Twelve by the Mail
By Hans Christian Andersen (1861)
It was bitterly cold ; the sky gleamed with stars, and not a breeze was stirring.
Bump ! an old pot was thrown at the neighbours’ house doors. Bang ! bang ! went the gun ; for they were welcoming the New Year. It was New Year’s Eve ! The church clock was striking twelve !
Tan-ta-ra-ra ! the mail came in. The great carriage stopped at the gate of the town. There were twelve persons in it ; all the places were taken.
‘ Hurrah ! hurrah ! ‘ sang the people in the houses of the town, for the New Year was being welcomed, and they had just risen with the filled glass in their hand, to drink success to the new year.
‘ Happy New Year ! ‘ was the cry. A pretty wife, plenty of money, and no sorrow or care ! ‘
This wish was passed round, and then glasses were clashed together till they rang again, and in front of the town gate the post-carriage stopped with the strange guests, the twelve travellers.
And who were these strangers ? Each of them had his passport and his luggage with him ; they even brought presents for me and for you and for all the people of the little town. Who are they ? What did they want ? and what did they bring with them ?
‘ Good morning ! ‘ they cried to the sentry at the town gate.
‘ Good morning ! ‘ replied the sentry, for the clock struck twelve.
‘ Your name and profession ? ‘ the sentry inquired of the one who alighted first from the carriage.
See yourself, in the passport,’ replied the man. ‘ I am myself ! ‘ And a capital fellow he looked, arrayed in a bear-skin and fur boots. ‘ I am the man on whom many persons fix their hopes. Come to me to-morrow, and I’ll give you a New Year’s present. I throw pence and dollars among the people, I even give balls, thirty-one balls ; but I cannot devote more than thirty-one nights to this. My ships are frozen in, but in my office it is warm and comfortable. I’m a merchant. My name is JANUARY, and I only carry accounts with me.’
Now the second alighted. He was a merry companion ; he was a theatre director, manager of the masque balls, and all the amusements one can imagine. His luggage consisted of a great tub.
‘ We’ll knock more than the cat out of the tub at the Shrovetide sports,’ said he. ‘ I’ll prepare a merry tune for you and for myself too. I have the shortest lifetime of my whole family, for I only become twenty-eight. Sometimes they pop me in an extra day, but I trouble myself very little about that. Hurrah ! ‘
‘ You must not shout so ! ‘ said the sentry.
‘ Certainly, I may shout ! ‘ retorted the man. ‘I’m Prince Carnival, travelling under the name of FEBRUARY ‘
The third now got out. He looked like Fasting itself, but carried his nose very high, for he was related to the ‘ Forty Knights ‘, and was a weather prophet. But that ‘s not a profitable office, and that ‘s why he praised fasting. In his buttonhole he had a little bunch of violets, but they were very small.
‘ MARCH ! MARCH ! ‘ the fourth called after him, and slapped him on the shoulder. ‘ Into the guard-room ; there is punch ! I can smell it.’
But it was not true ; he only wanted to make an APRIL fool of him ; for with that the fourth began his career in the town. He looked very jovial, did little work, but had the more holidays.
‘ Up and down it goes with one’s humour ! ‘ said he ; ‘ now rain, now sunshine. I am a kind of house and office-letting agent, also a manager of funerals. I can both laugh and cry, according to circumstances. Here in this box I have my summer wardrobe, but it would be very foolish to put it on. Here I am now ! On Sundays I go out walking in shoes and silk stockings, and with a muff ! ‘
After him, a lady came out of the carriage. She called herself Miss MAY. She wore a summer costume and overshoes, a light green dress, and anemones in her hair, and she was so scented with woodruff that the sentry had to sneeze.
‘ God bless you ! ‘ she said, and that was her salutation.
How pretty she was ! and she was a singer, not a theatre singer, but a singer of the woods, for she roamed through the gay green forest, and sang there for her own amusement.
‘ Now comes the young dame ! ‘ said those in the carriage.
And the young dame stepped out, delicate, proud, and pretty. It was easy to see that she was Mistress JUNE, accustomed to be served by drowsy marmots. She gave a great feast on the longest day of the year, that the guests might have time to partake of the many dishes at her table. She, indeed, kept her own carriage ; but still she travelled in the mail with the rest, because she wanted to show that she was not high-minded. But she was not without protection ; her elder brother JULY was with her.
He was a plump young fellow, clad in summer garments, and with a Panama hat. He had but little baggage with him, because it was cumbersome in the great heat ; therefore he had only swimming-drawers, and those are not much.
Then came the mother herself, Madam AUGUST, wholesale dealer in fruit, proprietress of a large number of fishponds, and land cultivator, in a great crinoline ; she was fat and hot, could use her hands well, and would herself carry out beer to the workmen in the fields.
‘ In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’ said she : ‘ that is written in the Book. Afterwards one can have dancing in the greenwood, and the harvest feasts ! ‘
She was a thorough housewife.
After her, a man came out of the coach, a painter, Mr. Master-colourer. The forest had to receive him ; the leaves were to change their colours, but how beautifully ! when he wished it ; soon the wood gleamed with red, yellow, and brown. The master whistled like the black magpie, was a quick workman, and wound the brown green hop plants round his beer-jug. That was an ornament for the jug, and he had a good idea of ornament. There he stood with his colour pot, and that was his whole luggage.
A landed proprietor followed him, one who cared for the ploughing and preparing of the land, and also for field sports. He brought his dog and his gun with him, and had nuts in his game-bag. ‘ Crack ! crack ! ‘ He had much baggage, even an English plough ; and he spoke of farming, but one could scarcely hear what he said, for the coughing and gasping of his neighbour.
It was NOVEMBER who came. He was very much plagued by a cold, a violent cold, so that he used a sheet and not a pocket-handkerchief, and yet, he said, he was obliged to accompany the servant girls to their new winter places. He said he should get rid of his cold when he went out wood-cutting, and had to saw and split wood, for he was master-sawyer to the firewood guild. He spent his evenings cutting the wooden soles for skates, for he knew, he said, that in a few weeks there would be occasion to use these amusing shoes.
At length appeared the last passenger, the old Mother with her fire-stool. The old lady was cold, but her eyes glistened like two bright stars. She carried a flower-pot with a little fir tree.
‘ This tree I will guard and cherish, that it may grow large by Christmas Eve, and may reach from the ground to the ceiling, and may rear itself upward with flaming candles, golden apples, and little carved figures. The firestool warms like a stove. I bring the story-book out of my pocket and read aloud, so that all the children in the room become quite quiet ; but the little figures on the trees become lively, and the little waxen angel on the top spreads out his wings of gold leaf, flies down from his green perch, and kisses great and small in the room, yes, even the poor children who stand outside, singing the carol about the Star of Bethlehem. ‘
‘ Well, now the coach may drive away ! ‘ said the sentry : ‘ we have the whole twelve. Let a new chaise drive up.’
‘First let all the twelve come in to me,’ said the captain on duty, e one after the other. The passports I will keep here. Each of them is available for a month ; when that has passed, I shall write their behaviour on each passport. Mr. January, have the goodness to come here.’
And Mr. January stepped forward.
When a year is passed I think I shall be able to tell you what the twelve have brought to me, and to you, and to all of us. Now I do not know it, and they don’t know it themselves, probably, for we live in strange times.