the first Christmas Eve I had ever spent away from the domestic hearth. No long time before I had entered the army, and this Christmas I had hoped to gladden the hearts of my old parents with my presence. I had hoped, too, to show myself in all the glory of my uniform to the young ladies of the neighbourhood. But a nervous fever had brought me into the hospital, which I had only left a week, and now I found myself in that state of re-convalescence of which one hears so much praise, but which really is a very tedious matter. I had written home for our big Dapple and my father's Finnish fur cloak, in order that I might get away as soon as I could; but my letter could scarce find its way up into the Dales before the day after Christmas Day, and so the horse and the cloak could hardly get down much before New Year's Day. In the town I hadn't a comrade in whom I took any interest, or who interested himself about me; nor did I know a single family with whom I could feel at-home. As for the two old maids at whose house I lodged, they were kind and good enough, and had taken great care of me when my sickness first came on; but the manners of these ladies and their whole way of life belonged too much to the old world, and sometimes they told me, with the most ridiculous earnestness, stories, the simple, old-fashioned cut of which, as well as their many improbabilities, belonged altogether to a bygone time. In truth, there was much in common between my landladies and the house in which they dwelt. It was one of those old piles in the Custom House Street, with deep windows and long, dark passages and stairs, with gloomy rooms and lofts, where one began naturally to think of brownies and ghosts. Added to this, their circle of acquaintances was as confined as their ideas; for except a married sister, not a soul ever came to see them but one or two boring city dames. The only lively thing was a pretty niece, and a few merry romping children, nephews and nieces, to whom I was always forced to tell a string of tales about brownies and elves.

There I sat, trying to amuse myself in my loneliness, and to drive away my heavy thoughts by looking out at all the busy mortals who trumped up and down the street in sleet and wind, with rosy-blue noses and half-shut eyes. At last I began to be enchanted with the bustle and life which was the order of the day, over at the dispensary. The door was never shut an instant. Servants and countrymen streamed in and out,

and began to study the prescriptions as soon as they got out into the street again. To some few the deciphering seemed an easy task, but more often a long poring and an ominous shake of the head betokened that the problem was too hard. It got dusk, I could no longer distinguish features, but I stared over at the old building. Just as the dispensary then was, with its dark-red tiled walls, its porched gables, its weather-cocks and towers, and its leaden casements, it had stood as a monu- ment ever since the days of Christian IV. Even the swan which was its sign then was its sign now, standing quietly with a gold ring round his neck, and riding boots on bis feet, and with his wings just raised for flight. A burst of boyish laughter in a side room, and a very old-maidish tap at the door, broke off the train of thought which I was just entering into on the subject of caged birds.

As I said “Come in,” the elder of my landladies, Miss Martha, came in, dropped an old-fashioned curtsey, asked how I felt, and after much circum- locution, invited me to take coffee with them that evening.

“It isn’t good for you, my dear lieutenant, to sit all alone in the dark,” she added. “Won’t you just come and sit with us at once? Old Mrs. Skau and my brother’s lassies are come already, they will amuse you, perhaps, for you know you are so fond of merry bairns.”

Yes, I accepted the friendly bidding. As I stepped into the room, a pile of wood which blazed up in a great four-cornered stove, threw an un- steady glare over the apartment, which was long and deep, and furnished in the old style with higli- backed chairs covered with gilt Russian leather, and one of those sofas calculated to the meridian of hoops and pigtails. The walls were adorned with portraits of stiff dames with hard features and powdered heads of city worthies, and other famous characters in buff coats and cuirasses and red gowns.

“You really must excuse us, Lieutenant A ,

for not having lit the lights,” said Miss Cecilia, the younger sister, who in every day life was called “Mother Cis,” as she came to meet me with a curtsey own brother to her sister’s; “but the bairns are so glad to tumble about before the fire in the gloaming, and Mother Skau, too, likes to have a little gossip in the chimney corner.”

“Gossip me here, gossip me there. You’re fond enough yourself, Mother Cis, of a bit of scandal during blind man’s holiday, and yet we’re to bear all the blame,” answered the old asthmatic dame, whose name was Mother Skau.

“Well, well,” she went on, “how d’ye do, father? Come and sit down by me, and tell me how you are going on; deary me, but you’re dreadfully pulled down!” and so she chuckled over her own ailments.

So I had to tell her all about my fever, and received in return a long and detailed account of her gout and asthmatic afflictions, which by good luck was broken off by the noisy entry of the children from the kitchen, whither they had been to pay a visit to the old housekeeper and domestic calendar, ’Stina.

“Auntie, auntie!” bawled out a little, buxom, brown-eyed thing, “do you know what ’Stina says. She says I shall go with her to-night to the hay-loft, and give the brownie his Christmas goose. But I won’t go, not I, for I’m afraid of the brownie.”

“Oh! ’Stina only says that to get rid of you.

She daren’t go to the hay-loft in the dark herself, the goose! for she knows well enough she was once scared by the brownie,” said Miss Martha.

“But why don’t you say how d’ye do ’ to the lieutenant, bairns?”

“Oh no, no! is it you, lieutenant?” — “I didn’t know you!” — “How pale you are!” — “It’s so long since I saw you!” — screamed out the chil- dren, one after another, as they came round me in a troop. ‘ ‘ Now do tell us a story — something funny; it’s so long since you told us a story. Pray do tell us all about Buttercup, dear lieu- tenant; do tell us about Buttercup and Gold- , tooth.” So I had to tell them about Buttercup and his dog Goldtooh, and to throw in besides a I story or two about the two brownies, who drew I away the hay from each other, and how they met at last, each upon his own haystack, and fought I till they both flew off in a cloud of hay. I had to tell, too, of the brownie at Hesselberg, who teased the watch dog till the gudeman tossed him out at the barn-door. At this the children clapped their , hands, and laughed loud and long. “Serve him right, the ugly brownie,” they said, and asked for more.

“There, there, bairns,” said Mother Cis, “don’t tease the lieutenant any more. Now Aunt Martha will tell you a story.”

“Yes, yes! do tell, Aimt Martha!” was the cry of one and all.

“I’m sure I don’t know what to tell, answered Aunt Martha; “but since we’ve got to talk about the brownie, I’ll tell you a little story about him. I daresay, bairns, you mind old Katie Gusdal, who used to come and bake bannocks, and always had so many stories to tell?”

“Oh, yes!” bawled out the children.

“Well, old Katie told us that she once lived at service in the Foundling here for many a year.

It was then still more lonely and sad at that side of the town than it is now; and as for the Foundling, we all know it’s a dark and gloomy house. Well, when Katie took the place she was to be cook; and a fine stout strapping lassie she was. One night, when she had to get up to brew, the rest of the servants said to her, ‘ Now you must mind and take care not to get up too early; before the clock strikes two you mustn’t put the wort on the fire. ’

“‘ Why not? ’ she asked.

“‘You know, well enough, there’s a brownie here; and you ought to know, too, he doesn’t like to be roused so early; and so before the clock strikes two, you’re not to think of meddling with the wort, ’ they said.

“‘ Stuff! nothing worse than that?’ said Katie, who had a tongue and a will of her own, as they say. ‘ I have nothing to do with the brownie; but if he comes across me, may the old gentleman take me if I don’t sweep him out of the house! ’

“Well, the rest warned her again, but she stuck to her own; and when the clock, might be, was a little past one. she got up. and lighted a fire under the brewing caldron, and was busy with the wort. But every moment the fire went out under the caldron, and it was just as though some one kept throwing the brands out from the hearth, but who it was she couldn’t see. So she gathered up the brands, time after time, but it was all no good, and the wort wouldn’t run out of the tap either. At last she got tired of all that, so she took a burning brand, and ran about with it, swinging it about high and low, and bawling, ‘Be off with you whence you came. If you think you’re going to frighten me, you’re quite wrong.’

“‘Fie upon you, then!’ she heard some one say in the darkest corner, ‘I had got seven souls here in this house, and I thought I should have got the eighth as well.’

“After that Katie Gusdal said, ‘No one ever heard or saw the brownie in the Foundling.’”

Here one of the little ones called out. ‘I’m afraid! I’m afraid! No. Lieutenant, you tell something; when you tell us a story I’m never afraid, you always tell it so funnily!”

Then another proposed that I should tell them about the brownie who danced a reel with the lassie. Now, this was an undertaking into which I was very unwilling to put my foot, because there was singing in it as well as telling; but as they wouldn’t let me off, I began to hem and cough in order to get my very discordant voice ready to sing the words of the reel, when to the joy of the children, and to my rescue, in came the pretty niece I spoke of.

“Well, bairns,” I said, as she took her seat, “now I’ll tell you the story, if you’ll only get cousin Liz to sing you the reel; for you’ll all of you dance it, of course.”

So the children took the pretty cousin by storm, and she had to promise to sing the words of the dance while I told the story.

“Once on a time, there was a lassie, who lived I’m sure I don’t know where, but I think it was in Hallingdale, and she had to carry a syllabub to the brownie. Whether it was on a Thursday evening, or on a Chistmas Eve, I can’t bear in mind; but still I think it was a Christmas Eve, like this. Well! she thought it a shame to give the brownie such good food, so she gobbled up the syllabub herself both thick and thin, and then went off to the barn with some oatmeal porridge and sour milk in a pig’s trough.

“‘There you have your trough, ugly beast,’ she said. But the words were scarce out of her mouth before the brownie came tearing at her, and took her by the waist, and began to dance with her. And he kept her at it till she fell down gasping, and then when folks came next morning to the barn, they found her more dead than alive. But so long as he danced he kept on singing” —

(Here my part was over, and Miss Liz took up the brownie’s song, and sang to the tune of the Hallingdale reel:) ——

Thou hast eaten up all the brownie’s brose,
Now come with the brownie and try thy toes.
Thou hast robbed the brownie of his right,
And now thou must dance with brownie all night.

As the cousin sang, I kept time with my feet, while the children with roars of mirth cut the most extraordinary capers, and executed the queerest steps between us both on the floor.

“Bairns, bairns. You turn the room topsy- turvy with all this clatter,” said old Mother Skau; “be quiet a bit, and I’ll tell you some stories.” So all were still as mice, and Mother Skau struck up:

“Old Folk tell so many stories about brownies and huldras, and such like, but, for my part, I don’t put much faith in them. I’m sure, I never saw a brownie or a huldra; but, then, I haven’t tra- velled very far in all my life, still I think all such stories stuff. But old ’Stina, out yonder, she tells how she once saw the brownie. About the time that I was confirmed, she had a place in our house, and before that she was out at service with an old captain who had given up the sea. That just was a still quiet house; they never went out and no one ever came to them, and the captain’s longest walk was down to the wharf and back. They went early to bed too, and people said they had a brownie in the house.

“‘ But once on a time,’ said ’Stina, ‘the cook and I were up at night in the maid’s room mending our clothes; and, when bedtime came — for the watchman had already called past ten!— darning and sowing was hard work; for every moment came Billy Winky; and so she nodded and I nodded, for we had been up early that morning to work. But all at once, as we sat there half-asleep, we heard such a dreadful clatter down in the kitchen. ’Twas just as if someone were tossing all the crockery about and throwing the plates on the floor. Up we jumped in alarm, and I screamed out, Heaven help and comfort us, it’s the brownie! and I was so scared, I daren’t set foot into the kitchen. As for cook she was just as much afeard; but at last she plucked up heart, and then, when she came into the kitchen, all the plates lay on the floor, but there wasn’t one of them broken; and there stood the brownie in the doorway with his red cap on his head, laughing, so that it did one’s heart good to see him [see p. 530]. Well, she had heard tell how sometimes the brownie could bo cheated into flitting, if one only had the courage to beg him to go, and told him of a nice quiet place somewhere else; and so she had long had it in her head to play him a trick. Well, she spoke to him there and then; though to tell the truth her voice faltered a little, and bade him to flit over the way to the coppersmith, there he would find it far less noisy, for there they went to bed every night as the clock struck nine. It was true, too, she said, but you know, too, that the coppersmith was always up with all his mates and apprentices at three o’clock every morning, and kept on hammering and clattering the whole day through. After that day we saw no mere of the brownie at the captain’s. But he got on well at the coppersmith’s in spite of all their hammering and pounding, for people said the gudewife put him a bowl of custard in the loft every Thursday evening, and so one can’t wonder that they soon got rich; for the brownie helped them, and drew money to them.’

“That was what ’Stina said about the brownie,” said Mother Skau, “and true it is that they prospered and became well to do; but whether that was the brownie’s work I’m sure I can’t say.”

Here the old dame began to wheeze and cough after the exertion of telling such a very long story. But when she had taken a pinch of snuff she got new life, and her tongue began to go again.

“My mother, who was a trustworthy wo- man, told me a story which happened here in this town, and on a Christmas Eve, too, and that I know to be true, for no false word ever came out of her mouth.”

“Oh, do let us hear it, Mrs. Skau!” said I.

“Tell it! tell it, Mother Skau!” roared out the children.

The old dame coughed a little, took another pinch, and began:

“When my mother was still a girl, she used go to see a widow whom she knew, and whose name — ah, what was her name — I can’t remem- ber, nor does it much matter; but she lived up in Mill Street, and was then a 'woman something over her best years. Well! it was on a Christmas Eve, as it might be this; and so this widow thought to herself she would go to the early ser- vice on Christmas morning, for she was a constant church-goer; and so she set out some coffee over- night, that she might have a cup of something warm before she went out in the cold. Well! she went to bed, and when she awoke the moon shone in upon the floor; and when she rose and

looked at the clock, it had stopped, and the hands stood at half -past eleven. She didn't know at all what the right time was, but she went to the window and looked out at the church, and she saw lights shining through all the windows. So she called up her maid, made her boil the coffee while she dressed, and then she took her prayer- book and went across to the church. It was still as death out in the street, and she did not meet a soul on the way. When she got inside the church, she went to the seat where she always sat; but when she looked about her, she thought all the congregation looked so pale and strange, just as though they had been all dead bodies. There was no one she knew, but there were many she thought she had seen before, only she couldn’t call to mind where it was she had seen them. When the parson got into the pulpit, he was none of the parsons of the city parishes, but a tall pale man, and him too she thought she had seen some- where. Well, he preached a beautiful sermon, and there was none of that coughing and hem- ming so common at the early service on Christmas morning, but all was so still she could have heard a pin drop on the floor; so deadly still indeed, that she got quite nervous and afraid.

“Well, when they began to sing after the ser- mon, a woman who sat at her side, turned towards her and whispered in her ear:

“Untie your cloak, and go away; for if you wait till the service is over they’ll make an end of you. These are the dead , who are having their sendee'”

“Oh, I’m afraid, I’m afraid, Mother Skau,” sobbed one of the tiny ones, who crept up on a chair.

“Hush, hush, bairns!” said Mother Skau,

“only listen, and you’ll hear how she gets safe off.

“Well! the widow was as much afraid as you all are, for when she heard the voice and looked at the woman, she knew her at once; she had been her next door neighbour, but had been dead many a long year: and now, when she looked about the church, she remembered quite well that she had seen both the parson and many of the congregation, and that they had all been dead long ago. She grew as cold as ice, so afraid was she, but she untied her cloak and got up to go away. But then she thought they all turned as she passed and made a clutch at her, and her legs tottered and her knees shook, so that she almost fell down flat on the floor. When she got as far as the church porch they caught hold of her cloak, but she let it slip off and left it in their hands, and hastened home as fast as she could. When she reached her own door the clock struck one, and when she got in she was well nigh dead for fright. Next morning when folk went to the church there lay her cloak on the steps of the porch, but it was tom into a thousand bits. My mother had seen it often before, and I fancy she saw one of the pieces, too; but that doesn’t matter, — it was a short, bright-red cloth cloak, with hare-skin lining and edging, just such as were still worn when I was a child. Now-a-days, it is rare to see one, but there are some old women yet here in town, and at the Widows’ home, whom I see wearing just such cloaks at Christmas time.”

That was Mother Skau’s story. As for the children, who during the latter part of it had shown much fear and alarm, they said they wouldn’t hear any more such ugly stories. They had all crept up on the chairs and sofa, and called out that some one was catching hold of their legs under the table. Just then in came lights in the old branches, and then we found out with laughter that the children, in their fright, had been sitting with their feet on the table. The bright lights, Christmas cakes, jam-tarts, and wine, soon chased away ghost-stories and fear. Finally, for the elders’ rein-deer roast and rice custards, gave our thoughts a turn towards the substantial; and we took leave of one another at an early hour, with every good wish too for a merry Christmas.

How the others slept I knew not, but, for myself, I had a very restless night. I can’t tell if it were the tales — the strong food which I had been so long without, my weakly state, or all three toge- ther; but I tossed about from this side to that, and was deep in brownie and huldra, and ghost- stories, the whole night.

At last I found myself flying to church through the air with a pair of dumb-bells in my hands. The church was lighted up, and when I entered it I saw it was our old church up in the Dales. There was not a soul to be seen in it but Dalesmen with red caps, soldiers in full uniform, and peasant lasses with white wimples and rosy cheeks. The parson stood in the pulpit; and who should he be but my grandfather, who died when I was a little boy. But just as he was getting well into his sermon, what does he do but throw a somersault — he always was an active body— down to the church floor, so that his gown flew one way and his bands another. “There lies the parson, and here am I,” he cried, using one of his well- known expressions, “and now let’s all have a dance.”

In the twinkling of an eye off went the whole congregation in the wildest dance, and up came a tall stout Dalesman and took me by the shoulder, and said, “You must come along with me, my boy.”

My astonishment knew no bounds as I awoke at that moment, and still felt the grasp on my shoulder, and saw the image of my dream bending over my bed, with a Daleman’s cap drawn over his eyes, a fur cloak on his arm, and his two great clear blue eyes fixedly gazing at me.

“Thou dreamest, surely, boy,” he said, in the strong dialect of my native dale, “for the sweat stands on thy brow, and thou sleepest sounder than a bear in his winter lair. But wake up now, I wish thee God’s peace, and a merry Christmas from thy father and all at home. See, here is a letter from the Secretary, and here is his Finnish cloak, and yonder, down in the yard, stands Dapple.”

“Oh! Thor, is it you! and how in Heaven’s name, did you come hither?” I called out, gladly. It was my father’s groom, a splendid specimen of a Dalesman.

“Oh! I’ll soon tell thee,” answered Thor. “I came driving Dapple; but before that, the Secretary and I had been to Ness, and after we had been there, he said, ‘Thor, it’s not far now to Christiania, so thou hadst better take Dapple, and drive in, and see the lieutenant, and if he’s strong enough to travel, why, thou hadst better bring him back.’ That’s what the Secretary said.”

As we drove merrily out of the town, the day was frosty, bright, and clear, and we had the finest sleighing. As for Dapple, he stretched out his brave old legs, and got over the ground famously. We reached home that night, and such a Christmas Day as I then spent, I spent neither before nor since.