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- The True Story of My Life - 2/31 -


great poverty, and dwelt with her feeble-minded husband in a little house, which was the last, poor remains of their property. I never saw her shed a tear. But it made all the deeper impression upon me when she quietly sighed, and told me about her own mother's mother, how she had been a rich, noble lady in the city of Cassel, and that she had married a "comedy-player," that was as she expressed it, and run away from parents and home, for all of which her posterity had now to do penance. I never can recollect that I heard her mention the family name of her grandmother; but her own maiden name was Nommesen. She was employed to take care of the garden belonging to a lunatic asylum, and every Sunday evening she brought us some flowers, which they gave her permission to take home with her. These flowers adorned my mother's cupboard; but still they were mine, and to me it was allowed to put them in the glass of water. How great was this pleasure! She brought them all to me; she loved me with her whole soul. I knew it, and I understood it.

She burned, twice in the year, the green rubbish of the garden; on such occasions she took me with her to the asylum, and I lay upon the great heaps of green leaves and pea-straw. I had many flowers to play with, and--which was a circumstance upon which I set great importance¨ I had here better food to eat than I could expect at home.

All such patients as were harmless were permitted to go freely about the court; they often came to us in the garden, and with curiosity and terror I listened to them and followed them about; nay, I even ventured so far as to go with the attendants to those who were raving mad. A long passage led to their cells. On one occasion, when the attendants were out of the way, I lay down upon the floor, and peeped through the crack of the door into one of these cells. I saw within a lady almost naked, lying on her straw bed; her hair hung down over her shoulders, and she sang with a very beautiful voice. All at once she sprang up, and threw herself against the door where I lay; the little valve through which she received her food burst open; she stared down upon me, and stretched out her long arm towards me. I screamed for terror--I felt the tips of her fingers touching my clothes--I was half dead when the attendant came; and even in later years that sight and that feeling remained within my soul.

Close beside the place where the leaves were burned, the poor old women had their spinning-room. I often went in there, and was very soon a favorite. When with these people, I found myself possessed of an eloquence which filled them with astonishment. I had accidentally heard about the internal mechanism of the human frame, of course without understanding anything about it; but all these mysteries were very captivating to me; and with chalk, therefore, I drew a quantity of flourishes on the door, which were to represent the intestines; and my description of the heart and the lungs made the deepest impression. I passed for a remarkably wise child, that would not live long; and they rewarded my eloquence by telling me tales in return; and thus a world as rich as that of the thousand and one nights was revealed to me. The stories told by these old ladies, and the insane figures which I saw around me in the asylum, operated in the meantime so powerfully upon me, that when it grew dark I scarcely dared to go out of the house. I was therefore permitted, generally at sunset, to lay me down in my parents' bed with its long flowered curtains, because the press-bed in which I slept could not conveniently be put down so early in the evening on account of the room it occupied in our small dwelling; and here, in the paternal bed, lay I in a waking dream, as if the actual world did not concern me. I was very much afraid of my weak-minded grandfather. Only once had he ever spoken to me, and then he had made use of the formal pronoun "you." He employed himself in cutting out of wood strange figures, men with beasts' heads, and beasts with wings; these he packed in a basket and carried them out into the country, where he was everywhere well received by the peasant women, because he gave to them and their children these strange toys. One day, when he was returning to Odense, I heard the boys in the street shouting after him; I hid myself behind a flight of steps in terror, for I knew that I was of his flesh and blood.

Every circumstance around me tended to excite my imagination. Odense itself, in those days in which there was not a single steamboat in existence, and when intercourse with other places was much more rare than now, was a totally different city to what it is in our day; a person might have fancied himself living hundreds of years ago, because so many customs prevailed then which belonged to an earlier age. The guilds walked in procession through the town with their harlequin before them with mace and bells; on Shrove Tuesday the butchers led the fattest ox through the streets adorned with garlands, whilst a boy in a white shirt and with great wings on his shoulders rode upon it; the sailors paraded through the city with music and all their flags flying, and then two of the boldest among them stood and wrestled upon a plank placed between two boats, and the one who was not thrown into the water was the victor.

That, however, which more particularly stamped itself upon my memory, and became refreshed by after often-repeated relations, was, the abode of the Spaniards in Funen in 1808. It is true that at that time I was but three years old; still I nevertheless perfectly remember the brown foreign men who made disturbances in the streets, and the cannon which were fired. I saw the people lying on straw in a half-tumbledown church, which was near the asylum. One day, a Spanish soldier took me in his arms and pressed a silver image, which he wore upon his breast, to my lips. I remember that my mother was angry at it, because, she said, there was something papistical about it; but the image, and the strange man, who danced me about, kissed me and wept, pleased me: certainly he had children at home in Spain. I saw one of his comrades led to execution; he had killed a Frenchman. Many years afterwards this little circumstance occasioned me to write my little poem, "The Soldier," which Chamisso translated into German, and which afterwards was included in the illustrated people's books of soldier-songs. [Footnote: This same little song, sent to me by the author, was translated by me and published in the 19th No. of Howitt's Journal.--M. H.] I very seldom played with other boys; even at school I took little interest in their games, but remained sitting within doors. At home I had playthings enough, which my father made for me. My greatest delight was in making clothes for my dolls, or in stretching out one of my mother's aprons between the wall and two sticks before a currant-bush which I had planted in the yard, and thus to gaze in between the sun- illumined leaves. I was a singularly dreamy child, and so constantly went about with my eyes shut, as at last to give the impression of having weak sight, although the sense of sight was especially cultivated by me.

Sometimes, during the harvest, my mother went into the field to glean. I accompanied her, and we went, like Ruth in the Bible, to glean in the rich fields of Boaz. One day we went to a place, the bailiff of which was well known for being a man of a rude and savage disposition. We saw him coming with a huge whip in his hand, and my mother and all the others ran away. I had wooden shoes on my bare feet, and in my haste I lost these, and then the thorns pricked me so that I could not run, and thus I was left behind and alone. The man came up and lifted his whip to strike me, when I looked him in the face and involuntarily exclaimed,--

"How dare you strike me, when God can see it?"

The strong, stern man looked at me, and at once became mild; he patted me on my cheeks, asked me my name, and gave me money.

When I brought this to my mother and showed it her, she said to the others, "He is a strange child, my Hans Christian; everybody is kind to him: this bad fellow even has given him money."

I grew up pious and superstitious. I had no idea of want or need; to be sure my parents had only sufficient to live from day to day, but I at least had plenty of every thing; an old woman altered my father's clothes for me. Now and then I went with my parents to the theatre, where the first representations which I saw were in German. "Das Donauweibchen" was the favorite piece of the whole city; there, however, I saw, for the first time, Holberg's Village Politicians treated as an opera.

The first impression which a theatre and the crowd assembled there made upon me was, at all events, no sign of any thing poetical slumbering in me; for my first exclamation on seeing so many people, was, "Now, if we only had as many casks of butter as there are people here, then I would eat lots of butter!" The theatre, however, soon became my favorite place, but, as I could only very seldom go there, I acquired the friendship of the man who carried out the playbills, and he gave me one every day. With this I seated myself in a corner and imagined an entire play, according to the name of the piece and the characters in it. That was my first, unconscious poetising.

My father's favorite reading was plays and stories, although he also read works of history and the Scriptures. He pondered in silent thought afterwards upon that which he had read, but my mother did not understand him when he talked with her about them, and therefore he grew more and more silent. One day, he closed the Bible with the words, "Christ was a man like us, but an extraordinary man!" These words horrified my mother, and she burst into tears. In my distress I prayed to God that he would forgive this fearful blasphemy in my father. "There is no other devil than that which we have in our own hearts," I heard my father say one day and I made myself miserable about him and his soul; I was therefore entirely of the opinion of my mother and the neighbours, when my father, one morning, found three scratches on his arm, probably occasioned by a nail, that the devil had been to visit him in the night, in order to prove to him that he really existed. My father's rambles in the wood became more frequent; he had no rest. The events of the war in Germany, which he read in the newspapers with eager curiosity, occupied him completely. Napoleon was his hero: his rise from obscurity was the most beautiful example to him. At that time Denmark was in league with France; nothing was talked of but war; my father entered the service as a soldier, in hope of returning home a lieutenant. My mother wept. The neighbours shrugged their shoulders, and said that it was folly to go out to be shot when there was no occasion for it.

The morning on which the corps were to march I heard my father singing and talking merrily, but his heart was deeply agitated; I observed that by the passionate manner in which he kissed me when he took his leave. I lay sick of the measles and alone in the room, when the drums beat and my mother accompanied my father, weeping, to the city gate. As soon as they were gone my old grandmother came in; she looked at me with her mild eyes and said, it would be a good thing if I died; but that God's will was always the best.

That was the first day of real sorrow which I remember.

The regiment advanced no farther than Holstein, peace was concluded, and the voluntary soldier returned to his work-stool. Everything fell into its old course. I played again with my dolls, acted comedies, and always in German, because I had only seen them in this language; but my German was a sort of gibberish which I made up, and in which there occurred only one real German word, and that was "_Besen_," a word which I had picked up out of the various dialects which my father brought home from Holstein.

"Thou hast indeed some benefit from my travels," said he in joke. "God knows whether thou wilt get as far; but that must be thy care. Think about it, Hans Christian!" But it was my mother's intention that as


The True Story of My Life - 2/31

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