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- The Making of an American - 4/49 -
relaxed that the difference was hardly to be noticed. Theirs was a real neighborliness that roamed unrestrained and without prejudice until brought up with a round turn at the barrier of traditional orthodoxy. I remember well one instance of that kind. There lived in our town a single family of Jews, well-to-do tradespeople, gentle and good, and socially popular. There lived also a Gentile woman of wealth, a mother in the strictly Lutheran Israel, who fed and clothed the poor and did no end of good. She was a very pious woman. It so happened that the Jewess and the Christian were old friends. But one day they strayed upon dangerous ground. The Jewess saw it and tried to turn the conversation from the forbidden topic.
"Well, dear friend," she said, soothingly, "some day, when we meet in heaven, we shall all know better."
The barrier was reached. Her friend fairly bristled as she made reply:
"What! Our heaven? No, indeed! We may be good friends here, Mrs----, but there--really, you will have to excuse me."
[Illustration: A Cobblestone paved Alley]
Narrow streams are apt to run deep. An incident which I set down in justice to the uncompromising orthodoxy of that day, made a strong impression on me. The two concerned in it were my uncle, a generous, bright, even a brilliant man, but with no great bump of reverence, and the deacon in the village church where they lived. He was the exact opposite of my uncle: hard, unlovely, but deeply religious. The two were neighbors and quarrelled about their fence-line. For months they did not speak. On Sunday the deacon strode by on his way to church, and my uncle, who stayed home, improved the opportunity to point out of what stuff those Pharisees were made, much to his own edification. Easter week came. In Denmark it is, or was, custom to go to communion once a year, on Holy Thursday, if at no other season, and, I might add, rarely at any other. On Wednesday night, the deacon appeared, unbidden, at my uncle's door, craving an interview. If a spectre had suddenly walked in, I do not suppose he could have lost his wits more completely. He recovered them with an effort, and bidding his guest welcome, led him courteously to his office.
From that interview he came forth a changed man. Long years after I heard the full story of it from my uncle's own lips. It was simple enough. The deacon said that duty called him to the communion table on the morrow, and that he could not reconcile it with his conscience to go with hate toward his neighbor in his heart. Hence he had come to tell him that he might have the line as he claimed it. The spark struck fire. Then and there they made up and were warm friends, though agreeing in nothing, till they died. "The faith," said my uncle in telling of it, "that could work in that way upon such a nature, is not to be made light of." And he never did after that. He died a believing man.
It may be that it contributed something to the ordinarily democratic relations of the upper-class men and the tradespeople that the latter were generally well-to-do, while the officials mostly had a running fight of it with their incomes. My father's salary had to reach around to a family of fourteen, nay, fifteen, for he took his dead sister's child when a baby and brought her up with us, who were boys all but one. Father had charge of the Latin form, and this, with a sense of grim humor, caused him, I suppose, to check his children off with the Latin numerals, as it were. The sixth was baptized Sextus, the ninth Nonus, though they were not called so, and he was dissuaded from calling the twelfth Duodecimus only by the certainty that the other boys would miscall him "Dozen." How I escaped Tertius I don't know. Probably the scheme had not been thought of then. Poor father! Of the whole fourteen but one lived to realize his hopes of a professional career, only to die when he had just graduated from the medical school. My oldest brother went to sea; Sophus, the doctor, was the next; and I, when it came my time to study in earnest, refused flatly and declared my wish to learn the carpenter's trade. Not till thirty years after did I know how deep the wound was I struck my father then. He had set his heart upon my making a literary career, and though he was very far from lacking sympathy with the workingman--I rather think that he was the one link between the upper and lower strata in our town in that way, enjoying the most hearty respect of both--yet it was a sad disappointment to him. It was in 1893, when I saw him for the last time, that I found it out, by a chance remark he dropped when sitting with my first book, "How the Other Half Lives," in his hand, and also the sacrifice he had made of his own literary ambitions to eke out by hack editorial work on the local newspaper a living for his large family. As for me, I would have been repaid for the labor of writing a thousand books by witnessing the pride he took in mine. There was at last a man of letters in the family, though he came by a road not down on the official map.
Crying over spilt milk was not my father's fashion, however. If I was to be a carpenter, there was a good one in town, to whom I was forthwith apprenticed for a year. During that time, incidentally, I might make up my mind, upon the evidence of my reduced standing, that school was, after all, to be preferred. And thus it was that I came to be a working boy helping build her proud father's factory at the time I fell head over heels in love with sweet Elizabeth. Certainly I had taken no easy road to the winning of my way and my bride; so reasoned the town, which presently took note of my infatuation. But, then, it laughed, there was time enough. I was fifteen and she was not thirteen. There was time enough, oh, yes! Only I did not think so. My courtship proceeded at a tumultuous pace, which first made the town laugh, then put it out of patience and made some staid matrons express the desire to box my ears soundly. It must be owned that if courting were generally done on the plan I adopted, there would be little peace and less safety all around. When she came playing among the lumber where we were working, as she naturally would, danger dogged my steps. I carry a scar on the shin-bone made with an adze I should have been minding when I was looking after her. The forefinger on my left hand has a stiff joint. I cut that off with an axe when she was dancing on a beam close by. Though it was put on again by a clever surgeon and kept on, I have never had the use of it since. But what did a finger matter, or ten, when she was only there! Once I fell off the roof when I must crane my neck to see her go around the corner. But I hardly took note of those things, except to enlist her sympathy by posing as a wounded hero with my arm in a sling at the dancing-school which I had joined on purpose to dance with her. I was the biggest boy there, and therefore first to choose a partner, and I remember even now the snickering of the school when I went right over and took Elizabeth. She flushed angrily, but I didn't care. That was what I was there for, and I had her now. I didn't let her go again, either, though the teacher delicately hinted that we were not a good match. She was the best dancer in the school, and I was the worst. Not a good match, hey! That was as much as she knew about it.
It was at the ball that closed the dancing-school that I excited the strong desire of the matrons to box my ears by ordering Elizabeth's father off the floor when he tried to join in before midnight, the time set for the elders to take charge. I was floor committee, but how I could do such a thing passes my understanding, except on the principle laid down by Mr. Dooley that when a man is in love he is looking for fight all around. I must have been, for they had to hold me back by main strength from running away to the army that was fighting a losing fight with two Great Powers that winter. Though I was far under age, I was a big boy, and might have passed; but the hasty retreat of our brave little band before overwhelming odds settled it. With the echoes of the scandal caused by the ball episode still ringing, I went off to Copenhagen to serve out my apprenticeship there with a great builder whose name I saw among the dead in the paper only the other day. He was ever a good friend to me.
[Illustration: My Childhood's Home]
The third day after I reached the capital, which happened to be my birthday, I had appointed a meeting with my student brother at the art exhibition in the palace of Charlottenborg. I found two stairways running up from the main entrance, and was debating in my mind which to take, when a handsome gentleman in a blue overcoat asked, with a slight foreign accent, if he could help me. I told him my trouble, and we went up together.
We walked slowly and carried on quite an animated conversation; that is to say, I did. His part of it was confined mostly to questions, which I was no way loth to answer. I told him about myself and my plans; about the old school, and about my father, whom I took it for granted he knew; for was he not the oldest teacher in the school, and the wisest, as all Ribe could testify? He listened to it all with a curious little smile, and nodded in a very pleasant and sympathetic way which I liked to see. I told him so, and that I liked the people of Copenhagen well; they seemed so kind to a stranger, and he put his hand on my arm and patted it in a friendly manner that was altogether nice. So we arrived together at the door where the red lackey stood.
He bowed very deep as we entered, and I bowed back, and told my friend that there was an example of it; for I had never seen the man before. At which he laughed outright, and, pointing to a door, said I would find my brother in there, and bade me good-by. He was gone before I could shake hands with him; but just then my brother came up, and I forgot about him in my admiration of the pictures.
We were resting in one of the rooms an hour later, and I was going over the events of the day, telling all about the kind stranger, when in he came, and nodded, smiling at me.
"There he is," I cried, and nodded too. To my surprise, Sophus got up with a start and salaamed in haste.
"Good gracious!" he said, when the stranger was gone. "You don't mean to say he was your guide? Why, that was the King, boy!"
I was never so astonished in my life and expect never to be again. I had only known kings from Hans Christian Andersen's story books, where they always went in coronation robes, with long train and pages, and with gold crowns on their heads. That a king could go around in a blue overcoat, like any other man, was a real shock to me that I didn't get over for a while. But when I got to know more of King Christian, I liked him all the better for it. You couldn't help that anyhow. His people call him "the good king" with cause. He is that.
Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, we boys loved him as a matter of course; for had he not told us all the beautiful stories that made the whole background of our lives? They do that yet with me, more than you would think. The little Christmas tree and the hare that made it weep by jumping over it because it was so small, belong to the things that come to stay with you always. I hear of people
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