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The Dreaming Child by Karen Blixen


In the first half of last century, there lived in Sealand, in Denmark, a family of cottagers and fishermen, who, after their native place, were called Plejelt, and who did not seem able to do well for themselves in any way. Once they had owned a little land here and there, and fishing-boats, but what they had possessed they had lost, and in their new enterprises they failed. They just managed to keep out of the jails of Denmark, but they gave themselves up freely to all such sins and weaknesses,—vagabondage, drink, gambling, illegitimate children and suicide,—as human beings can indulge in without breaking the law.

The old judge of the district said of them: "These Plejelts are not bad people, I have got many worse than they. They are pretty, healthy, likeable, even talented in their way. Only they just have not got the knack of living. And if they do not promptly pull themselves together, I cannot tell what may become of them, except that the rats will eat them."

Now it was a queer thing that,—just as if the Plejelts had been overhearing this sad prophecy and had been soundly frightened by it,— in the following years, they actually seemed to pull themselves together. One of them married into a respectable peasant family, another had a stroke of luck in the herring-fishery, another was converted by the new parson of the parish, and obtained the office of bell-ringer. Only one child of the clan, a girl, did not escape its fate, but on the contrary, appeared to collect upon her young head the entire burden of guilt and misfortune of her tribe. In the course of her short, tragic life, she was washed from the country into the town of Copenhagen, and here, before she was twenty, she died in dire misery, leaving a small son behind her. The father of the child, who is otherwise unknown to this tale, had given her a hundred rixdollars, these, together with the child, the dying mother handed over to an old washerwoman, blind of one eye, and named Madam Mahler, in whose house she had lodged. She begged Madam Mahler to provide for her baby as long as the money lasted, contenting herself with a brief respite, in the true spirit of the Plejelts.

At the sight of the money, Madam Mahler got a rose in each cheek, she had never till now set eyes on a hundred rixdollars, all in a pile. As she looked at the child she sighed deeply, then she took the task upon her shoulders, with what other burdens life had already placed there.

The little boy, whose name was Jens, in this way first became conscious of the world, and of life, within the slums of old Copenhagen, in a dark back-yard like a well, a labyrinth of filth, decay and foul smell. Slowly he also became conscious of himself, and of something exceptional in his worldly position. There were other children in the back-yard, a big crowd of them, they were pale and dirty as himself. But they all seemed to belong to somebody, they had a father and a mother, there was for each of them a group of other ragged and squalling children whom they called brothers and sisters, and who sided with them in the brawls of the yard; they obviously made part of a unity. He began to meditate upon the world's particular attitude to himself, and upon the reason for it. Something in it responded to an apprehension within his own heart:—that he did not really belong here, but somewhere else. At night, he had chaotic, many-coloured dreams, in the daytime his thoughts still lingered in them; sometimes they made him laugh, all to himself, like the tinkling of a little bell, so that Madam Mahler, shaking her own head, held him to be a bit weak in his.

A visitor came to Madam Mahler's house, a friend of her youth, an old wry seamstress with a flat, brown face and a black wig. They called her Mamzell Ane, she had in her young days sewn in many great houses. She wore a red bow at the throat, and had many coquettish, maidenly little ways and postures with her. But within her sunk bosom she had also a greatness of soul, which enabled her to scorn her present misery in the memory of that splendour which in the past her eyes had beheld. Madam Mahler was a woman of small imagination, she did but reluctantly lend an ear to her friend's grand, indeterminate soliloquies, and after a while Mamzell Ane turned to little Jens for sympathy. Before the child's grave attentiveness, her fancy took speed, she called forth and declaimed upon the glory of satin, velvet and brocade, of lofty halls and marble staircases. The lady of the house was adorned for a ball by the light of multitudinous candles, her husband came in to fetch her with a star on his breast, while the carriage and pair waited in the street. There were big weddings in the cathedral, and funerals as well, with all the ladies swaddled in black, like magnificent, tragic columns. The children called their parents Papa and Mamma, they had dolls and hobby-horses to play with, talking parrots in gilt cages, and dogs that were taught to walk on their hind legs. Their mother kissed them, gave them bonbons and pretty pet names. Even in the winter the warm rooms behind the silk curtains were filled with the perfumes of flowers named heliotropes and oleanders, and the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling were themselves made of glass, in the shape of bright flowers and leaves.

The idea of this majestic, radiant world, in the mind of little Jens merged with that of his own inexplicable isolation in life, into a great dream, or fantasy. He was so lonely in Madam Mahler's house because one of the houses of Mamzell Ane's tales was his real home. In the long days when Madam Mahler stood by her washtub or brought her washing out into town, he fondled and played with the picture of this house and of the people who lived in it, and who loved him so dearly. Mamzell Ane, on her side, noted the effect of her epopee on the child, realized that she had at last found the ideal audience, and was further inspired by the discovery. The relation between the two developed into a kind of love affair: for their happiness, for their very existence, they had become dependent upon one another.

Now Mamzell Ane was a revolutionist,—of her own accord, and out of some primitive, flaming visionary sight within her proud, virginal heart, for she had all her time lived amongst submissive and unreflective people. The meaning and object of existence to her was grandeur, beauty and elegance. For the life of her she would not see them disappear from the earth. But she felt it to be a cruel and scandalous state of things that so many men and women must live and die without these highest human values,—yes, without the very knowledge of them,—that they must be poor, wry and inelegant. She was every day looking forward to that day of justice when the tables were to be turned, and the wronged and oppressed were to enter into their heaven of refinement and gracefulness. All the same, she now took pains not to impart into the soul of the child any of her own bitterness or rebelliousness. For as the intimacy between them grew, she did in her heart acclaim little Jens as legitimate heir to all the magnificence for which she had herself prayed in vain. He was not to fight for it, everything was his by right, and should come to him on its own. Possibly the inspired and experienced old maid noted that the boy had in him no talent for envy or rancour whatever. In their long, happy communications, he accepted Mamzell Ane's world serenely and without misgiving, in the very manner,—except for the fact that he had not got any of it—of the happy children born within it.

There was a short period of his life in which Jens made the other children of the back-yard parties to his happiness. He was, he told them, far from being the half-wit barely tolerated by old Madam Mahler, he was on the contrary, the favourite of fortune. He had a Papa and Mamma and a fine house of his own, with such and such things in it, a carriage, and horses in the stable. He was spoilt and would get everything he asked for. It was a curious thing that the children did not laugh at him, nor afterwards pursue him with mockery. They almost appeared to believe him. Only they could not understand or follow his fancies, they took but little interest in them, and after a while they altogether disregarded them. So Jens again gave up sharing the secret of his felicity with the world.

Still some of the questions put to him by the children had set the boy's mind working, so that he asked Mamzell Ane,—for the confidence between them by this time was complete,—how it had come to pass that he had lost contact with his home and had been taken into Madam Mahler's establishment? Mamzell Ane found it difficult to answer him, she could not explain the fact to herself. It would be, she reflected, part of the confused and corrupt state of the world in general. When she had thought the matter over, she solemnly, in the manner of a Sibyl, furnished him with an explanation. It was, she said, by no means unheard of, neither in life nor in books, that a child in the highest and happiest circumstances, and most dearly beloved by his parents, enigmatically vanished and was lost. She stopped short at this, for even to her dauntless and proven soul, the theme seemed too tragic to be further dwelt on. Jens accepted the explanation in the spirit in which it was given, and from this moment saw himself as that melancholy, but not uncommon phenomenon: a vanished and lost child.

But when Jens was six years old, Mamzell Ane died, leaving to him her few earthly possessions: a thin-worn silver thimble, a fine pair of scissors, and a little black chair with roses painted on it. Jens set a great value to these things, and every day gravely contemplated them. Just then, Madam Mahler began to see the end of her hundred rixdollars. She had been piqued by her old friend's absorption in the child, and so decided to get her own back. From now on she would make the boy useful to her in the business of the laundry. His life therefore was no longer his own, and the thimble, the scissors and the chair stood in Madam Mahler's room, the sole tangible remnants, or proofs, of that splendour which he and Mamzell Ane had known of and shared.

At the same time as these events took place in Adelgade, there lived in a stately house in Bredgade, a young married couple, whose names were Jacob and Emilie Vandamm. The two were cousins, she being the only child of one of the big shipowners of Copenhagen, and he, the son of that magnate's sister—so that if it had not been for her sex, the young lady would with time have become head of the firm. The old shipowner, who was a widower, with his widowed sister occupied the two loftier lower stories of the house. The family held closely together, and the young couple had been betrothed from childhood.

Jakob was a very big young man, with a quick head and an easy temper. He had many friends, but none of them could dispute the fact that he was growing fat at the early age of thirty. Emilie was not a regular beauty, but she had an extremely graceful and elegant figure, and the slimmest waist in Copenhagen, she was supple and soft in her walk and all her movements, with a low voice, and a reserved, gentle manner. As to her moral being, she was the true daughter of a long row of competent and honest tradesmen: upright, wise, truthful and a bit of a Pharisee. She gave much time to charitable work, and therein minutely distinguished between the deserving and the undeserving poor. She entertained largely and prettily, but kept strictly to her own milieu. Her old father, who had travelled round the world, and was an admirer of the fair sex, teased her over the Sunday dinner table: there was, he said, an exquisite piquancy in the contrast between the suppleness of her body, and the rigidity of her mind.

There had been a time when, unknown to the world, the two had been in concord. When Emilie was eighteen, and Jakob was away in China on a ship, she fell in love with a young naval officer, whose name was Charlie Dreyer, and who, three years earlier, when he was only twenty- one, had distinguished himself and been decorated in the war of 1849. Emilie was not then officially engaged to her cousin; she did not believe, either, that she would exactly break Jakob's heart if she left him and married another man. All the same, she had strange, sudden misgivings, the strength of her own feelings alarmed her. When in solitude she pondered on the matter, she held it beneath her to be so entirely dependent on another human being. But she again forgot her fears when she was with Charlie, and she wondered and wondered that life indeed held so much sweetness.

Her best friend, Charlotte Tutein, as the two girls were undressing after a ball, said to her: "Charlie Dreyer makes love to all the pretty girls of Copenhagen, but he does not intend to marry any of them. I think he is a Don Juan."

Emilie smiled into the looking-glass. Her heart melted at the drought that Charlie, misjudged by all the world, was known to her alone for what he was: loyal, constant and true.

Charlie's ship was leaving for the West Indies; upon the night before his departure he came out to her father's villa near Copenhagen to say good-bye, and found Emilie alone. The two young people walked in the garden; it was moonshine. Emilie broke off a white rose, moist with dew, and gave it to him. As they were parting on the road just outside the gate, he seized both her hands, drew them to his breast, and in one great flaming whisper begged her, since nobody would see him walk back with her, to let him stay that night, until in the morning he must go so far away.

It is probably almost impossible to the children of a later generation to imagine or realize the horror, dread and abomination which the idea and the very word of seduction would awake in the minds of the young girls of that past age. She would not have been as deadly frightened and revolted if she found that he meant to cut her throat.

He had to repeat himself before she understood him, and as she did so the ground sank beneath her. She felt as if the one man amongst all, whom she trusted and loved, was intending to bring upon her the supreme sin, disaster and shame, was asking her to betray her mother's memory and all the maidens in the world. Her own feelings for him made her an accomplice in the crime, and she realized that she was lost: Charlie felt her wavering on her feet, and put his arms round her. In a stifled, agonized cry she tore herself out of them, fled, and with all her might pushed the heavy iron gate to, she bolted it on him as if it had been the cage of an angry lion. On which side of the gate was the lion? Her strength gave way, she hung on to the bars, while on the other side, the desperate, miserable lover pressed himself against them, fumbled between them for her hands, her clothes, and implored her to open. But she recoiled and flew, to the house, to her room, only to find there despair within her own heart and a bitter vacuity in all the world round it.

Six months later Jakob came home from China, and their engagement was celebrated amongst the rejoicings of the families. A month after she learned that Charlie had died from fever at St. Thomas. Before she was twenty, she was married, and mistress of her own fine house.

Many young girls of Copenhagen married in the same way—par depit—and then, to save their self-respect, denied their first love and made the excellency of their husbands their one point of honour, so that they became incapable of distinguishing between truth and untruth, lost their moral weight and flickered in life without any foothold in reality.

Emilie was saved from their fate by the intervention, so to say, of the old Vandamms, her forefathers, and by the instinct and principle of sound merchantship which they had passed on into the blood of their daughter. The staunch and resolute old traders had not winked when they made out their balance-sheet, in hard times they had sternly looked bankruptcy and ruin in the face, they were the loyal, unswerving servants of facts.

So did Emilie now take stock of her profit and loss. She had loved Charlie, he had been unworthy of her love, and she was never again to love in that same way. She had stood upon the brink of an abyss, and but for the grace of God she was at this moment a fallen woman, an outcast from her father's house. The husband she had married was kind- hearted, and a good man of business, he was also fat, childish, unlike her. She had got out of life, a house to her taste and a secure, harmonious position in her own family and in the world of Copenhagen; for these she was grateful, and about them she would take no risk. She did, at this moment of her life, with all the strength of her young soul, embrace a creed of fanatical truthfulness and solidity. The ancient Vandamms might have applauded her, or they might have thought her code excessive: they had taken a risk themselves, when it was needed, and they were aware that in trade it is a dangerous thing to shy at danger.

Jakob, on his side, was in love with his wife, and priced her beyond rubies. To him, as to the other young men out of the strictly moral Copenhagen bourgeoisie, his first experience of love had been extremely gross. He had preserved the freshness of his heart, and his claim to neatness and orderliness in life by holding on to an ideal of purer womanhood, in the first place represented by the young cousin, whom he was to marry, the innocent, fair-haired girl of his own mother's blood, and brought up as she had been. He carried her image with him to Hamburg and Amsterdam, and that trait in him which his wife called childishness made him deck it out like a doll or an icon,- -out in China it became highly ethereal and romantic, and he used to repeat to himself little sayings of hers, to recall her low, soft voice. Now he was happy to be back in Denmark, married and in his own home, and to find his young wife as perfect as his portrait of her. At times he felt a vague longing for a bit of weakness within her, or for an occasional appeal to his own strength, which, as things were, only made him out a clumsy figure beside her delicate form. He gave her all that she wanted, and out of his pride in her superiority left her all decisions on their house and on their daily and social life. Only in their charity work, it happened that the husband and wife did not see eye to eye, and that Emilie would give him a little lecture on his credulity.

"What an absurd person you are, Jakob," she said, "you will believe everything that these people tell you—not because you cannot help it, but because you do really wish to believe them."

"Do you not wish to believe them?" he asked her.

"I cannot see," she replied, "how one can well wish to believe or not to believe. I wish to find out the truth. Once a thing is not true," she added, "it matters little to me whatever else it may be."

A short time after his wedding, Jakob one day had a letter from a rejected supplicant, a former maid in his father-in-law's house, who informed him that while he was away in China, his wife had a liaison with Charlie Dreyer. He knew it to be a lie, tore up the letter, and did not give it another thought.

They had no children. This to Emilie was a grave affliction, she felt that she was lacking in her duties. When they had been married for five years, Jakob vexed by his mother's constant concern, and with the future of the firm on his mind, suggested to his wife that they should adopt a child, to carry on the house. Emilie at once, and with much energy and indignation, repudiated the idea, it had to her all the look of a comedy, and she would not see her father's firm encumbered with a sham heir. Jakob held forth to her upon the Antonines with but little effect. But when six months later he again took up the subject, to her own surprise, she found that it was no longer repellent. Unknowingly she must have given it room in her thought, and let it take root there, for by now it seemed familiar to her. She listened to her husband, looked at him, and felt kindly towards him.

"If this is what he has been looking for," she thought, "I must not oppose it." But in her heart she knew, clearly and coldly, and with dread of her own coldness, the true reason for her indulgence: the deep apprehension, that when a child had been adopted there would be no more obligation on her of producing an heir to the firm, a grandson to her father, a child to her husband.

It was indeed their little divergencies in regard to the deserving or undeserving poor, which brought upon the young couple of Bredgade, the events recounted in this tale. In summer time, they lived within Emilie's father's villa on the Strandvej, and Jakob would drive in to town, and out, in a small gig. One day he decided to profit by his wife's absence to visit an unquestionably unworthy mendicant, an old sea captain from one of his ships. He took the way through the ancient town, where it was difficult to get a carriage along, and where it was such an exceptional sight that people came up from the cellars to stare at it. In the narrow lane of Adelgade, a drunken man waved his arms in front of the horse, it shied, and knocked down a small boy with a heavy wheelbarrow piled high with washing,—the wheelbarrow and the washing ended sadly in the gutter. A crowd immediately collected round the spot, but expressed neither indignation nor sympathy. Jakob made his groom lift the little boy on to the seat. The child was smeared with blood and dirt, but he was not badly hurt, nor in the least scared, he seemed to take his accident as an adventure in general, or as if it happened to somebody else.

"Why did you not get out of my way, you little idiot?" Jakob asked him.

"I wanted to look at the horse," said the child, and added: "Now, I can see it well from here."

Jakob got the boy's whereabouts from an onlooker, paid him to take the wheelbarrow back, and himself drove the child home. The sordidness of Madam Mahler's house, and her own, one-eyed, blunt unfeelingness impressed him unpleasantly, still he had before now been inside the houses of the poor. But he was, here, struck by a strange incongruity between the back-yard and the child who lived in it. It was as if, unknowingly, Madam Mahler was housing, and knocking about a small, gentle, wild animal, or a sprite. On his way to the villa, he reflected that the child reminded him of his wife,—he had a reserved, as it were, selfless way with him, behind which one guessed great, integrate strength and endurance.

He did not speak of the incident that evening, but he went back to Madam Mahler's house to inquire about the boy, and, after a while, he recounted the adventure to his wife, and somewhat shyly and half in jest, proposed to her that they should take the pretty, forlorn child as their own.

Half in jest, she entered into his idea; it would be better, she thought, than taking on a child whose parents she knew. After this day she herself at times opened up the matter when she could find nothing else to talk to him about. They consulted the family lawyer, and sent their old doctor to look the child over. Jakob was surprised and grateful at his wife's compliance to his wish. She listened with gentle interest when he developed his plans, and would even sometimes vent her own ideas on education.

Lately Jakob had found his domestic atmosphere almost too perfect, and had had an adventure in town, now he tired of it and finished it. He bought Emilie presents, and left her to make her own conditions as to the adoption of the child. He might, she said, bring the boy to the house on the first of October, when they had moved into town from the country, but she herself would reserve her final decision in the matter until April, when he should have been with them for six months. If by then she did not find the child fit for their plan, she would hand him over to some honest, kindly family in the employ of the firm. Till April they themselves would likewise be only Uncle and Aunt Vandamm to the boy.

They did not talk to their family of the project, and this circumstance accentuated the new feeling of comradeship between them. How very different, Emilie said to herself, would the case have proved, had she been expecting a child in the orthodox mode of women. There was indeed something neat and proper about settling the affairs of nature according to your own ideas. "And," she whispered in her mind, as her glance ran down her looking-glass, "in keeping your figure."

As to Madam Mahler, when the time came to approach her, the matter was easily arranged. She had not got it in her to oppose the wishes of her social superiors, she was also, vaguely, rating her own future connection with a house that must surely turn out an abundance of washing. Only the readiness with which Jakob refunded her past outlays on the child left in her heart, a lifelong regret that she had not asked for more.

At the last moment Emilie made a further stipulation. She would go alone to fetch the child. It was important that the relation between the boy and herself should be properly established from the beginning, and she did not trust to Jakob's sense of propriety upon the occasion. In this way, it came about that, when all was ready for the child's reception in the house of Bredgade, Emilie drove by herself to Adelgade to take possession of him, easy in her conscience towards the firm and her husband, but, already, beforehand, a little tired of the whole affair.

In the street, by Madam Mahler's house, a number of unkempt children were obviously waiting for the arrival of the carriage, they stared at her, but turned off their eyes when she looked at them. Her heart sank as she lifted her ample silk skirt and passed through their crowd and across the back-yard; would her boy have the same look? Like Jakob, she had many times before visited the houses of the poor, it was a sad sight, but it could not be otherwise: "You have the poor with you always." But today, since a child from this place was to enter her own house, for the first time she felt personally related to the need and misery of the world. She was seized with a new deep disgust and horror, and at the next moment with a new, deeper pity. In these two minds, she entered Madam Mahler's room.

Madam Mahler had washed little Jens and water-combed his hair. She had also, a couple of days before, hurriedly enlightened him as to the situation and his own promotion in life. But being an unimaginative woman, and moreover, of the opinion that the child was but half- witted, she had not taken much trouble about it. The child had received the information in silence, he only asked her how his father and mother had found him. "Oh, by the smell," said Madam Mahler.

Jens had communicated the news to the other children of the house. His Papa and Mamma, he told them, were coming on the morrow, in great state, to fetch him home. It gave him matter for reflection that the event should raise a great stir in that same world of the back-yard that had received his visions of it with indifference. To him, the two were the same thing.

He had got up on Mamzell Ane's small chair to look out of the window and witness the arrival of his mother. He was still standing on it when Emilie came in, and Madam Mahler in vain made a gesture to chase him down. The first thing that Emilie noticed about the child was that he did not turn his gaze from hers, but looked her straight in the eyes. At the sight of her, a great, ecstatic light passed over his face. For a moment, the two looked at one another.

The child seemed to wait for her to address him, but as she stood on, silent, irresolute, he spoke: "Mamma," he said, "I am glad that you have found me. I have waited for you so long, so long."

Emilie gave Madam Mahler a glance—had this scene been staged to move her heart? But the flat lack of understanding in the old woman's face excluded the possibility, and she again turned to the child.

Madam Mahler was a big, broad woman, Emilie herself, in a crinoline and a sweeping mantilla, took up a good deal of space, the child was much the smallest figure in the room, yet at this moment he dominated it, as if he had taken command of it. He stood up straight, with that same radiance in his face and countenance. "Now I am coming home again, with you," he said.

Emilie vaguely and amazedly realized that to the child the importance of the moment did not lie with his own good luck, but with that tremendous happiness and fulfilment which he was bestowing on her. A strange idea, that she could not have explained to herself, at that, ran through her mind, she thought: "This child is as lonely in life as I." Gravely she moved nearer to him and said a few kindly words.

The little boy put out his hand and gently touched the long silky ringlets that fell forward over her neck. "I knew you at once," he said proudly, "you are my Mamma, who spoils me. I would know you amongst all the ladies, by your long, pretty hair." He ran his fingers softly down her shoulder and arm and fumbled over her gloved hand. "You have got three rings on today," he said.

"Yes," said Emilie in her low voice.

A short, triumphant smile broke his face. "And now you kiss me, Mamma!" he said, and then grew very pale. Emilie did not know that his excitement rose from the fact that he had never been kissed. Obediently, surprised at herself, she bent down and kissed him.

Jens's farewell to Madam Mahler at first was somewhat ceremonious for two people who had known each other a long time. For she already saw him as a new person, the rich man's child, and took his hand formally, with a stiff face. But Emilie bade the boy, before he went away, to thank Madam Mahler because she had looked after him till now, and he did so with much freedom and grace. At that, the old woman's tanned and furrowed cheeks once more blushed deeply, like a young girl's, as by the sight of the money at their first meeting,—she had so rarely been thanked in her life.

In the street he stood still. "Look at my big fat horses!" he cried.

Emilie sat in the carriage, bewildered. What was she bringing home with her from Madam Mahler's house?

In her own house, as she took the child up the stairs and from one room into another, her bewilderment grew, rarely had she felt so uncertain of herself. It was, everywhere, in the child, the same rapture of recognition—at times he would also mention and look for things which she did faintly remember from her own childhood, or other things of which she had never heard. Her small pug, that she had brought with her from her old home, yapped at the boy, she lifted it up, afraid that it would bite him.

"No, Mamma," he cried, "she will not bite me, she knows me well."

A few hours ago—yes, she thought, up to the moment in Madam Mahler's room she had kissed the child—she would have scolded him: "Fye, you are telling a fib." Now she said nothing, and the next moment the child looked round the room and asked her: "Is the parrot dead?"

"No," she answered wondering, "she is not dead, she is in the other room."

She realized that she was afraid both to be alone with the boy and to let any third person join them. She sent the nurse out of the room. By the time when Jakob was to arrive at the house, she listened for his steps on the stair with a kind of alarm.

"Who are you waiting for?" Jens asked her.

She was at a loss how to designate Jakob to the child. "For my husband," she replied, embarrassed.

Jakob on his entrance found the mother and the child gazing into the same picture book.

The little boy stared at him. "So it is you, who is my Papa!" he exclaimed. "I thought so, too, all the time. But I could not be quite sure of it, could I? It was not by the smell that you found me, then. I think it was the horse that remembered me."

Jakob looked at his wife, she looked into the book. He did not expect sense from a child, and was soon playing with the boy and tumbling him about.

In the midst of a game, Jens set his hands against Jakob's chest. "You have not got your star on," he said.

After a moment Emilie went out of the room. She thought: "I have taken this upon me to meet my husband's wish, but it seems that I must bear the burden of it alone."

Jens took possession of the mansion in Bredgade, and brought it to submission, neither by might nor by power, but in the quality of that fascinating and irresistible personage, perhaps the most fascinating and irresistible in the whole world: the dreamer whose dreams come true. The old house fell a little in love with him. Such is ever the lot of dreamers, when dealing with people at all susceptible to the magic of dreams. The most renowned amongst them, Rachel's son, as all the world knows, suffered hardships and was even cast in prison on that account.

Except for his size Jens had no resemblance to the classic portraits of Cupid, all the same it was evident that, unknowingly, the shipowner and his wife had taken unto them an amoretto. He carried wings into the house, and was in league with the sweet and merciless powers of nature, and his relation to each individual member of the household became a kind of airy love affair. It was upon the strength of this same magnetism, Jakob had picked out the boy as heir to the firm at their first meeting, and that Emilie was afraid to be alone with him. The old magnate and the servants of the house no more escaped their destiny—as was once the case with Potiphar, captain to the guard of Egypt; before they knew where they were, they had committed all they had into his hands.

One effect of this particular spell was this: that people were made to see themselves with the eyes of the dreamer, and were impelled to live up to an ideal, and that for this their higher existence, they became dependent upon him. During the time that Jens lived in the house, it was much changed, and dissimilar from the other houses of the town, it became a Mount Olympus, the abode of divinities.

The child took the same lordly, laughing pride in the old ship-owner, who ruled the waters of the universe, as in Jakob's staunch, protective kindness and Emilie's silk-clad gracefulness. The old housekeeper, who had before often grumbled at her lot in life, for the while was transformed into an all-powerful, benevolent guardian of human welfare, a Ceres in cap and apron. And for the same length of time, the coachman, a monumental figure, elevated sky-high above the crowd, and combining within his own person the vigour of the two bay horses, majestically trotted down Bredgade on eight shod and clattering hoofs. It was only after Jens's bed hour, when, immovable and silent, his cheek buried in the pillow, he was exploring new areas of dream, that the house resumed the aspect of a rational, solid Copenhagen mansion.

Jens was himself ignorant of his power. As his new family did not scold him or find fault with him, it never occurred to him that they were at all looking at him. He gave no preference to any particular member of the household, they were all within his scheme of things and must there fit into their place. The relation of the one to the other was the object of his keen, subtle observation. One phenomenon in his daily life never ceased to entertain and please him: that Jakob, so big, broad and fat, should be attentive and submissive to his slight wife. In the world that he had known till now, bulk was of supreme moment.

As, later on, Emilie looked back upon this time, it seemed to her that the child would often provoke an opportunity for this fact to manifest itself, and would then, so to say, clap his hands in triumph and delight, as if the happy state of things had been brought about by his personal skill. But in other cases, his sense of proportion failed him. Emilie in her boudoir had an aquarium with goldfish, in front of which Jens would pass many hours, as silent as the fish themselves, and from his comments upon them, she gathered that to him they were huge,—a fine catch could one get hold of them, and even dangerous to the pug, should she happen to fall into the bowl. He asked Emilie to leave the curtains by this window undrawn at night, in order that, when people were asleep, the fish might look at the moon.

In Jakob's relation to the child there was a moment of unhappy love, or at least of the irony of fate, and it was not the first time either that he had gone through this same melancholy experience. For, ever since he himself was a small boy, he had yearned to protect those weaker than he, and to support and right all frail and delicate beings amongst his surroundings. The very qualities of fragility and helplessness inspired in him an affection and admiration which came near to idolatry.

But there was in his nature an inconsistency, such as will often be found in children of old, wealthy families, who have got all they wanted too easily, till in the end they cry out for the impossible: he loved pluck too, gallantry delighted him wherever he met it; and for the clinging and despondent type of human beings, and in particular of women, he felt a slight distaste and repugnance. He might dream of shielding and guiding his wife, but at the same time the little, cool, forbearing smile with which she would receive any such attempt from his side, to him was one of the most bewitching traits in her whole person. In this way he found himself somewhat in the sad and paradoxical position of the young lover who passionately adores virginity.

Now he learned that it was equally out of the question to patronize Jens. The child did not reject or smile at his patronage, as Emilie did, he even seemed grateful for it, but he accepted it in the part of a game or a sport. So that, when they were out walking together, and Jakob, thinking that the child must be tired, lifted him on to his shoulders, Jens would take it that the big man wanted to play at being a horse or an elephant just as much as he himself wanted to play that he were a trooper or a mahout.

Emilie sadly reflected that she was the only person in the house who did not love the child. She felt unsafe with him, even when she was unconditionally accepted as the beautiful, perfect mother, and as she recalled how, only a short time ago, she had planned to bring up the boy in her own spirit, and had written down little memorandums upon education, she saw herself as a figure of fun. To make up for her lack of feeling, she took Jens with her on her walks and drives, to the parks and the Zoo, brushed his thick hair and had him dressed up as neatly as a doll. They were always together. She was sometimes amused by his strange, graceful, dignified delight in all that she showed him, and at the next moment, as in Madam Mahler's room, she realized that however generous she would be to him, he would always be the giver. Her sisters-in-law, and her young married friends, fine ladies of Copenhagen with broods of their own, wondered at her absorption in the foundling—and then it happened, when they were off their guard, that they themselves received a dainty arrow in their satin bosoms, and between them began to discuss Emilie's pretty boy, with a tender raillery as that with which they would have discussed Cupid. They asked her to bring him to play with their own children. Emilie declined, and told herself that she must first be certain about his manners. At New Year, she thought, she would give a children's party herself.

Jens had come to the Vandamms in October, when trees were yellow and red in the parks. Then the tinge of frost in the air drove people indoors, and they began to think of Christmas; Jens seemed to know everything about the Christmas tree, the goose with roast apples, and the solemnly joyful church-going on Christmas morning. But it would happen that he mixed up these festivals with others of the season, and described how they were soon all to mask and mum, as children do at Shrovetide. It was as if, from the centre of his happy, playful world, its sundry components showed up less clearly than when seen from afar.

And as the days drew in and the snow fell in the streets of Copenhagen, a change came upon the child. He was not low in spirits, but singularly collected and compact, as if he were shifting the centre of gravitation of his being, and folding his wings. He would stand for long whiles by the window, so sunk in thought that he did not always hear when they called him,—filled with a knowledge which his surroundings could not share.

For within these first months of winter, it became evident that he was not at all a person to be permanently set at ease by what the world calls fortune. The essence of his nature was longing. The warm rooms with silk curtains, the sweets, his toys and new clothes, the kindness and concern of his Papa and Mamma, were all of the greatest moment because they went to prove the veracity of his visions, they were infinitely valuable as embodiments of his dreams. But within themselves they hardly meant anything to him, and they had no power to hold him. He was neither a worldling nor a struggler. He was a poet.

Emilie tried to make him tell her what he had in his mind, but got no way with him. Then one day he confided to her of his own accord.

"Do you know, Mamma," he said, "in my house the stair was so dark and full of holes that you had to grope your way up it, and the best thing was really to walk on one's hands and knees. There was a window broken by the wind, and below it, on the landing, there lay a drift of snow as high as me."

"But that is not your house, Jens," said Emilie, "this is your house."

The child looked round the room. "Yes," he said, "this is my fine house. But I have got another house, that is quite dark and dirty. You know it, you have been there too. When the washing was hung up, one had to twine in and out across that big loft, else the huge, wet, cold sheets would catch one, just as if they were alive."

"You are never going back to that house," said she.

The child gave her a great, grave glance, and after a moment said: "No."

But he was going back. She could, by her horror and disgust of the house, keep him from talking of it, as the children there by their indifference had silenced him about his happy home. But when she found him mute and pensive by the window, or at his toys, she knew that his mind had returned to it. And now and again, when they had played together, and their intimacy seemed particularly secure, he opened on the theme.

"In the same street as my house," he said one evening as they were sitting together on the sofa before the fire-place, "there was an old lodging-house, where the people who had got plenty of money could sleep in beds, and the others must stand up and sleep, with a rope under their arms. One night it caught fire, and burned all down. Then, those who were in bed hardly got their trousers on, but ho!—those who stood up and slept were the lucky boys, they got out quick. There was a man who made a song about it, you know."

There are some young trees which, when they are planted have the root twisted, and will never take hold in the soil. They may shoot out a profusion of leaves and flowers, but they must soon die. Such was the way with Jens. He had sent out his small branches upwards and to the sides, had fared excellently of the chameleon's dish and eaten air, promise-crammed, and the while he had forgotten to put out roots. Now the time came when by the law of nature, the bright, abundant bloom must needs wither, fade and waste away. It is possible, had his imagination been turned on to fresh pastures, that he might for a while have drawn nourishment through it, and have delayed his exit. Once or twice, to amuse him, Jakob had talked to him of China; the queer outlandish world captivated the mind of the child, he dwelt with the highest excitement on pictures of pig-tailed Chinamen, dragons, and fishermen with pelicans, and upon the fantastic names of Hong Kong and Yangtze-kiang. But the grown-up people did not realize the significance of his novel imaginative venture, and so, for lack of sustenance, the frail, fresh branch soon drooped.

A short time after the children's party, early in the new year, the child grew pale and hung his head. The old doctor came and gave him medicine to no effect. It was a quiet, unbroken decline, the plant was going out.

As Jens was put to bed and was, so to say, legitimately releasing his hold upon the world of actuality, his fancy made headway and ran along with him, like the sails of a small boat, from which the ballast is thrown overboard. There were now, all the time people round him, who would listen to what he said, gravely, without interrupting or contradicting him; this happy state of things enraptured him. The dreamer's sick bed became a throne.

Emilie sat at the bed all the time, distressed by a feeling of impotence which sometimes in the night made her wring her hands. All her life she had endeavoured to sever good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness. Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship. The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.

Now within the brotherhood of poets, Jens was a humorist, a comic fabulist. It was, in each individual phenomenon of life, the whimsical, the burlesque moment that attracted and inspired him. To the gale, grave, young woman, his fancies seemed sacrilegious within a death-room, yet after all it was his own death-room.

"Oh, there were so many rats, Mamma," he said, "so many rats. They were all over the house. One came to get a bit of lard on the shelf,— pat! a rat jumped at one. They ran across my face at night. Put your face close to me, and I will show you how it felt."

"There are no rats here, my darling," said Emilie.

"No, none," said he, "when I am not sick any more, I will go back and fetch you one. The rats like the people better than the people like them. For they think us good, lovely to eat. There was an old Comedian, who lived in the garret, he played comedy when he was young, and had travelled to foreign countries. Now he gave the little girls money to kiss him, but they would not kiss him because they said that they did not like his nose. It was a curious nose, too,—all fallen in,—and when they would not, he cried, and wrung his hands. But he got ill, and died, and nobody knew about it. But when at last they went in, do you know, Mamma,—the rats had eaten off his nose—nothing else, his nose only! But people will not eat rats, even when they are very hungry. There was a fat boy named Mads in the cellar, who caught rats in many curious ways, and cooked them. But old Madam Mahler said that she despised him for it, and the children called him Rat Mads."

Then again he would talk of her own house. "My Grandpapa," he said, "has got corns, the worst corns in Copenhagen. When they get very bad, he sighs and moans, he says: 'There will be storms in the Chinese Sea, it is a damned business, my ships are going to the bottom.' So, you know, I think that the seamen will be saying: 'There is a storm in this sea, it is a damned business, our ship is going to the bottom. Now it is time that old Grandpapa, in Bredgade, goes and has his corns out.'"

Only within the last days of his life did he speak of Mamzell Ane. She had been, as it were, his Musa, the only person who had knowledge of the one and the other of his worlds. As he recalled her, his tone of speech changed, he held forth in a grand, solemn manner, as upon an elemental power, of necessity known to every one.

If Emilie had given his fantasies her attention, many things might have been made clear to her. But she said: "No, I do not know her, Jens."

"Oh, Mamma, she knows you well!" he said, "she sewed you wedding gown, all of white satin. It was slow work—so many fittings! And my Papa," the child went on and laughed, "he came in to you and do you know what he said? He said: 'My white rose.'"

He suddenly bethought himself of the scissors which Mamzell Ane had left him, and wanted them, and this was the only occasion upon which Emilie ever saw him impatient or fretful.

She left her house, for the first time within three weeks, and went herself to Madam Mahler's house to inquire about the scissors. On the way, the powerful, enigmatical figure of Mamzell Ane took on for her the aspect of a Parca, of Atropos herself, scissors in hand, ready to cut off the thread of life. But Madam Mahler in the meantime had bartered away the scissors to a tailor of her acquaintance, and she flatly denied the existence both of them and of Mamzell Ane.

Upon the last morning of the boy's life, Emilie lifted her small pug, that had been his faithful playmate, on to the bed. Then the little dark face and the crumpled body seemed to recall to him the countenance of his friend. "There she is!" he cried.

Emilie's mother-in-law, and the old shipowner himself, had been daily visitors to the sick room. The whole Vandamm family stood weeping round the bed when, in the end, like a small brook which falls into the ocean, Jens gave himself up to the boundless, final unity of dream, and was absorbed in it.

He died at the end of March, a few days before the date that Emilie had fixed to decide on his fitness for admission into the house of Vandamm. Her father suddenly determined that he must be interred in the family vault—irregularly, since he was never legally adopted into the family. So he was laid down behind a heavy wrought-iron fence, in the finest grave that any Plejelt had ever obtained.

In the following days the house in Bredgade, and its inhabitants with it, shrank and decreased. The people were a little confused, as after a fall, and seized by a sad sense of diffidence. For the first weeks after Jens's burial, life looked to them strangely insipid, a sorry affair, void of purport. The Vandamms were not used to being unhappy, and were not prepared for the sense of loss with which now the death of the child left them. To Jakob, it seemed as if he had let down a friend, who had after all, laughingly trusted in his strength—now nobody had any use for it, and he saw himself as a freak, the stuffed puppet of a colossus. But with all this, after a while there was also in the survivors, as ever at the passing away of an idealist, a vague feeling of relief.

Emilie alone of the house of Vandamms, preserved, as it were, her size, and her sense of proportion. It may even be said that when the house tumbled from its site in the clouds, she upheld and steadied it. She had deemed it affected in her to go into mourning for a child that was not hers, and while she gave up the balls and parties of the Copenhagen season, she went about her domestic tasks quietly as before. Her father and her mother-in-law, sad and at a loss in their daily life, turned to her for balance, and because she was the youngest amongst them, and seemed to them in some ways like the child that was gone, they transferred to her the tenderness and concern which had formerly been the boy's and of which they now wished that they had given him even more. She was pale from her long watches at the sick bed, so they consulted between them, and with her husband, on means of cheering and distracting her.

But after some time Jakob was struck with her silence and scared by it. It seemed at first as if, except for her household orders, she found it unnecessary to speak, and later on as if she had forgotten or lost the faculty of speech. His timid attempts to inspirit her so much appeared to surprise and puzzle her, that he lacked the spirit to go on with them.

A couple of months after Jens's death, Jakob took his wife for a drive by the road which runs from Copenhagen to Elsinore, along the Sound. It was a lovely, warm and fresh day in May. As they came to Charlottenlund he proposed to her that they should walk through the wood, and send the carriage round to meet them. So they got down by the forest gate, and for a moment with their eyes followed the carriage, as it rolled away on the road.

They came into the wood, into a green world. The beech trees had been out for three weeks, the first mysterious translucence of early May was over. But the foliage was still so young that the green of the forest world was the brighter in the shade. Later on, after midsummer, the wood would be almost black in the shade, and brilliantly green in the sun: now, where the rays of the sun fell through the tree crowns, the ground was colourless, dim, as if powdered with sun dust. But where the wood lay in shadow, it glowed and luminesced like green glass and jewels. The anemones were faded and gone, the young fine grass was already tall. And within the heart of the forest, the woodruff was in bloom—its layer of diminutive, starry, white flowers seemed to float round the knotty roots of the old grey beeches, like the surface of a milky lake, a foot above the ground. It had rained in the night; upon die narrow road the deep tracks of the woodcutters' cart were moist. Here and there, by the roadside, a grey, misty globe of a withered dandelion caught the sun; the flower of the field had come on a visit to the wood.

They walked on slowly. As they came a little way into the wood, they suddenly heard the cuckoo, quite close. They stood still and listened, then walked on. Emilie let go her husband's arm to pick up from the road the shell of a small, pale-blue bird's egg, broken in two, she tried to set it together, and kept it on the palm of her hand. Jakob began to talk to her of a journey to Germany that he had planned for them, and of the places that they were to see. She listened docilely, and was silent.

They had come to the end of the wood. From the gate they had a great view over the open landscape. After the green sombreness of the forest, the world outside seemed unbelievably light, as if bleached by the luminous dimness of midday. But after awhile, the colours of fields, meadows, and dispersed groups of trees defined themselves to the eye, one by one. There was a faint blue light in the sky, and faint, white, cumulus clouds rose along the horizon. The young green rye in the fields was about to ear; where the finger of the breeze touched it, it ran in long, gentle billows along the ground. The small, thatched peasants' houses lay like lime-white, square isles within the undulating land; round them the lilac-hedges bore up their light foliage and, at the top, clusters of pale flowers. They heard the rolling of a carriage on the road in the distance, and above their heads the incessant singing of innumerable larks.

By the edge of the forest, there lay a wind-felled tree. Emilie said, "Let us sit down here a little."

She loosened the ribbons of her bonnet and laid it in her lap. After a minute, she said: "There is something I want to tell you," and made a long pause.

All through this conversation in the wood she behaved in the same way, with a long silence before each phrase—not exactly as if she were collecting her thoughts, but as if she were finding speech in itself laborious or deficient.

She said: "The boy was my own child."

"What are you talking about?" Jakob asked her.

"Jens," she said, "he was my own child. Do you remember telling me that when you saw him the first time, you though he was like me? He was indeed like me; he was my son."

Now Jakob might have been frightened, and believed her to be out of her mind. But lately, to him, things had come about in unexpected ways, he was prepared for the paradoxical. So he sat quietly on the truck, and looked down at the young beech shoots in the ground.

"My dear," he said, "my dear, you do not know what you say."

She was silent awhile, as if distressed by his interruption of her train of thought. "It is difficult for other people to understand, I know," she said at last, patiently; "if Jens had been here still, he might perhaps have made you understand, better than I. But try," she went on, "to understand me. I have thought that you ought to know. And if I cannot speak to you, I cannot speak to anyone." She said this with a kind of grave concern, as if really threatened by total incapacity of speech.

He remembered how, during these last weeks, he had felt her silence heavy on him, and had tried to make her speak of something,—of anything.

"No, my dear," he said, "you speak, I shall not interrupt you."

Gently, as if thankful for his promise, she began: "He was my child, and Charlie Dreyer's. You met Charlie once in Papa's house. But it was while you were in China that he became my lover."

At these words, Jakob remembered the anonymous letter he had once received. As he recalled his own indignant scouting of the slander and the care with which he had kept it from her, it seemed to him a curious thing that after five years, he was to have it repeated by her own lips.

"When he asked me," said Emilie, "I stood for a moment in great danger. For I had never talked with a man of these matters. Only with Aunt Malvina and with my old governess. And women, for some reason, I do not know why, will have it that such a demand is a base and selfish thing in a man, and an insult to a woman. Why do you allow us to think that of you? You, who are a man, will know that he asked me out of his love and out of his great heart, from magnanimity. He had more life in him than he himself needed. He meant to give that to me. It was life itself, yes, it was eternity that he offered me.

"And I, who had been taught so wrong, I might easily have rejected him. Even now, when I think of it, I am afraid, as of death. Still I need not be so, for I know for certain that if I were back at that moment again, I should behave in the same way as I did then. And I was saved out of the danger. I did not send him away. I let him walk back with me, through the garden—for we were down by the garden-gate—and stay with me that night till, in the morning, he was to go so far away."

She again made a long pause, and went on: "All the same, because of the doubt and the fear of other people that I had in my heart, I and the child had to go through much. If I had been a poor girl, with only a hundred rixdollars in all the world, it would have been better, for then we should have remained together. Yes, we went through much."

"When I found Jens again, and he came home with me," she took up her narrative after a silence, "I did not love him. You all loved him, only I myself did not. It was Charlie that I loved. Still I was more with Jens than any of you, he told me many things, which none of you heard. I saw that we could not find another such as he, that there was none so wise." She did not know that she was quoting the Scripture, any more than the old shipowner had been aware of doing so when he ordained Jens to be buried in the field of his fathers and the cave that was therein—this was a small trick peculiar to the magic of the dead child.

"I learned much from him. He was always truthful, like Charlie. He was so truthful that he made me ashamed of myself. Sometimes I thought it wrong in me to teach him to call you Papa."

"At the time when he was ill," she said, "what I thought of was this: that if he died I might, at last, go into mourning for Charlie." She lifted up her bonnet, gazed at it and again dropped it. "And then, after all," she said, "I could not do it." She made a pause. "Still, if I had told Jens about it, it would have pleased him, it would have made him laugh. He would have told me to buy grand, black clothes, and long veils."

It was a lucky thing, Jakob reflected, that he had promised her not to interrupt her tale. For had she wanted him to speak he would not have found a word to say. As now she came to this point in her story she sat in silence for a long time, so that for a moment he believed that she had finished, and at that a choking sensation came upon him, as if all words must needs stick in his throat.

"I thought," she suddenly began again, "that I would have to suffer, terribly even, for all this. But no, it has not been so. There is a grace in the world, such as none of us have known about. The world is not a hard or severe place, as people tell us. It is not even just. You are forgiven everything. The fine things of the world you cannot wrong or harm, they are much too strong for that. You could not wrong or harm Jens, no one could."

"And, now, after he has died," she said, "I understand everything."

Again she sat immovable, gently poised upon the tree stem. For the first time during their talk she looked round her, her gaze ran slowly, almost caressingly, along the forest scenery.

"It is difficult," she said, "to explain what it feels like to understand things. I have never been good at finding words, I am not like Jens. But it has seemed to me ever since March, since the Spring began, that I have known well why things happened, why,—for instance,—they all flowered. And why the birds came. The generosity of the world, Papa's and your kindness too! As we walked in the wood today, I thought that now I have got back my sight, and my sense of smell, from when I was a little girl. All things here tell me, erf their own, what they signify." She stopped, her gaze steadying. "They signify Charlie," she said. After a long pause she added: "And I, I am Emilie. Nothing can alter that either."

She made a gesture as if to pull on her gloves that lay in her bonnet, but she put them back again, and remained quiet, as before.

"Now I have told you all," she said. "Now you must decide what we are to do."

"Papa will never know," she said gently and thoughtfully. "None of them will ever know. Only you. I have thought, if you will let me do so, that you and I, when we talk of Jens,"—she made a slight pause, and Jakob thought: "She has never talked of him till today"—"might talk of all these things too."

"Only in one thing," she said slowly, "am I wiser than you. I know that it would be better, much better, and easier for both you and me, if you would believe me."

Jakob was accustomed to take a quick summary of a situation, and to make his dispositions accordingly. He waited a moment, after she had ceased to talk, to do so now.

"Yes, my dear," he said, "that is true."


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