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The Garden of Romance/The "Old Bachelor's" Nightcap

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THE "OLD BACHELOR'S" NIGHTCAP


By Hans Christian Andersen


There is a street in Copenhagen which is known by the curious name of Hysken Street. But why is it called so? and what can Hysken mean? It is really a German word, though one would not think so. "Häuschen" the street ought to be called, and that means "small houses." For in this street, for many years, the houses were just like the wooden booths you may still see in the market-places; a little bigger they were, indeed, and they had windows, but then these windows were only made of horn or bladder-skin, for at that time glass windows were too dear for them to be seen in every house. Those days are so long gone by, that my grandfather's grandfather, whenever he spoke of them, always called them "the old, old days; "it was hundreds of years ago.

The rich merchants of Bremen and Lübeck used to trade with Copenhagen; not going thither themselves, but sending their clerks, who lived in the wooden booths in the "Street of Small Houses," and sold their ale and spices; many kinds of good German ale, and all sorts of spices, saffron, anise, ginger, and above all, pepper. It was this that they chiefly sold, so that the German clerk in Denmark was called a "pepper dealer." Before they left home they had to promise that they would not marry while they were away; many of them, too, were very old, and they had to look after themselves, find for themselves, and light their own fires, if they had any; so it was that some of them grew such queer old fellows, with their own peculiar thoughts and ways; and it is because of them that men who grow old without having married are called "Pebersvend," or "Pepper-dealers." All this can be seen and understood in this story.

People make fun of the pepper-dealers, bidding them go put their nightcaps on, pull them down over their eyes, and go to bed—

"Oh fie! you pepper-seller!
Put up your green umbrella!
Go to bed with your nightcap on,
Put out your light, and you'll have none!"

Yes, that is what they sing about them! They laugh at the pepper-dealer and his nightcap, just because they know nothing about either one or the other. Alas! it is a nightcap no one need wish for! And why so? Well, listen, and you shall hear.

In the "Street of Small Houses," in the old times, there was no pavement; people stumbled out of one hole into another, as though it were a dirty cart-track, and it was very narrow. The booths stood close beside each other, and with so little distance between the two rows, that in the summer time they stretched a sail from one side of the street to the other, and then the air was more full than ever of the spicy smells of pepper and saffron and ginger.

Behind the counters there stood no brisk young clerks; no, they were mostly old fellows, who did not go dressed, as you would think, in a wig or nightcap, with knee-breeches and waistcoat, or a coat buttoned up to the chin, just as we have seen our great-grandfathers painted; no, the pepper-dealers had no money to get themselves painted, but all the same they would have made a picture well worth the having, as they stood behind their counters, or as they went to church on holy-days. They wore high-crowned hats, with wide brims, and often the youngest clerks stuck a feather in as well; the woollen shirt was hidden under a falling linen collar, the coat was closely buttoned up, and the cloak hung loosely over it; the trousers were tucked into the square-toed shoes, for they wore no stockings. In their belts they carried a table-knife and spoon, and a big knife as well for protection, as was very needful in those times.

Just in this way old Anthony, the oldest clerk in the whole street, went clad on feast days, only he wore no high-crowned hat, but a kind of bonnet, under which he drew on a nightcap—a regular nightcap, which he was so used to wearing, that he actually had two of the same kind.

He made just the figure to paint, he was so thin, so wrinkled about the mouth and eyes; he had long knotted fingers and bushy grey eyebrows, while over his left eye there hung a great tuft of hair. It was not handsome, but it made him the more remarkable. People knew of him that he had come from Bremen, where his employer lived, but that he had not been born there. His home had been in Thuringia, in the town of Eisenach, under the Wartburg. Old Anthony did not speak much of all this, but he thought the more.

The old clerks in the street did not often meet together; each one lived in his little house, that was closed early in the evening, when all looked very dismal. Only a dull faint light shone through the little horn window in the roof, while within sat the old fellow often on his bed, with his old German song-book, and sang his evening hymn, or else trotted about down below, putting all to rights among his wares. It was certainly not very pleasant; to be a stranger in a strange land is a bitter lot; no one takes much account of you, unless you happen to get in their way.

Sometimes on a very dark night, when there was rain or mist, it was very dreary and deserted. There were no lights to be seen, except one very little one, right at the top of the street, before a picture of the Blessed Virgin, that was painted on the wall. You could hear the sound of the waves ceaselessly splashing and beating against the wooden piles, out at Slotsholm, past the turn at the far end of the street. Such evenings would be long and lonely if there was nothing to do. Packing and unpacking, making paper bags and polishing scales—these things were not to be done every day; something else must be found, and this old Anthony did; he himself mended his clothes and patched his shoes. When at last he went to bed, still with his nightcap on, he had only to pull it a little farther down; but in a minute he was sure to push it up again, to see if the light was properly put out; then he would feel for it, pinch the wick, and then turn round to the other side, pulling his nightcap down. Then something else would be sure to occur to him; whether every coal was quite burned out and quenched in the little fire-pan downstairs, and whether some tiny spark might not remain, and, by setting light to something, work him great mischief. At that thought he would get out of bed and creep to the ladder, for it could not be called a stair, and when he reached the fire-pan there would not be a spark to be seen, so that he must just go back again. But as soon as he had got half way he would begin to wonder if the doors were all fast and the shutters bolted; so his poor thin legs must carry him back to see, and, as he crept back to bed, he froze, and his teeth chattered, for the last nip the cold gives one is always the sharpest.

Then he would pull the bedclothes higher up, and his nightcap farther down over his eyes, and turn away his thoughts from the day's work and business. But small comfort he would get, for then came old memories and hung their curtains up, and sometimes they brought pins as well, which pricked sadly. "Oh, oh!" cry the poor souls who lie awake, when the pins are driven sharply in, and tears fall from their eyes. All these things came to poor old Anthony, and he wept hot tears like the clearest pearls; they fell down over the coverlet and on to the floor, with a sound as if pain were breaking the strings of the heart. When the tear vanished, then a flame sprang in its place, and lit up a picture of life that had never faded from his heart. If he wiped his eyes with his nightcap the tear and the picture would be crushed, but the source of them remained, for it lay in his heart. The pictures did not come in the same order as in the life whose reflection they were; the most painful ones came oftenest, but the happy ones were the saddest to him, for they cast the deepest shadow.

"How beautiful are the beech-woods of Denmark!" they say; but more beautiful seemed to Anthony the beech-woods around the Wartburg; mightier and more venerable seemed to him the old oaks round the great castle, where the climbing plants hung in festoons on the granite rocks of the cliffs. Sweeter to him its apple-blossoms than any in the Danish land; he could still distinctly smell their pure fragrance. Then a tear rose and fell, and the light shone; he saw plainly two little children, a boy and a girl, playing. The boy had rosy cheeks, yellow curling hair, and honest blue eyes—it was the rich merchant's son, little Anthony himself. The little girl had brown eyes and black hair; bright and clever she looked; it was the Burgomaster's daughter, Molly. The two children were playing with an apple; they shook it and listened to the pips rattling inside. Then they cut it in two, and each of them had half; they ate it up and the pips as well, all but one, which they must put into the earth, said the little girl.

"Then you will see that something will come up, something you would never expect; a whole apple-tree will come up, only not at once."

And they planted the pip in a flower-pot; both of them were very busy over it; the boy made a hole in the earth with his finger, the little girl put in the pip, and they both pushed the earth back over it.

"Now you must not take it out in the morning to see if it has a root," she said; "one must never do that! I did it with my flowers, only twice, just to see if they were growing, for then I knew no better, and the flowers died."

Anthony kept the flower-pot, and every morning, all through the winter, he looked at it; but there was nothing to be seen but the brown earth. Soon, however, came the spring, and the sun shone as warm as could be, and then there peeped out of the flower-pot two small green leaves.

"That is me and Molly!" said Anthony. "That is wonderful! that is beautiful!"

Soon there came out a third leaf. Who could that be for? But there came another and yet another! Every day it grew stronger and stronger, and the plant became a little tree. And all this was pictured in a single tear that was brushed away and disappeared; but it might come again from its source—from old Anthony's heart.

Near Eisenach there is a great ridge of stony mountains; one of them stands out from the rest with a rounded top, bare of trees or bushes or grass. This one is called the Venusberg, and within it lives Lady Venus, a goddess of heathen times; Lady Holle she is called now, and that every child in Eisenach knows. She it was who enticed the noble knight, Tannhäuser, the Minnesinger, into her mountain, away from the minstrels of the Wartburg.

Little Molly and Anthony sometimes found themselves on the mountain, and once she said to him, "Dare you climb up and say, 'Lady Holle! Lady Holle! look out, here is Tannhäuser!'" But Anthony did not dare; Molly did; but she only said the words "Lady Holle, Lady Holle!" out loud and clearly, the rest she said so softly under her breath, that Anthony was quite sure she had said nothing at all.

Yet so bold as she looked, and so saucy, just as she did sometimes when she and some other little girls met him in the gardens; then they all would try and kiss him, just because he didn't like it, and would try to knock them away: then she alone would dare to do it.

"I may kiss him!" she would say proudly, and throw her arms round his neck. That was just her vanity, and Anthony would put up with it, and never think of it twice. How pretty she was, and how daring! Lady Holle in the mountain was beautiful too, but her beauty was that of a tempting witch. The highest beauty was that of the holy Elizabeth, the pious Thuringian princess, the guardian saint of the land, whose good deeds, remembered in tale and legend, have made famous many a place; her picture hung in the chapel with silver lamps all around; but Molly was not in the least like her.

The apple-tree that the two children had planted grew year by year, till at length it was so tall it must be transplanted into the garden, out in the fresh air, where the dew fell and the sun shone warm. There it gained strength to stand against the winter, and after the winter's hard trial was over, it covered itself with blossoms for very joy. In the autumn it had two apples, one for Molly and one for Anthony; it could hardly do less.

As the tree grew, so did Molly, and she was as fresh as an apple-blossom. But not for much longer could Anthony look on this flower. Everything alters, everything changes! Molly's father left the old home, and Molly followed him far away—nowadays indeed it would only be a journey of a few hours, but at that time it took more than a night and a day to travel so far eastward from Eisenach, that lay on the furthest border of Thuringia, to the town that is still called Weimar.

Then Molly wept and Anthony wept; but all the tears ran into one big one, that had joy's red lovely light. Molly had told him that she thought more of him than of all the splendours of Weimar.

One year went by, then two, then three; and in all that time there came two letters. The first was brought by a carrier, the second by a traveller. It was a hard journey, a long road winding past towns and villages.

How often had not Anthony and Molly listened together to the story of Tristan and Isolde, and just so often he had likened himself to Tristan, although the name meant "born in sorrow," which he himself certainly was not; nor would he ever have to say, as Tristan did, "She has forgotten me!" But yet Isolde had not really forgotten the friend of her heart, and when they were both dead, and buried side by side in the churchyard, two linden trees grew out of their graves high over the church roof, and mixed their flowering branches there. That was so pretty, thought Anthony, but so sad! but it could never be sad with him and Molly, and he whistled a verse of the Minnesinger, Walther von der Vogelweide:—

"Under the linden tree,
There by the heath."

And this, too, he thought so beautiful—

"Out in the woods, in the quiet dale,
Tandaradai!
Sang to himself a nightingale!"

This verse was always in his head, and he sang and whistled it one moonshiny night as he, on horseback in the deep-sunk road, set off for Weimar to visit Molly; unexpected he wished to come, and so he arrived unexpected.

He had a welcome! wine filled high in the great tankards, lively company of the very best, a beautiful chamber, and a soft bed; and yet it was not what he had so often thought and dreamed of. He did not understand himself, and he did not understand the others. But we can understand it! One can live in a house and family, and yet not become one of them. People can talk together as one talks in a stage-coach, know each other as one does in a stage-coach, weary each other, and each man wish either himself or his good neighbour away. Something of all this Anthony felt.

"I am an honourable girl," said Molly to him, "and I will tell you all. Everything has changed since we were children; all is different both within and without, and custom and one's own will have no power over the heart! Anthony! I would not have an enemy in you; now, when I am going far away, believe me, I have always kind thoughts of you; but as to loving you as I now know one can love another, that I have never done! and you will have to get used to it! Farewell, Anthony!"

And Anthony, too, said farewell; tears came to his eyes, but he understood that he was no longer Molly's friend. Hot iron and cold iron both take the skin from our lips with the same sensation when we kiss them, and Anthony burnt as fiercely now in hatred as he had in love.

In less than four and twenty hours Anthony was at home again in Eisenach, but the horse that he rode was quite ruined. "What does it matter?" he said; "I am ruined, and I will ruin everything that can remind me of her—Lady Holle, Lady Venus, thou heathen woman! I will tear down and break the apple-tree, and pull it up by the roots; never more shall it blossom or bear fruit!"

But he never struck down the tree, for he himself was stricken down by a fever, and lay on his bed. What could help him up again? A medicine came that was powerful enough, the bitterest possible, as he found whose sick body and shrinking soul were alike wrung by it. Anthony's father was no longer the rich merchant; dark days, days of trial, stood at the door; misfortune rushed in and overwhelmed in its floods the once prosperous house. His father was now a poor man, and trouble and sorrow crushed him. So that Anthony had something else to think of beside nursing his grief and rage against Molly. He must be both father and mother in the house; must give orders and assistance, act with decision, and at last go out into the wide world and work for his bread.

He came to Bremen, endured want and dark days—days which sometimes harden the heart, and sometimes make it soft, only too soft. How far different was the world and the people in it from what he had thought them in the days of his childhood! What to him now were the Minnesinger's verses? Just a tinkling of words, mere wasted breath; yes, that was what he thought! Sometimes, however, their music stole into his soul, and he became gentle of heart again.

"God's will is best," he would say then. "How well it was that Molly's heart did not cleave to me. Whatever should we have done now that the luck has turned. She sent me away before she knew or dreamed of the misfortunes that have come upon me. That was the will of Heaven for me; everything is for the best; everything is ordered wisely; she could not help it, and yet I have been so bitter against her."

And the years went by. Anthony's father was dead, and strangers lived in his father's house. But Anthony was to see it again, for his rich employer sent him travelling on business, and so he came to his native town—Eisenach. The old Wartburg stood up there on the mountain just the same, with the great stones, the "monk and the nun"; the huge oak-trees spread the same beauty over all as in his childhood. The Venusberg stood up bare and grey from among the valleys. How willingly he would have called: "Lady Holle, Lady Holle! open your mountain; I will stay with you in my own land!"

But that was a wicked thought, and he made the sign of the cross on his bosom. Then a little bird sang in the bushes, and the old song came into his head—

"Out in the woods, in the quiet dale,
Tandaradai!
Sang to himself a nightingale!"

He remembered so much, now when he saw his old home, that he had to look through tears. His father's house stood as before, but the garden was changed. A new road cut off one corner of it, and the apple-tree, that he had never torn down, stood there still, but now outside the garden, and on the other side of the road. Still the sun shone there, and the dew fell there, and it bore fruit, so the branches were weighed down to the ground.

"Ay, it thrives!" said he; "well for it!"

One of the great branches had been broken, rough hands had plucked at it, for it stood on the public road.

"Men may break off its blossoms without saying thank you; they may steal the fruit and break the boughs. If one might speak so of a tree—it was never foretold at the cradle that it should stand like this. Its story opened so fairly, and now what is its lot? Forsaken and forgotten, a garden tree in a ditch by a public road! There it stands with no protection, plundered and torn! Not yet has it faded, but year by year its blossoms will be fewer, its fruit less and less, until at last—ay, then its story will be done!"

So thought Anthony as he stood under the tree, and so he thought many a night in his lonely little room in the wooden booth in the strange town of Copenhagen, whither his rich employer, the Bremen merchant, had sent him, on condition that he should not marry.

"Marry! ha, ha!" and he laughed bitterly to himself.

The winter came early, and it froze hard; out of doors there was a snow-storm, so that every one who could stayed indoors. So it happened that Anthony's neighbour over the way never noticed that his booth had not been opened for two whole days, and that he himself had not been seen, for who would go out in such weather when he could stay at home?

Those were grey, dark days, and in houses where the windows were not made of glass twilight and pitch dark reigned by turns. Old Anthony had not left his bed for two days, he had no strength for it. For a long time past the hard weather had benumbed his limbs. Forsaken lay the old bachelor; he could not help himself, barely could he reach to the water-jug he had placed by his bedside, and now the last drop was gone. No fever or sickness had brought him down, nothing but old age. It was all the time dark night in the little corner where he lay. A little spider, that he could not see, worked busily, and spun his web just overhead, so that there should be at least a little fresh new shroud for his face when the old man should close his eyes.

Slowly and drearily time went by; he had no tears to shed, and he felt no pain; Molly never came into his thoughts; he had a feeling as though the world and its bustle was nothing to him, as though he lay beyond it, and no one remembered him. Now and then it seemed to him that he felt hunger and thirst;—yes! he was sure that he did!—but no one came to comfort him, no one would come. Then he thought of all those who had ever suffered hardship, and he remembered how the holy Elizabeth, when she lived on the earth, she, the heroine of his home and his childhood, the noble Duchess of Thuringia, the lofty lady, went herself into the poorest cabin, and brought hope and comfort to the sick. Her good deeds shone in his thoughts; he remembered how she had come and spoken words of consolation to those who suffered, how she bound up the wounds of the miserable and brought food to the hungry, although often rebuked for it by her stern husband. Then he remembered a tale about her; how, when she came with her basket packed full of wine and bread, her husband, who watched her comings and goings, strode up in anger, and asked her what it was that she was carrying, whereupon in terror she answered that it was but roses she had plucked in the garden. At that he tore off the cloth, and a miracle had been worked for the good queen; and the wine and bread and everything in the basket lay there changed into roses.

So lived this princess in the thoughts of old Anthony; so she stood in living colour before his weary eyes, beside his bed in the poor wooden booth in the Danish land. He bared his head, looked up into her kind eyes, and all around was a glory of light, and roses spread themselves through the room and smelt so sweet. Then, too, came the peculiar delicious perfume of the apple-blossom, and he saw the blooming branches of an apple-tree waving over him—it was the tree that he and Molly had planted from the little kernel.

The tree scattered its perfumed petals over his hot forehead and cooled it; they fell on his parched lips, and it was like refreshing bread and wine; they fell on his breast, and then he felt peaceful and ready to slumber.

"I will go to sleep," he murmured; "sleep will do me good, and in the morning I shall get up again quite strong. How lovely! how beautiful! The apple-tree, planted in love, I see again in heavenly beauty!"

And so he slept.

The next day, the third day that his booth had been shut, the snow ceased falling, and the neighbour opposite went over to visit old Anthony, as he had not yet shown himself. There he lay stretched dead on his pallet, with his old nightcap clasped tightly in his two hands. But he did not have this one on in his coffin—he had a new one, clean and white.

Where were now the tears that he had shed? Where were the pearls? They remained in the nightcap—for the real ones are not lost in the wash—yes, they remained with the nightcap, thrown aside and forgotten—the old thoughts, the old dreams, they were all there in the Old Bachelor's Nightcap. Never wish yourself such a one! It would make your forehead hot, cause your pulse to beat stronger, and bring you dreams that would seem to you real. And so found the first person who put it on, and that was half a century after, and it was the Burgomaster himself, as he sat quite safe indoors with his wife and eleven children; directly it was upon his head he dreamed of unhappy love, of bankruptcy, and starvation.

"Hallo! how hot the nightcap is!" he said, and pulled it off, and then there fell a pearl, and then another, that tinkled on the floor, and broke in a flash of light. "That is the rheumatism!" said the Burgomaster; "it makes my eyes swim!" But it was the tears wept half a century ago, wept by old Anthony from Eisenach.

To every one who afterwards put this cap on his head there came straightway visions and dreams. His own history grew into Anthony's, and became a whole new tale; so that there are many which others can tell, now that we have told the first one, whose last word is—Never wish for yourself a "Bachelor's Nightcap."