by Georg Ebers
A Christmas Story for my Children and Grandchildren
The wounded colonel, whom we were nursing back to health in our
house, was not allowed to walk long, and in the after noon, after he
had pottered about a little, he was obliged to rest in the comfortable
old easy-chair, which was known as grandfather's chair.
When twilight fell, our dear guest lighted the last of the three
pipes, which the doctor permitted him to smoke every day, and made a
sign to the children, which the young people obeyed gladly, for they
loved to listen to his stories.
The convalescent was under orders not to talk for more than half an
hour at a time, for his wounds were so severe that our experienced
physician declared it to be contrary to the laws of nature and quite
phenomenal that he should be among the living at all.
As for his stories, they had never failed to hold the attention of
his audience; this was partly due to the fact that he usually had to
break them off at the point where the interest had reached its climax.
Moreover, the deep voice of the narrator was much gentler than one
would have expected, after looking at the broad-shouldered, heavy
figure, and there lay in his suppressed, and often whispered tones a
secret charm, which the children were not the only ones to feel;
besides which his eyes produced their share of the profound
impression, for every emotion that disturbed his easily-excited soul
found a reflection therein.
That the colonel openly preferred our six-year-old Hermy to his
brothers and sisters was due to the circumstance that the child had
once burst into tears at a look from the officer, which the latter
employed to call the children to order, if they were inattentive, or
exhibited signs of unbelief when he had not expected it. After this
Hermy was so evidently his darling that there was no further chance
for Hermy's younger sister, who had at first promised to be the
favourite, and I shall never forget the soft, almost motherly,
caressing tones that came from that grey- bearded man with the large
round head and strong face, when he sought to comfort the child.
It was remarkable to see how easily this man, who was accustomed to
obedience, and famous for his bravery and keen energy, could become a
child among children. He had lost a beloved wife, a little son, about
Hermy's age, and a young daughter, and no doubt our numerous family
reminded him of these departed ones. As for his tales, he separated
them into distinct categories. Some of them he began with the words:
"Here I am," and then he held himself strictly to the truth. Others
began: "Once upon a time." While the former were drawn mostly from
his own full and eventful life, the latter were fairy stories, pure
and simple, sometimes already well known, sometimes made up, wherein
fairies, ghosts, elves, gnomes, goblins and dragons,
will-o'-the-wisps, nixies, kelpies and dwarfs disported themselves.
Christmas was approaching, and the next day, Christmas-eve, the
tree was to be lighted. On the twenty-third of December, a little
while before the hour for story-telling, Hermy came home, and
exhibited to his brothers the trifling presents, which he had chosen:
an eraser for his father, a lead-pencil for his mother, a bag of nuts
for his grandmother, and similar trifles which, though insignificant
in themselves, had nevertheless exhausted his little store of savings.
His elder brothers, to whom he had exhibited with great pride these
purchases, expressed none of the admiration which he had expected, but
began to tease him by calling the things "trash," as indeed they were,
and poking fun at the "wonderful presents" of their small brother;
they would have been less cruel, perhaps, had he been one of their
Karl wanted to know what their father, who never was known to make
a drawing, would do with an eraser, and Kurt added that he did not see
the use of giving their grandmother nuts, when she had more in her own
garden than all of them put together would receive on ten
Bright tears gathered in the eyes of the little one, and he cast a
troubled look at his despised treasures, in which he had rejoiced so
heartily only a short time before.
He began to sob quietly, and saying dejectedly: "But I hadn't any
more money!" he stuffed his gifts, shorn of their glamour into his
The colonel had watched the scene in silence; now, however, he drew
his favourite to him, kissed him, and caressed his fair curls. Then
he invited him gaily to sit right close to him on the footstool, and
bade the other children to sit down, too, and told Karl and Kurt to
keep their ears wide open.
My wife and I entered at this moment—we heard later of what had
happened—and begged the colonel to allow us to listen also. The
permission was willingly granted; after the lamp was brought, for it
was later than usual, and we had settled ourselves on the sofa, the
colonel stroked his moustache for some time, and began, after he had
gazed quietly before him for a moment: "To-day my story shall be
called, 'The Nuts.' Does that please you, Hermy?"
The little one smiled at him expectantly and nodded his head. The
"You believe, no doubt, children, that no one ever came back from
the dead, and that therefore no mortal knows what Heaven looks like,
nor Hell. But I—look at me well—I can tell you something about it."
Here he made a short pause while my wife handed him his pipe and a
match. The children looked at one another in doubt and suspicion, for
this was the first story of the colonel which had not begun with,
"Here I am," or, "Once upon a time," and they were consequently
uncertain whether it was a true story or one that he had made up.
Wolfgang, who is thirteen and my oldest boy, and who already calls
his younger brothers, "the young ones," —and promises to be a true
child of the times, inclined to believe it the latter, but even he sat
up straighter and looked puzzled as the colonel continued:
"The two balls that I have in here, and the sabre cut on my
shoulder,— but you know how and where I received them—to be brief, I
sank from my horse onto the grass in the afternoon, and not until the
following morning was I found by the ambulance corps and carried to
the hospital. There they brought me to life again. In the
interim—which lasted for the half of a day and one whole night—I was
certainly not alive like one of you, or any other two-legged creature
endowed with five senses."
With these words his penetrating eyes glanced from Karl to Kurt;
the girls caught hold of one another's hands and one could plainly
read in their expressions that they considered it rash to be in such
close proximity to a person who had erstwhile been dead. It was
fortunate for them that the resuscitated colonel was so good, and that
there was no doubt about his actual existence, which was proved by his
voice and the smoke that he puffed into the air during every pause.
"Yes, children," he began anew, "a great wonder was worked on me,
an old man. This long body here lay on the bloody ground among
groaning men, dying horses, broken gun-carriages, ammunition wagons,
exploded bombshells, and discarded weapons; but my soul—I cannot have
been too hardened a sinner in this world—my soul was permitted to
soar to Heaven. One, two, three, as fast as you can say, 'That is an
apple,' or 'The fair Ina has a pretty doll in her lap,' and it had
arrived. And now—I can see it in your eyes—you would like to know
how it seems in Heaven, and God knows I cannot blame you, for it is
beautiful, marvellously beautiful, only unfortunately I am not allowed
even to attempt its description. That must ever remain a mystery to
the living because—but that is no matter, and evil would befall
me if I were to chatter."
At this point the colonel was interrupted by many expressions of
disappointment, but he was resolute, and continued in a peremptory
"That will do. Description indeed is forbidden to me; but there
are certain of my experiences about which I may tell you. So listen!
That Hell lies underneath Heaven you have doubtless heard from some
one or other. Naturally the holy dead see and hear nothing of the
pains of the lost, for that would entirely spoil the joys of Paradise
for them; but now and then—I believe once a year—it is given to the
blessed to look down into Hell. There is, however, one condition in
particular attached to this privilege. When the dome which conceals
Hell from the sight of the angels is opened, it is for the relief of
the condemned. God in his mercy has decreed that the saints shall
look down into the abyss in order to tell St. Peter if they see among
the damned any one from whom they have received any benefit, or of
whom they have even heard any good. If the keeper of Heaven's gate is
pleased with the generous action which the lost soul performed while
on earth, he has the power of shortening the time of punishment, or
can even pardon it altogether, and bid it enter into Paradise.
"As for me, I arrived in Paradise on a day when Hell was open to
view, and came to know, thereby, many strange things. Ah! That was
the hardest part of my story; I trust that you have understood it?"
The narrator's glance sought the children's eyes once more; but
this time questioningly rather than peremptorily. When the young lips
all cried "yes," and "of course," he smiled, nodded his massive head
amiably, and continued:
"That the angels are full of pity, and glad to relieve the misery
of the unfortunate, whoever they are, and wherever they may be, goes
without saying, and it will not be necessary to tell you how
diligently they sought to remember some one good deed that might
redound to the credit of one of the lost. But St. Peter is a mild and
just judge, and the gleaning yielded but a small return, for only a
few of the angels could recall any act that was worth mentioning. It
was also granted to me to look into the place of torment, and the
things I saw there were too awful. Picture it to yourself as you
will! When I recovered from the horror that fell upon me, I
recognized many men and women whom I had known on earth. Among them
were many whom I had been accustomed to consider pious and virtuous,
and whom I had expected to find in a high place in Heaven, rather than
there below, and yet of those very persons the Elect could recall the
fewest deeds that had been done from purely generous motives. An act
was mentioned of this one or that, which on the surface seemed good,
sometimes even great,—but there on high the springs of human actions
are open to view, as well as the real end, which the author had in
mind, and these were always such that those who had performed the best
deeds could be accredited with the least charitable intention. Their
pious works had always been executed in order to make them conspicuous
in the eyes of men, or to attain for themselves some distinction, or
to flatter their vanity, or to arouse the envy of their neighbours, or
to contribute in some indirect way to the increase of their riches.
Perhaps you may not altogether understand what I mean; but no matter,
your mother may explain as much as she thinks good for you.
"The poor things who were disappointed, as well as the unfortunate
ones for whom no voice was raised, made me very unhappy; but I could
do nothing for them.
"Among the latter I noticed a woman whom I had known well on earth,
and who deserved to be among the lost, I thought. I had never
anticipated any other sentence for her. You do not understand,
children, what a cold heart is; but hers had been either ice or stone.
Although she had possessed more than was needed to gratify her own
wants, she could never be moved by the most touching appeals of the
poorest to relieve their distress. She had used other people to
satisfy her selfish desires and then discarded them ruthlessly. She
had gone through life without loving one single soul—of that I felt
convinced—and no one had loved her, and she had died unregretted.
She must have been as wretched on earth as she was there in Hell; for
which of us can be happy here, if we do not love and are not loved?
"'There is no chance of a voice being raised in her favour,' I said
to myself. But I was wrong; for at that moment a lovely angel-child
flew past me on its blue and white wings. Without any sign of fear it
flew direct to St. Peter, who looked formidable enough with his long
beard and great keys, and, pointing with its little forefinger to the
hard-hearted woman, cried: 'She once gave me a handful of nuts.'
"'Really,' answered the keeper of Heaven. 'That was not much,
and yet I am surprised; for that woman would not part with so much as
a pin, during her life. But you little one, who were you on earth?'
"'Little Hannele was my name,' answered the angel. 'I died of
starvation, and only once did any one give me anything in my life to
make me happy, and that was that woman yonder.'
"'Marvellous,' answered Peter, stroking his white beard. 'No doubt
the nuts were given as a miserly payment of some service you did her.'
"'No, no,' the angel answered decidedly.
"'Well, tell us how it happened then,' the apostle commanded, and
the dear little soul obeyed:
"'My sick mother and I lived in the city all alone, for father was
dead. Just before Christmas we had nothing more to eat. So mother,
though she lay in bed and her head and hands were burning, made some
little sheep of bits of wood and cotton and I carried them to the
Christmas market. There I sat on some steps and offered them for sale
to the passers-by; but nobody wanted them. Hours passed, and it was
very cold; the open wound in my knee, which no one saw, pained me so,
and the frost in my fingers and toes burned and itched dreadfully.
Evening came, the lamps were lighted, but I dared not go home; for
only one person had thrown a copper into my lap, and I needed more to
buy a bit of bread and a few coals. My own pangs hurt me, but that
mother lay at home alone, with no one to hand her anything, or support
her when her breathing became difficult, hurt me still more. I could
hardly bear to sit on the cold steps any longer, and my eyes were
blind with tears. A barrel was set down in front of the house, and
while a clerk was rolling it over the sidewalk into the shop, the
stream of passers was stopped. That woman there—I remember her
well—stood still in front of me. I offered her one of my sheep, and
looked at her through my tears. She seemed so hard and stern, that I
thought: 'She won't give me anything.' But she did. It seemed
suddenly as if her face grew softer, and her eyes kinder. She glanced
at me, and before I knew it, she had put her hand in the bag which she
carried on her arm, and thrown the nuts into my lap. The cask had
been rolled into the shop by this time, and the throng of people
carried her along. She tried to stop. It was not easy, and she only
did it to toss me a second, third, and fourth handful of the most
beautiful walnuts. I can still see it all, as if it were to-day!
Then she felt in her pocket, probably to get some money for me, but
the press of people was too strong for her to stand against it longer.
I doubt if she heard that I thanked her.'
"Here the angel broke off, and threw a kiss to the condemned woman,
and St. Peter asked her how it happened that she, who had been so deaf
to all appeals from the poor, had been so sweetly generous to the
"The tormented woman answered amid her loud sobs: 'The tearful eyes
of the little one reminded me of my small sister, who died a painful
death before I had grown to be hard and wicked, and a strange
sensation—I know not how it happened myself—overpowered me. It
seemed as if my heart warmed within me, and something seemed to say to
me that I would never forgive myself as long as I lived, and would be
even unhappier than I was, if I did not give the child something to
rejoice over at Christmas time. I longed to draw her towards me and
kiss her. After I had tossed her half of the nuts, which I had just
bought, I felt happier than I had for many a day, and I would
certainly have given her some money, though only a little . . . .'
"But Peter interrupted her. He had heard enough, and as he knew
that it was impossible for any one in Heaven or Hell to tell an
untruth, he nodded to her, saying: 'That was, beyond dispute, a good
deed, but it is too small to counterbalance the great weight of your
bad deeds. Perhaps it may lighten your punishment. Still great
riches were meted out to you on earth, and what were a few nuts to
you! The motive that urged you to bestow them is pleasing in the
sight of the Lord, I acknowledge; but as I said before, your charity
was too paltry for you to be released from your pains because of it.'
"He turned to go, but a clear voice of wonderful sweetness held him
back. It was that of the Saviour, who advanced with majestic dignity
towards the apostle and spoke: 'Let us first hear if the alms-giving
of which we have just learned was really too small to plead for
leniency towards this sinning soul. Let us hear'—turning to the
angel—'what became of the nuts.'
"'O dear Saviour,' answered the angel, 'I ate half of them, and I
was grateful to you, for I felt that I owed them to your bounty as
they were my 'little Christ child' as the people in the city where we
lived called a Christmas present.'
"'You see, Peter,' the Saviour interrupted the angel. 'Do we not
owe it to the nuts of that woman that a pure child's soul was led to
us? That in itself is no small thing! Tell what further happened to
"'I ate most of them,' the little girl answered, but I had still
more to eat by Christmas-eve; for the people who had looked at me when
the woman threw something into my lap were interested in my suffering,
and soon I had sold all six sheep, and besides many pennies and
groschen, one big thaler had flown into my lap. With these I was able
to buy mother many things that she stood in sore need of, and, though
she died on New Year's morning, she had had many little comforts
during her last days.'
"The Anointed cast another look full of meaning at Peter, when a
large and beautiful angel, the spirit of the mother of the cherub,
began: 'If you will permit me, O, holy Jesus, I, too, would like to
say a word in favor of the condemned. Before Hannele came home with
the nuts, I lay in bed without hope, or help in my great suffering. I
had lost all faith, for my prayers had not been heard, and in the
bitterness of my heart, it seemed that you, who were said to be the
friend of the poor on earth, and God the Father, had forgotten us in
our misery, in order to overwhelm the rich with greater gifts. In my
distress, and that of the child; I had learned to curse the day on
which we were born. Oh! how wild were my thoughts during the time
that Hannele was trying to sell the sheep, and did not come home;
though I needed her so sorely. I was often so thirsty that my mouth
burned as with fire, and the moments when I gasped for breath were
frequent, and almost unbearable when no one was there to lift me up.
I called those people liars who would persuade the poor that they had
a merciful Father in Heaven, who looked upon them as his children, and
cared for them. But when Hannele came home, and lighted the little
lamp, and I saw her tiny face, where for a long time I had seen no
smile, but only pain and grief, now beaming with joy, when I saw the
nuts and the other good things which she had brought, and saw her
pleasure in them, my belief in thee, O Lord, and in the kind Father
returned, and I ceased not to be grateful to the end. If now, in the
glory of thy magnificence, I know bliss unutterable, I owe it to that
woman, and to the fact that she was good enough to throw the nuts into
"Peter nodded affirmatively. Then he bowed before the Saviour and
said: 'The little gift of the condemned soul has indeed borne better
fruit than I imagined; yet when I tell you what a great sinner she was
"'I know,' the Son of God interrupted him. 'Before we decide upon
the fate of this woman, let us hear what the child did with the rest
of the nuts, for we know that she did not eat them all. Now my little
angel, what became of the last of them? Speak on. Gladly will I
listen to you.'
"Hannele began anew: 'After they had buried mother, they sent me
into the country among the mountains, for they said it was not the
duty of the city to care for me, but that of the village parish, where
my parents were born. So I was taken there. The six nuts that I had
saved I took with me to play with. This I most enjoyed doing in the
spring, alone on the little strip of grass behind the Poor-house, in
which I was the only child. Besides me there were but three old women
'being fed to death,' as the peasants used to say. Two of my
companions were blind, and the third was dull-witted and gazed ever
straight before her. Not one of them noticed anything that happened
around them, but my heart used to grow light when everything about me
budded, and sprouted, and burst into bloom. My body was always aching
but my pains could not lessen my enjoyment of the spring. Wherever I
looked, men were sowing and planting. It was the first time that I
had ever seen it, and the wish came over me to confide something to
the good earth that would take root, and sprout, and grow green and
high for me.
"'So I stuck four of my nuts into the ground. I put them as far
apart in the small space as I could, so that if big trees came from my
seeds they might not stand in one another's way, but might all enjoy
the air and the sunshine that I was so thankful for. I saw my seeds
sprout, but what became of them afterwards I did not live to see. Two
years after I sowed them a famine fell upon us. The poor weavers who
lived in the mountain village had all they could do to nourish wife
and child. There was little left for the Poor-house. As I was
already ill I could not stand the misery, and I was the first to die
of the dreadful fever caused by hunger. Only one of the blind women,
and the dull-witted one followed the sack in which I was buried—for
who would have paid for a coffin? The last two nuts I divided with the
old women. Each one of us had a half, and how gladly we ate the
little morsel, for even a taste of any dainty seemed good to us, after
we had lived on nothing but bread and potatoes. From here I watched
the other nuts grow to be trees. All four had straight stems and
thick crowns. Under one of them that stood near a spring, which is
now called the Fresh Spring, an old carpenter who came to the
Poor-house built a bench.'
"Here another angel interrupted the little narrator with the
question: 'Do you mean the nut-tree in Dorbstadt?' and, receiving an
answer in the affirmative, he cried: 'I, Master, I am that old
carpenter, and during my last summers, I had no greater pleasure than
to sit by the Fresh Spring under the nut-tree, and while I smoked my
pipe to think of my old wife, whom I was soon to find again with you.
In the autumn, too, many a dry brown leaf found its way among the
more expensive tobacco ones.'
"'And I,' cried a former peddler, breaking into the carpenter's
story, 'I assuredly have not forgotten the nut-tree, where I always
set down my pack when my shoulders were nearly broken, and under whose
shade I used to rest my weary limbs before entering the village.'
"'I, too! How often have I stopped under the spreading branches of
that tree on a hot summer day and found refreshment!' cried a former
post- messenger of Dorbstadt. A porter who had also lived there added
"'But the nut-trees were cut down many years ago,' the latter
"'I saw it,' cried the spirit of little Hannele, and one heard from
her tone how she deplored it. 'They were felled when the Poor-house
was given up. 'But the great Son of God has now heard what he wished
"'No, no,' the Saviour answered, 'I should still like to know
what became of the wood of these trees.'
"The voices of several angels were heard at the same moment, for
many of the poor weavers of Dorbstadt were to be found in the Heavenly
Kingdom. St. Peter, however, bade them to be quiet, and permitted
only the one who had last entered the Abode of the Blessed to speak.
"'I was the village doctor,' this one began, 'and I quitted the
earth because I, too, fell a victim to the pestilence of which many of
the poor people were dying, and against which I fought with all my
powers, but with small success. I can tell you all that you wish to
know, my Master, for, during forty-five years, I devoted my humble
services to the sick poor there. When Hannele died in our
Poor-house—it happened before my time—the misery was even greater
than at present. The weavers were ground down by the large
manufacturers, until an energetic man built a factory in our village,
and paid them better wages. As the population then increased, and
consequently the number of patients, space was wanting in which to
house them, for the dilapidated Poor-house—whither they were
carried—was no longer large enough to accommodate them all. Therefore
the parish, aided by the owner of the factory, built a hospital for
the whole district, and the site of the old Poor-house was chosen for
it. The beautiful nut-trees which Hannele had planted had to be
destroyed. I was sorry to be obliged to give the order, but we needed
the ground where they stood. As we had to be economical in
everything, big and little, we had planks sawn out of the trees for
"At this point another spirit interrupted the physician. 'I have
lain in one of the beds made from the wood. At home I slept on a
bundle of straw, and very uncomfortable it was when I was shaken by
the fever. In the hospital all was different, and when I lay in my
comfortable bed, I felt as if I were already in Heaven.'
"'And I,' cried another broad-winged angel, 'for ten years I walked
with the crutches that were made for me from the nut-tree by the Fresh
Spring, and old Conrad, below on the earth, is still using them.'
"'And mine also,' another continued, 'were of the same wood. I
had lain for a long time on my back; but after I got them, I learned
to walk with them and they enabled me to stand before the loom, and to
earn bread once more for my family. That man yonder from Hochdorf has
had the same experience, and the wooden leg of William, the toll-gate
keeper, who entered here shortly before me, was made of wood from the
"'I owe it a debt of gratitude, too, but for an entirely different
service,' said a beautiful angel, as it bowed its crowned head
reverently before the Son of God. 'My lot below was a very hard one.
I was early left a widow, and I supported my children entirely by the
work of my hands. By dint of great effort I brought them up well, and
my three sons grew to be brave men, who took care of themselves, and
helped their mother. But all three, my Master, were lost to me, taken
away by the unfathomable wisdom of the Father. Two fell in war, the
third was killed by the machinery while at his work. That broke my
strength, and when they brought me to the hospital I was on the verge
of despair, and life seemed a greater burden than I could bear. Your
image, my Saviour, had just been finished by a sculptor, who had
carved it from the wood of the nut-tree by the Fresh Spring. They put
it up opposite to my bed. It represented you, my Lord, on the cross,
and your head bowed in agony, with its crown of thorns, was a very
sorrowful sight. Yet I paid but small heed to it. One morning,
however—it was the anniversary of the death of my two dear sons, who
had lost their lives, fighting bravely side by side for their
Fatherland—on that morning the sun fell upon your sad face, and
bleeding hands pierced by the nails, and then I reflected how bitterly
you had suffered, though innocent, that you might redeem us, and how
your mother must have felt to lose such a child. Then a voice asked
me if I had any right to complain, when the Son of God himself had
willingly endured such torments for our sake, and I felt compelled to
answer no, and determined then to bear patiently whatever might be
laid upon me, a poor, sinful woman. Thenceforth, my Lord, was your
image my consolation and, since the wood of which it was made came
from the tree planted by Hannele near the Fresh Spring, I owe beyond
doubt the better years that followed, and the joy of being with you in
Paradise, my Saviour, to the nuts which that condemned woman gave to
"Humbly she bowed her head again. The Son of God turned to St.
Peter, saying: 'Well, Peter?'
"The latter called to the guardians of Hell: 'Let her go free, the
gates of Heaven are open to her. How rich and manifold, O Lord! is
the fruit that springs from the smallest gift offered in true love!'
"'You are right,' answered the Saviour, gently, and turned away."
The colonel had talked for a longer time than was allowed him by
his doctor, and he needed rest. When he appeared again at supper
time, in order to help us eat our Christmas carps, he found little
Hermy standing with Karl and Kurt before the fire, and he noticed how
his favourite's eyes rested with pleasure on the nuts which he had
bought for his grandmother; and how the older boys, who were only too
prone to tease their younger brother, treated him with a certain
tenderness, as if they had something to make up for.
At table we overheard Kurt say to Karl: "Little Hermy's present for
grandmother was not a bad idea," to which Karl answered quickly: "I am
going to put away some of my nuts to-morrow, and plant them in the
"To make a pair of crutches for me, or in order that you may go to
Heaven?" asked the colonel.
The boy blushed, and could find no answer; but I came to his
rescue, and replied: "No, his trees shall remind us of you, Colonel,
and of your stories. When we give, we will, in remembrance of you,
give in all love and willingness, and when we receive, even the
smallest gift, we will only ask in what spirit it was offered."