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- The Nuts - 2/3 -

"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 child.

"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 you?'

"'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 Hannele's apron.'

"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 on earth....'

"'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.'

The Nuts - 2/3

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