Poultry Meg’s Family
By Hans Christian Andersen (1870)
Poultry Meg was the only human occupant in the handsome new house which was built for the fowls and ducks on the estate. It stood where the old baronial mansion had stood, with its tower, crow-step gable, moat, and drawbridge. Close by was a wilderness of trees and bushes ; the garden had been here and had stretched down to a big lake, which was now a bog. Rooks, crows, and jackdaws flew screaming and cawing over the old trees, a perfect swarm of birds. They did not seem to decrease, but rather to increase, although one shot amongst them.
One could hear them inside the poultry-house, where Poultry Meg sat with the ducklings running about over her wooden shoes. She knew every fowl, and every duck, from the time it crept out of the egg ; she was proud of her fowls and ducks, and proud of the splendid house which had been built for them.
Her own little room was clean and neat, that was the wish of the lady to whom the poultry-house belonged ; she often came there with distinguished guests and showed them the ‘ barracks of the hens and ducks ‘, as she called it.
Here was both a wardrobe and an easy-chair, and even a chest of drawers, and on it was a brightly polished brass plate on which was engraved the word ‘ Grubbe ‘, which was the name of the old, noble family who had lived here in the mansion. The brass plate was found when they were digging here, and the parish clerk had said that it had no other value except as an old relic. The clerk knew all about the place and the old time, for he had knowledge from books ; there were so many manuscripts in his table-drawer. He had great knowledge of the old times ; but the oldest of the crows knew more perhaps, and screamed about it in his own language, but it was crow-language, which the clerk did not understand, clever as he might be. The bog could steam after a warm summer day so that it seemed as if a lake lay behind the old trees, where the crows, rooks, and jackdaws flew ; so it had appeared when the Knight Grubbe had lived here, and the old manor-house stood with its thick, red walls. The dog’s chain used to reach quite past the gateway in those days ; through the tower, one went into a stone-paved passage which led to the rooms ; the windows were narrow and the panes small, even in the great hall, where the dancing took place, but in the time of the last Grubbe there was no dancing as far back as one could remember, and yet there lay there an old kettledrum which had served as part of the music. Here stood a curious carved cupboard, in which rare flower bulbs were kept, for Lady Grubbe was fond of gardening, and cultivated trees and plants ; her husband preferred riding out to shoot wolves and wild boars, and his little daughter Marie always went with him. When she was only five years old, she sat proudly on her horse, and looked round bravely with her big black eyes. It was her delight to hit out with her whip amongst the hounds ; her father would have preferred to see her hit out amongst the peasant boys who came to look at the company.
The peasant in the clay house close to the manor had a son called Sören, the same age as the little noble lady. He knew how to climb, and had always to go up and get the bird’s nests for her. The birds screamed as loud as they could scream, and one of the biggest of them cut him over the eye, so that the blood poured out. It was thought at first that the eye had been destroyed ; but it was very little damaged after all. Marie Grubbe called him her Sören that was a great favour, and it was a good thing for his father, poor John ; he had committed a fault one day, and was to be punished by riding the wooden horse. It stood in the yard, with four poles for legs, and a single narrow plank for a back ; on this John had to ride astride, and have some heavy bricks fastened to his legs, so that he might not sit too comfortably ; he made horrible grimaces, and Sören wept and implored little Marie to interfere ; immediately she ordered that Sören’s father should be taken down, and when they did not obey her she stamped on the stone pavement, and pulled her father’s coat sleeve till it was torn. She would have her way, and she got it, and Sören’s father was taken down.
The Lady Grubbe, who now came up, stroked her little daughter’s hair, and looked at her affectionately; Mario did not understand why. She would go to the hounds, and not with her mother, who went into the garden, down to the lake, where the white and yellow water-lilies bloomed, and the bulrushes nodded amongst the reeds. She looked at all this luxuriance and freshness. ‘ How pleasant ! ‘ said she. There stood in the garden a rare tree which she herself had planted ; it was called a copper-beech ‘, a kind of blackamoor amongst the other trees, so dark brown were the leaves ; it must have strong sunshine, otherwise in continual shade it would become green like the other trees and so lose its distinctive character. In the high chestnut-trees were many birds’ nests, as well as in the bushes and the grassy meadows. It seemed as if the birds knew that they were protected here, for here no one dared to fire a gun.
The little Marie came here with Sören ; he could climb, as we know, and he fetched both eggs and young downy birds. The birds flew about in terror and anguish, little ones and big ones ! Peewits from the field, rooks, crows, and jackdaws from the high trees, screamed and shrieked ; it was a shriek exactly the same as their descendants shriek in our own day.
What are you doing, children ? ‘ cried the gentle lady.’ This is ungodly work ! ‘
Sören stood ashamed, and even the high-born little girl looked a little abashed, but then she said, shortly and sulkily, My father lets me do it ! ‘
‘ Afar ! afar ! ‘ screamed the great blackbirds, and flew off, but they came again next day, for their home was here.
But the quiet, gentle lady did not stay long at home here ; our Lord called her to Himself, with Him she was more at home than in the mansion, and the church bells tolled solemnly when her body was carried to the church. Poor men’s eyes were wet, for she had been good to them.
When she was gone, no one cared for her plants, and the garden ran to waste.
Sir Grubbe was a hard man, they said, but his daughter, although she was so young, could manage him ; he had to laugh, and she got her way. She was now twelve years old, and strongly built ; she looked through and through people, with her big black eyes, rode her horse like a man, and shot her gun like a practised hunter.
One day there came great visitors to the neighbourhood, the very greatest, the young king and his half-brother and comrade Lord Ulrik Frederick Gyldenlöwe ; they wanted to hunt the wild boar there, and would stay some days at Sir Grubbe ’s castle.
Gyldenlöwe sat next Marie at table ; he took her round the neck and gave her a kiss, as if they had been relations, but she gave him a slap on the mouth and said that she could not bear him. At that there was great laughter, as if it was an amusing thing.
And it may have been amusing too, for five years after, when Marie had completed her seventeenth year, a messenger came with a letter ; Lord Gyldenlöwe proposed for the hand
of the noble lady ; that was something !
He is the grandest and most gallant gentleman in the kingdom ! ‘ said Sir Grubbe. ‘ That is not to be despised.’
‘ I don’t care much about him ! ‘ said Marie Grubbe, but she did not reject the grandest man in the country, who sat by the king’s side.
Silver plate, woollen and linen went with a ship to Copenhagen ; she travelled overland in ten days. The outfit had contrary winds, or no wind at all ; four months passed before it arrived, and when it did come Lady Gyldenlowe had departed.
I would rather lie on coarse sacking, than in his silken bed ! ‘ said she ; ‘I’d rather walk on my bare feet than drive with him in a carriage ! ‘
Late one evening in November, two women came riding into the town of Aarhus ; it was Lady Gyldenlöwe and her maid : they came from Veile, where they had arrived from Copenhagen by ship. They rode up to Sir Grubbe’s stone mansion. He was not delighted with the visit. She
got hard words, but she got a bedroom as well ; got nice food for breakfast, but not nice words, for the evil in her father was roused against her, and she was not accustomed to that. She was not of a gentle temper, and as one is spoken to, so one answers. She certainly did answer, and spoke with bitterness and hate about her husband, with whom she would not live ; she was too honourable for that.
So a year went past, but it did not pass pleasantly. There were evil words between father and daughter, and that there should never be. Evil words have evil fruit. What could be the end of this ?
‘We two cannot remain under the same roof,’ said the father one day. ‘ Go away from here to our old manorhouse, but rather bite your tongue out than set lies going ! ‘
So these two separated ; she went with her maid to the old manor-house, where she had been born and brought up, and where the gentle pious lady, her mother, lay in the church vault ; an old cowherd lived in the house, and that was the whole establishment. Cobwebs hung in the rooms, dark and heavy with dust ; in the garden everything was growing wild. Hops and other climbing plants twisted a net between the trees and bushes ; and hemlock and nettles grew larger and stronger. The copper beech was overgrown by the others and now stood in shade, its leaves were now as green as the other common trees, and its glory had departed. Rooks, crows, and daws flew in thick swarms over the high chestnut -trees, and there was a cawing and screaming, as if they had some important news to tell each other : now she is here again, the little one who had caused their eggs and their young ones to be stolen from them. The thief himself, who had fetched them, now climbed on a leafless tree, sat on the high mast, and got good blows from the rope’s end if he did not behave himself.
The clerk told all this in our own time ; he had collected it and put it together from books and manuscripts ; it lay with many more manuscripts in the table-drawer.
‘ Up and down is the way of the world ! ‘ said he, ‘ it is strange to hear ! ‘ And we shall hear how it went with Marie Grubbe, but we will not forget Poultry Meg, who sits in her grand hen-house in our time ; Marie Grubbe sat there in her time, but not with the same spirit as old Poultry Meg.
The winter passed, spring and summer passed, and then again came the stormy autumn-time, with the cold, wet sea-fogs. It was a lonely life, a wearisome life there in the old manor-house. So Marie Grubbe took her gun and went out on the moors, and shot hares and foxes, and whatever birds she came across. Out there she met oftener than once noble Sir Palle Dyre from Norrebaek, who was also wandering about with his gun and his dogs. He was big and strong, and boasted about it when they talked together. He could have dared to measure himself with the late Mr. Brockenhus of Egeskov, of whose strength there were still stories. Palle Dyre had, following his example, caused an iron chain with a hunting-horn to be hung at his gate, and when he rode home he caught the chain, and lifted himself with the horse from the ground, and blew the horn.
‘ Come yourself and see it, Dame Marie ! ‘ said he, ‘ there is fresh air blowing at Nörrebaek ! ‘
When she went to his house is not recorded, but on the candlesticks in Nörrebaek Church one can read that they were given by Palle Dyre and Marie Grubbe of Nörrebaek Castle.
Bodily strength had Palle Dyre : he drank like a sponge ; he was like a tub that could never be filled ; he snored like a whole pig-sty, and he looked red and bloated.
‘ He is piggish and rude ! ‘ said Dame Palle Dyre, Grubbe’s daughter. Soon she was tired of the life, but that did not make it any better. One day the table was laid, and the food was getting cold ; Palle Dyre was fox-hunting and the lady was not to be found. Palle Dyre came home at midnight, Dame Dyre came neither at midnight nor in the morning, she had turned her back on Nörrebaek had ridden away without greeting or farewell.
It was grey wet weather ; the wind blew cold, and a flock of black screaming birds flew over her, they were not so homeless as she.
First she went south, quite up to Germany ; a couple of gold rings with precious stones were turned into money ; then she went east, and then turned again to the west ; she had no goal before her eyes, and was angry with every one, even with the good God Himself, so wretched was her mind ; soon her whole body became wretched too, and she could scarcely put one foot before another. The peewit flew up from its tussock when she fell over it : the bird screamed as it always does, You thief ! You thief ! ‘ She had never stolen her neighbour’s goods, but birds’ eggs and young birds she had had brought to her when she was a little girl ; she thought of that now.
From where she lay she could see the sand-hills by the shore ; fishermen lived there, but she could not get so far, she was so ill. The great white sea-mews came flying above her and screamed as the rooks and crows screamed over the garden at home. The birds flew very near her, and at last she imagined that they were coal-black, but then it became night before her eyes. When she again opened her eyes she was being carried ; a big, strong fellow had taken her in his arms. She looked straight into his bearded face ; he had a scar over his eye, so that the eyebrow appeared to be divided in two. He carried her, miserable as she was, to the ship, where he got a rating from the captain for it.
The day following, the ship sailed ; Marie Grubbe was not put ashore, so she went with it. But she came back again, no doubt ? Yes, but when and where ?
The clerk could also tell about this, and it was not a story which he himself had put together. He had the whole strange story from a trustworthy old book ; we ourselves can take it out and read it.
The Danish historian, Ludwig Holberg, who has written so many useful books and the amusing comedies from which we can get to know his time and people, tells in his letters of Marie Grubbe, where and how he met her ; it is well worth hearing about, but we will not forget Poultry Meg, who sits so glad and comfortable in her grand hen-house.
The ship sailed away with Marie Grubbe ; it was there we left off.
Years and years went past.
The plague was raging in Copenhagen ; it was in the year 1711. The Queen of Denmark went away to her German home, the king quitted the capital, every one who could, hastened away. The students, even if they had board and lodging free, left the city. One of them, the last who still remained at the so-called Borch’s College, close by Regensen, also went away. It was two o’clock in the morning ; he came with his knapsack, which was filled more with books and manuscripts than with clothes. A damp, clammy mist hung over the town ; not a creature was to be seen in the whole street ; round about on the doors and gates crosses were marked to show that the plague was inside, or that the people were dead. No one was to be seen either in the broader, winding Butcher’s Row, as the street was called which led from the Round Tower to the King’s Castle. A big ammunition wagon rumbled past ; the driver swung his whip and the horses went off at a gallop, the wagon was full of dead bodies. The young student held his hand before his face, and smelt at some strong spirits which he had on a sponge in a brass box.
From a tavern in one of the streets came the sound of singing and unpleasant laughter, from people who drank the night through, to forget that the plague stood before the door and would have them to accompany him in the wagon with the other corpses. The student turned his steps towards the castle bridge, where one or two small ships lay ; one of them was weighing anchor to get away from the plague-stricken city.
‘ If God spares our lives and we get wind for it, we are going to Grönsund in Falster said the skipper, and asked the name of the student who wished to go with him.
‘ Ludwig Holberg,’ said the student, and the name sounded like any other name ; now the sound is one of the proudest names in Denmark ; at that time he was only a young, unknown student.
The ship glided past the castle. It was not yet clear morning when they came out into the open water. A light breeze came along, and the sails swelled, the young student set himself with his face to the wind, and fell asleep, and that was not quite the wisest thing to do. Already on the third morning the ship lay off Falster.
‘ Do you know any one in this place, with whom I could live cheaply ? ‘ Holberg asked the captain.
‘ I believe that you would do well to go to the ferrywoman in Borrehouse,’ said he. ‘If you want to be very polite, her name is Mother Sören Sörensen Möller ! yet it may happen that she will fly into a rage if you are too polite to her ! Her husband is in custody for a crime ; she herself manages the ferry-boat, she has fists of her own ! ‘
The student took his knapsack and went to the ferryhouse. The door was not locked, he lifted the latch, and went into a room with a brick-laid floor, where a bench with a big leather coverlet was the chief article of furniture. A white hen with chickens was fastened to the bench, and had upset the water-dish, and the water had run across the floor. No one was here, or in the next room, only a cradle with a child in it. The ferry-boat came back with only one person in it, whether man or w r oman was not easy to say. The person was wrapped in a great cloak, and wore a fur cap like a hood on the head. The boat lay to.
It was a woman who got out and came into the room. She looked very imposing when she straightened her back ; two proud eyes sat under the black eyebrows. It was Mother Sören, the ferry-woman ; rooks, crows, and daws would scream out another name which we know better.
She looked morose, and did not seem to care to talk, but so much was said and settled, that the student arranged for board and lodging for an indefinite time, whilst things were so bad in Copenhagen. One or other honest citizen from the neighbouring town came regularly out to the ferryhouse. Frank the cutler and Sivert the excise-man came there ; they drank a glass of ale and talked with the student. He was a clever young man, who knew his ‘ Practica ‘, as they called it ; he read Greek and Latin, and was well up in learned subjects.
‘ The less one knows, the less one is burdened with it,’ said Mother Sören.
‘ You have to work hard ! ‘ said Holberg, one day when she soaked her clothes in the sharp lye, and herself chopped the tree -roots for firewood.
‘ Thats my affair ! ‘ said she.
‘ Have you always from childhood been obliged to work and toil ? ‘
‘ You can see that in my hands ! ‘ said she, and showed him two small but strong, hard hands with bitten nails. You have learning and can read.’
At Christmas it began to snow heavily. The cold came on, the wind blew sharply, as if it had vitriol to wash people’s faces with. Mother Sören did not let that disturb her. She drew her cloak around her, and pulled her hood down over her head. It was dark in the house, early in the afternoon. She laid wood and turf on the fire, and set herself down to darn her stockings, there was no one else to do it. Towards evening she talked more to the student than was her custom. She spoke about her husband.
‘ He has by accident killed a skipper of Dragör, and for that he must work three years in irons. He is only a common sailor, and so the law must take its course.’
The law applies also to people of higher position,’ said Holberg.
‘ Do you think so ? ‘ said Mother Sören, and looked into the fire, but then she began again, ‘ Have you heard of Kai Lykke, who caused one of his churches to be pulled down, and when the priest thundered from the pulpit about it, he caused the priest to be laid in irons, appointed a court, and adjudged him to have forfeited his head, which was accordingly struck off ; that was not an accident, and yet Kai Lykke went free that time ! ‘
‘ He was in the right according to the times ! ‘ said Holberg, ‘ now we are past that ! ‘
‘ You can try to make fools believe that,’ said Mother Sören as she rose and went into the room where the child lay, eased it and laid it down again, and then arranged the student’s bed ; he had the leather covering, for he felt the cold more than she did, and yet he had been born in Norway.
On New Year’s morning it was a real bright sunshiny day ; the frost had been and still was so strong that the drifted snow lay frozen hard, so that one could walk upon it. The bells in the town rang for church, and the student Holberg took his woollen cloak about him and would go to the town.
Over the ferry-house the crows and rooks were flying with loud cries, one could scarcely hear the church bells for their noise. Mother Sören stood outside, filling a brass kettle with snow, which she was going to put on the fire to get drinking-water. She looked up to the swarm of birds, and had her own thoughts about it.
The student Holberg went to church ; on the way there and back he passed Sivert the tax-collector’s house, by the town gate ; there he was invited in for a glass of warm ale with syrup and ginger. The conversation turned on Mother Sören, but the tax-collector did not know much about her indeed, few people did. She did not belong to Falster, he said ; she had possessed a little property at one time ; her husband was a common sailor with a violent temper, who had murdered a skipper of Dragör. ‘ He beats his wife, and yet she takes his part.’
‘ I could not stand such treatment ! ‘ said the taxcollector’s wife. ‘ I am also come of better people ; my father was stocking-weaver to the Court ! ‘
Consequently you have married a Government official,’ said Holberg, and made a bow to her and the tax-collector.
It was Twelfth Night, the evening of the festival of the Three Kings. Mother Sören lighted for Holberg a three – king candle that is to say, a tallow-candle with three branches, which she herself had dipped.
‘ A candle for each man ! ‘ said Holberg.
Each man ? ‘ said the woman, and looked sharply at him.
‘ Each of the wise men from the east ! ‘ said Holberg.
‘ That way ! ‘ said she, and was silent for a long time. But on the evening of the Three Kings he learned more about her than he did before.
‘ You have an affectionate mind to your husband,’ said Holberg, ‘ and yet people say that he treats you badly.’
That is no one’s business but mine ! ‘ she answered. The blows could have done me good as a child ; now I get them for my sin’s sake ! I know what good he has done me,’ and she rose up. When I lay ill on the open heath, and no one cared to come in contact with me, except perhaps the crc ws and the rooks to peck at me, he carried me in his arms and got hard words for the catch he brought on board. I am not used to be ill, and so I recovered. Every one has his own way, Sören has his, and one should not judge a horse by the halter ! With him I have lived more comfortably than with the one they called the most gallant and noble of all the king’s subjects. I have been married to the Stadtholder Gyldenlöwe, the half-brother of the king ; later on I took Palle Dyre ! Right or wrong, each has his own way, and I have mine. That was a long story, but now you know it ! ‘ And she went out of the room.
It was Marie Grubbe ! so strange had been the rolling ball of her fortune. She did not live to see many more anniversaries of the festival of the Three Kings ; Holberg has recorded that she died in 1716, but he has not recorded, for he did not know it, that when Mother Sören, as she was called, lay a corpse in the ferry-house, a number of big blackbirds flew over the place. They did not scream, as if they knew that silence belonged to a burial. As soon as she was laid in the earth the birds disappeared, but the same evening over at the old manor in Jutland an enormous number of crows and rooks were seen ; they all screamed as loud as they could, as if they had something to announce, perhaps about him who as a little boy took their eggs and young ones, the farmer’s son who had to wear a garter of iron, and the noble lady who ended her life as a ferry- woman at Grönsund.
‘ Brave ! brave ! ‘ they screamed.
And the whole family screamed ‘ Brave ! brave ! ‘ when the old manor-house was pulled down. ‘ They strll cry, and there is no more to cry about ! ‘ said the clerk, when he told the story. ‘ The family is extinct, the house pulled down, and where it stood, now stands the grand hen-house with the gilded weathercock and with old Poultry Meg. She is so delighted with her charming dwelling ; if she had not come here, she would have been in the workhouse.’
The pigeons cooed over her, the turkeys gobbled round about her, and the ducks quacked.
‘ No one knew her ! ‘ they said. ‘ She has no relations. It is an act of grace that she is here. She has neither a, drake father nor a hen mother, and no descendants ! ‘
Still she had relations, although she did not know it, nor the clerk either, however much manuscript he had in the table -drawer, but one of the old crows knew about it, and told about it. From its mother and grandmother it had heard about Poultry Meg’s mother and her grandmother, whom we also know from the time she has a child and rode over the bridge looking about her proudly, as if the whole world and its birds’ nests belonged to her ; we saw her out on the heath by the sand-dunes, and last of all in the ferry-house. The grandchild, the last of the race, had come home again where the old house had stood, where the wild birds screamed, but she sat among the tame birds, known by them and known along with them. Poultry Meg had no more to wish for, she was glad to die, and old enough to die.
Grave ! grave ! ‘ screamed the crows.
And Poultry Meg got a good grave, which no one knew except the old crow, if he is not dead also.
And now we know the story of the old manor, the old race, and the whole of Poultry Meg’s family.