What Old Johanna Told

What Old Johanna Told

By Hans Christian Andersen (1872)

The wind moans in the old willow tree !

It is as if one heard a song ; the wind sings it, the tree tells it. If you don’t understand it, then 1 ask Johanna in the almshouse ; she knows, she was born here in the district.

Years ago, when the highway still lay here, the tree was already big and remarkable. It stood where it yet stands, outside the tailor’s whitened framework house, close to the pool, which at that time was so big that the cattle were watered there, and there in the warm summer the little children ran about naked and splashed about in the water. Close up under the tree was a milestone ; it has fallen down now, and bramble branches grow over it.

On the other side of the rich squire’s farm the new high road was made, the old road became the field road, the pool a puddle, overgrown with duck-weed ; when a frog jumped down, the green was separated and one saw the black water ; round about it grew, and still grow, the buckbean and gold irises.

The tailor’s house became old and crooked, the roof a hot-bed for moss and house-leek ; the dove-cote fell in and the starlings built there, the swallows hung nest after nest on the gable of the house and under the roof, just as if it was a lucky dwelling-place. That was here at one time ; now it has become lonely and silent. Alone and weak-willed, ‘ Poor Rasmus ‘, as they called him, lived here ; he had been born here, he had played here, he had sprung over the fields and the hedges, splashed as a little child in the open pool, clambered up in the old tree.

It lifted its great branches with pomp and beauty, as it lifts them still, but the storm had already twisted the trunk a little, and time had given it a crack ; now wind and weather have laid earth in the crack, where grass and green things grow, yes, even a little rowan tree has planted itself there.

When the swallows came in the spring, they flew about the tree and the roof, they plastered and mended their old nests, but poor Rasmus let his nest stand and fall as it liked ; he neither mended nor propped it. ‘ What is the use ! ‘ was his adage, and it was also his father’s.

He remained in his home, the swallows flew away from it, but they came again, the faithful creatures. The starling flew away, but it came again and whistled its song ; once Rasmus knew how to whistle in competition with it ; now he neither whistled nor sang.

The wind moaned in the old willow tree it still moans, it is as if one heard a song ; the wind sings it, the tree tells it ; if you do not understand it, then ask old Johanna in the almshouse ; she knows, she is wise in old affairs, she is like a chronicle book, with legends and old memories.

When the house was new and good, the village tailor Ivar Olse moved into it with his wife Maren ; respectable, industrious people, both of them. Old Johanna was at that time a child, she was the daughter of the maker of wooden shoes, one of the poorest in the neighbourhood. Many a nice piece of bread and butter she got from Maren, who had no lack of food . Maren stood well with the squire ‘s wife ; she was always laughing and glad, she never allowed herself to be disheartened, she used her tongue, but also her hands ; she wielded her needle as well as her tongue, and looked after her house and her children ; there were eleven of them.

Poor people have always a nest full of young ones ! ‘ grumbled the squire ; ‘ if one could drown them like kittens, and only keep one or two of the strongest, there would be less misfortune ! ‘

‘ God bless me ! ‘ said the tailor’s wife, ‘ children are a blessing of God ; they are a joy in the house, each child is another Lord’s Prayer ! if things are straitened, and one has many mouths to feed, then one strives all the harder, finds ways and means in all respectability. Our Father does not let go, if we do not let go ! ‘

The squire’s lady gave her her countenance, bowed in a friendly way, and patted Maren on the cheek : she had done that many times, even kissed her, but that was when she was little, and Maren her nurse -maid. They had thought much of each other, and still did so.

Every year at Christmas, came winter supplies from the big house to the tailor’s house ; a barrel of meal, a pig, two geese, a stone of butter, cheese and apples. It was a help to the larder. Ivar Olse looked quite contented then, but soon came his old adage, ‘ What is the use ! ‘ Everything was clean and neat in the house, curtains at the windows, and flowers, both carnations and balsams. A sampler hung in a picture frame, and close beside it a composition in rhyme : Maren Olse herself had composed it ; she knew how rhymes ought to go. She was almost a little proud of the family name ‘ Olse ‘. It was the only word in the Danish language that rhymed with Poise ‘ (sausage). ‘ That is always something in which one is superior to other people,’ she said, and laughed. She always kept her good humour, and never said like her husband, ‘What is the use!’ Her adage was, ‘Hold to yourself and our Father ! ‘ She did that, and it kept everything together. The children throve, grew too big for the nest, went far, and behaved themselves well. Rasmus was the youngest ; he was such a lovely child, and one of the great artists in the town borrowed him for a model, and that as naked as when he came into this world. The picture hung now in the king’s palace, where the squire’s lady had seen it and recognized little Rasmus, although he had no clothes on.

But now bad times came. The tailor had pains, got rheumatism in both hands, great knots came into them, and no doctor could help him, not even the wise Stine who ‘ doctored ‘.

‘ One must not be disheartened ! ‘ said Maren. ‘ It is no use to hang the head ! now that we no longer have father’s two hands to help, I must see about using mine the quicker. Little Rasmus also can use the needle !

He already sat on the board, whistling and singing ; he was a happy boy.

The mother said that he must not sit there all day ; it was a sin against the child ; he must also run about and play.

The shoemaker’s little Johanna was his best playmate ; she belonged to still poorer people than Rasmus. She was not beautiful ; she was barelegged ; her clothes hung in tatters, she had no one to look after them, and it never occurred to her to do it herself ; she was a child, and as glad as a bird in our Lord’s sunshine.

Rasmus and Johanna played beside the milestone and the big willow tree.

He had high thoughts ; he meant to be a fine tailor some day and live in the town, where there were masters who had ten men on the board ; he had heard that from his father ; there he would be a man, and there he would be a master, and then Johanna could come and visit him, and if she knew how to cook, she could make the food for them all and have her own big room.

Johanna dared not really believe this, but Rasmus believed that it really would happen. So they sat under the old tree and the wind moaned in the leaves and the branches : it was as if the wind sang and the tree spoke.

In the autumn every single leaf fell and the rain dripped from the bare branches.

‘ They will grow green again !said Mother Olse.

‘ What is the use ! ‘ said the man. ‘ New year, new care for a living ! ‘

‘ The larder is full ! ‘ said the wife. ‘ We have to thank our good lady for that. I am healthy and have good strength. It is sinful of us to complain ! ‘

The squire’s family were at their country home for Christmas, but the week after the New Year they went to town, where they spent the winter in enjoying themselves : they went to balls and festivals with the king himself.

The lady had got two expensive dresses from France ; they were of such stuff, and such cut and sewing that the tailor’s Maren had never seen the like before. She asked the lady if she might come up to the house and bring her husband also, to see the dresses. Such things had never been seen by a country tailor.

He saw them and had never a word to say, before he came home, and what he said, was only what he always said, ‘ What is the use ! ‘ and this time his word was true.

The family went to town ; balls and parties had begun there, but in the midst of the enjoyment the squire died, and the lady could not wear the lovely dresses. She was so sorrowful, and dressed from head to foot in black mourning clothes ; not so much as a white strip was to be seen ; all the servants were in black, even the state coach was draped with fine black cloth.

It was a bitter, frosty night, the snow glittered and the stars shone. The heavy gun-carriage came from the town with the body to the private chapel, where it was to be placed in the family vault. The steward and the parish beadle sat on horseback with torches before the churchyard gate. The church was lighted up, and the priest stood in the open church door to receive the body! The coffin was carried up into the choir, and all the people followed it. The priest made a speech and a psalm was sung. The lady was in the church, she had driven there in the black-draped state carriage ; it was black inside and out, and the like had never been seen in the district before.

They talked the whole winter about the squire’s funeral.

‘ One saw there what this man signified ! ‘ said the country people. v He was nobly born and he was nobly buried ! ‘

‘ What is the use of that ! ‘ said the tailor. Now he has neither life nor property. We have still one of these ! ‘

‘ Don’t say such things ! ‘ said Maren, ‘ he has everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom ! ‘

‘ Who has told you that, Maren ? ‘ said the tailor. ‘ Dead men are good manure ! but this man was too superior to make profit to the earth, he must lie in a chapel vault ! ‘

‘ Don’t talk so unChristian-like ! ‘ said Maren. ‘ I tell you again, he has everlasting life ! ‘

‘ Who has told you that, Maren ? ‘ repeated the tailor. And Maren threw her apron over little Rasmus so that he might not hear the conversation. She carried him over to the turf -house and wept.

‘ The talk you heard over there, little Rasmus, was not your father’s ; it was the wicked one who went through the room, and took your father’s voice ! Say ” Our Father “. We will both say it ! ‘ She folded the child’s hands.

‘ Now I am glad again ! ‘ she said ; ‘ hold fast by yourself and our Father ! ‘

The year of mourning was ended, the widow was dressed in half -mourning, and she was quite light-hearted. There were rumours that she had a wooer and already thought of a second marriage. Maren knew something of it. and the priest knew a little more.

On Palm Sunday, after the service, the banns were published for the marriage of the widow and her betrothed. He was a sculptor, the name of his occupation was not well known ; at that time Thorwaldsen and his art were not yet in the mouths of the people. The new squire was not of noble birth, but yet a very splendid man ; he was one who was something no one understood, they said ; he carved statues, was clever in his work, young and goodlooking.

‘ What use is that ! ‘ said the tailor Olse.

On Palm Sunday the banns were published from the pulpit, and then followed psalm-singing and communion. The tailor, his wife, and little Rasmus were in the church ; the parents went to the communion, Rasmus sat in the pew he was not confirmed yet. There had been a lack of clothes lately in the tailor’s house. The old ones they had, had been turned again and again, sewed and patched ; now all three were in new clothes, but black, as if for a funeral ; they were dressed in the covering from the mourningcoach. The man had got a coat and trousers from it, Maren a high-necked dress, and Rasmus a whole suit to grow in till his confirmation. Both the inside and outside covering of the mourning-coach had been used. No one need know what it had been used for before, but people got to know it very quickly ; the wise woman Stine, and others just as wise, who did not live by their wisdom, said that the clothes would bring sickness into the house. ‘ One dares not dress oneself in the trappings of a hearse except to drive to the grave.’

The shoemaker’s Johanna wept when she heard that talk ; and when it happened that the tailor grew worse from day to day, it would assuredly appear who was to be the victim.

And it showed itself.

The first Sunday after Trinity, tailor Olse died, and now Maren was alone to keep the whole thing together ; she held to that, to herself, and to our Father.

The following year Rasmus was confirmed ; then he went to town as apprentice to a big tailor, not with twelve men on the board, but with one : little Rasmus could be counted as a half : he was glad and looked contented, but little Johanna wept ; she thought more of him than she herself knew. The tailor’s wife remained in the old house and carried on the business.

It was just at that time that the new high road was opened ; the old one, past the willow tree and the tailor’s house, became the field way, the ponql became overgrown, duck-weed covered the little pool of water that remained, the milestone fell down it had nothing to stand up for, but the tree held itself up, strong and beautiful ; the wind whistled in the leaves and branches. The swallows flew away, the starlings flew away, but they came again in the spring, and when they came back for the fourth time, Rasmus came back to his home. He had finished his apprenticeship, was a good-looking but slender young fellow ; now he would tie up his knapsack and go to see foreign lands ; his mind was bent on that. But his mother hung on to him ; home was best ! all the other children were scattered, he was the youngest, the house should be his. He could get plenty of work if he would stay in the district and be a travelling tailor, sew fourteen days at one farm, and fourteen days at another. That was also travelling. And Rasmus followed his mother’s advice. So he slept again under the roof of his birthplace, and sat again under the old willow tree, and heard it moan.

He was good-looking, and could whistle like a bird, and sing both new and old songs. He was in favour at all the big farms, particularly at Klaus Hansen’s, who was the second richest farmer in the district.

His daughter Elsie was like the loveliest flower, and she was always laughing ; there were people who were so ill-natured as to say that she only laughed to show her pretty teeth.

She was ready to laugh, and always in the humour to play pranks.

They fell in love with each other, but neither of them said it in so many words.

So he went about and became heavy-hearted ; he had more of his father’s than his mother’s disposition. The humour only came when Elsie came, then they both laughed, joked, and played tricks, but although there was good opportunity, he said never a word of his love. ‘ What is the use ! ‘ was his thought. ‘ Her parents look for riches for her, and that I have not got ; it were wisest to go away from here ! ‘ But he could not go away from the farm ; it was as if Elsie had bound him with a thread : he was like a trained bird for her, he sang and whistled for her pleasure and after her will.

Johanna, the shoemaker’s daughter, was servant on the farm there, engaged in menial work ; she drove the milk- cart out to the field, where she, with the other girls, milked the cows ; she had even to drive the manure when that was wanted. She never went up to the big room, and so did not see much of Rasmus or Elsie, but she heard that they were as good as engaged.

‘Rasmus comes into prosperity,’ said she, ‘I cannot grudge him that ! ‘ And her eyes became wet, although there was nothing to cry for.

It was market day in town. Klaus Hansen drove into it and Rasmus was with him ; he sat by the side of Elsie both going and coming. He was overwhelmed with love, but said never a word about it.

‘ He might say something to me about the thing ! ‘ thought the girl, and she was right. ‘ If he will not speak, then I will give him a fright ! ‘

And soon people were saying on the farm that the richest farmer in the neighbourhood had made love to Elsie, and so he had, but no one knew what answer she had given him.

Thoughts buzzed about in Rasmus’s head.

One evening Elsie put a gold ring on her finger and asked Rasmus what it meant.

‘ Engagement,’ said he.

‘ And with whom, do you think ? ‘ asked she.

‘ With the rich farmer,’ said he.

‘ You have hit it ! ‘ said she, nodded, and slipped away.

But he also slipped away, came home to his mother’s house like a madman, and packed his knapsack. Out into the wide world would he go ; his mother wept, but it was of no use. He cut himself a stick from the old willow, he whistled as if he were in a good humour, he was going out to see the grandeur of the world.

‘ It is a great trial for me ! ‘ said the mother. But for you it is, no doubt, the best thing to go away, and so I must just submit to it. Hold to yourself and our Lord, and so I will get you home glad and contented again ! ‘

He went by the new high road, and there he saw Johanna driving a load of manure. She had not noticed him, and he did not want her to see him, so he sat himself behind the hedge, and hid there and Johanna drove past.

Out into the world he went, and .no one knew where ; his mother thought he would come home again before the year was finished : ‘ He has now something new to see and to think about, but he will get back into the old folds again, which cannot be ironed out with any pressing-iron. He has a little too much of his father’s disposition. I would rather he had mine, the poor child ! but he will come home, he cannot give the old house and me the slip.’

The mother would wait a year and a day ; Elsie waited only a month, then she went secretly to the wise woman Stine, who could ‘ doctor ‘, read fortunes in cards and coffee, and knew more than her Lord’s Prayer. She knew also where Rasmus was. She could read that in the coffeegrounds. He was in a foreign town, but she could not read the name of it. There were in that town soldiers and pretty girls. He thought either of taking a musket or one of the girls.

Elsie could not bear to hear that. She would willingly give her savings to buy him off, but no one must know that she had done it.

And old Stine promised that he would come back ; she knew an art, a dangerous art for the person concerned, but it was the last resource. She would set the pot on to boil for him, and then he must come away from the place where he happened to be ; he must come home, where the pot boiled and his dearest one waited : months might pass before he came, but come he must, if there was life in him.

Without resting, night and day he must travel, over lake and mountain, be the weather mild or hard, however tired he was. He should come home, he must come home.

The moon was in the first quarter ; it must be so for the exercise of that art, said old Stine. It was stormy weather, the old willow tree cracked : Stine cut off a twig, and tied it into a knot, it would help to draw Rasmus home to his mother’s house. Moss and house -leek were taken from the roof of the house, put into the pot, which was set on the fire. Elsie must now tear a leaf out of a psalm-book ; she accidentally tore out the last one, the one with the list of misprints. c It will do quite as well ! ‘ said Stine, and threw it in the pot.

Many kinds of things must go into the gruel, which must boil and constantly boil until Rasmus came home. The black cock in Stine ‘s room must lose its red comb, it was put in the pot. Elsie’s thick gold ring must also go in, and she would never get it again, Stine told her beforehand.

Stine was so wise. Many things which we do not know the names of went into the pot ; it stood constantly on the fire, or on glowing embers, or hot ashes. Only she and Elsie knew about it.

The moon waxed and waned ; and always Elsie came and asked, Do you not see him coming ? ‘

‘ Much I know,’ said Stine, ‘ and much I see, but the length of the way for him I cannot see. Now he is over the first mountain ! now he is on the sea in bad weather ! The way is long through the great woods, he has blisters on his feet, he has fever in his body, but he must go on ! ‘

‘ No ! no ! ‘ said Elsie, ‘ I am sorry for him ! ‘

‘ He cannot be stopped now ! for if we do that he will drop dead on the highway ! ‘

A year and a day had gone. The moon shone round and big, the wind moaned in the old tree, a rainbow in the moonshine was seen in the sky.

‘That is the sign of confirmation!’ said Stine. ‘Now Rasmus is coming.’

But he came not.

‘ The waiting-time is long ! ‘ said Stine.

‘ Now I am tired of it ! ‘ said Elsie. She came less often to Stine and brought her no new gifts. Her heart became lighter, and one fine morning everybody in the neighbourhood knew that Elsie had said ‘Yes ‘ to the richest farmer.

She went to look at the farm and the fields, the cattle and the furniture. Everything was in good order, there was nothing to delay the wedding for.

It was held with great festivity for three days. There was dancing to flute and violin. Every one in the neighbourhood was invited. Mother Olse was there also ; and when the gaiety was at an end, and the guests had said ‘ Thanks ‘, and the musicians had gone, she went home with the remnants of the feast.

She had only fastened the door with a pin ; that was taken off, the door stood open, and. there stood Rasmus. He had come home, come at this hour. Lord, how he looked ! skin and bone only, pale and yellow was he !

Rasmus ! ‘ said the mother, ‘ is it you, I see ? How poorly you look ! but I am glad in my heart that I have you ! ‘

And she gave him of the good food she had brought home from the feast a piece of steak, and a wedding tart.

He had, in these last days, he said, thought often of his mother, his homestead, and the old willow tree. It was wonderful how often in his dreams he had seen the tree and the barelegged Johanna. Elsie he did not even name. He was ill and must go to bed ; but we do not believe that the pot was the cause of this, or that it had exercised any power over him ; only old Stine and Elsie believed that, but they spoke to no one about it.

Rasmus lay in a fever ; it was infectious, so no one sought the tailor’s house except Johanna, the shoemaker’s daughter. She wept to see how miserable Rasmus was.

The doctor wrote out a prescription for him ; he would not take the medicine, ‘ What is the use ? ‘ said he.

‘ Yes, then you will be yourself again,’ said the mother. ‘ Hold fast to yourself and our Lord ! If I could only see you put on flesh again, hear you whistle and sing, I would willingly lay down my life.’

And Rasmus got better of his illness, but his mother took it ; our Lord called her and not him.

It was lonely in the house, and it grew poorer. ‘ He is worn out,’ said the neighbours. ‘ Poor Rasmus’ A wild life had he led on his travels, that, and not the black pot which boiled, had sapped his strength and given him unrest in his body. His hair became thin and grey ; he did not care to do anything properly.

‘ What good can that do ? ‘ said he. He sought the public-house rather than the church.

One autumn evening, in wind and rain, he struggled along the dirty road from the public-house to his home : his mother had long ago been laid in her grave. The swallows and the starling had also gone, the faithful creatures ; Johanna the shoemaker’s daughter had not gone ; she overtook him on the way and accompanied him a little bit.

‘ Pull yourself together, Rasmus ! ‘

What good can that do ? ‘ said he.

‘ That is a bad motto you have ! ‘ said she. ‘ Remember our mother’s words : ” Hold to yourself and our Lord ! ” ou don’t do that, Rasmus ! that one ought, and that one shall. Never say ” What good can that do ? ” for then you pull up the root of all your actions.’

She accompanied him to the door of his house, and there she left him. He did not stay inside, but went and sat himself on part of the fallen milestone.

The wind moaned in the branches of the tree, it was like a song, it was like a talk. Rasmus answered it ; he talked aloud, but no one heard it, except the tree and the moaning wind.

‘ I am getting cold ! It is time to go to bed. Sleep ! sleep ! ‘

And he went, not towards the house but to the pool, where he stumbled and fell. The rain poured down, the wind was icy cold, but he did not notice it : but when the sun rose, and the crows flew over the pool, he wakened, half -dead. If he had laid his head where his feet lay, he would never have got up again, the green duck-weed would have been his shroud.

Later in the day Johanna came to the tailor’s house ; she was his help ; she got him taken to the hospital.

‘ We have known each other from childhood,’ said she ; ‘ your mother has given me both meat and drink, I can never repay her for it ! You will get your health again, you will be able to live yet.’

And our Lord willed it that he should live, but it was up and down with the health and the mind. The swallows and the starlings came and went and came again ; Rasmus became old before his time. Lonely he sat in the house, which became more and more dilapidated. He was poor, poorer now than Johanna.

‘ You have no faith,’ said she, ‘ and if we have not our Lord, what have we ? You should go to communion ! you have not been there since your confirmation.’

Well, what good can that do ? ‘ said he.

If you say that and believe it, so let it be ! Unwilling guests the Lord will not see at His Table. Think, however, of your mother and your childhood’s days ! You were at that time a good, God-fearing boy. May I read a psalm for you ? ‘

‘ What good can that do ? ‘ said he.

‘ It always comforts me,’ said she.

‘ Johanna, you have become one of the holy ones ! ‘ and he looked at her with heavy, tired eyes. And Johanna read the psalm, but not from the book she did not have one, she knew it by heart.

‘ Those were beautiful words,’ said he, ‘ but I could not quite follow. It is so heavy in my head ! ‘

Rasmus had become an old man, but Elsie was no longer young either, if we are to mention her ; Rasmus never did. She was a grandmother ; a little flippant girl was her grandchild, the little one played with the other children in the village. Rasmus came, leaning on his stick ; he stood still, looked at the children’s play, smiled to them, old times shone into his thoughts. Elsie’s grandchila pointed at him. ‘ Poor Rasmus ! ‘ she shouted ; the other children followed her example and shouted ‘ Poor Rasmus ! ‘ and followed the old man with shrieks.

It was a grey, heavy day, and several like it followed, but after grey and heavy days there comes a sunshiny one.

It was a lovely Whitsuntide, the church was decorated with green birch branches, there was the smell of the woods, and the sun shone over the church pews. The big altar candles were lighted, it was communion ; Johanna was amongst those kneeling there, but Rasmus was not amongst them. Just that morning our Lord had called him. With God are compassion and mercy.

Many years have passed since then ; the tailor’s house stands there still, but no one lives there, it may fall with the first storm. The pool is covered with reeds and buckbean. The wind moans in the old tree, it is as if one heard a song ; the wind sings it, the tree tells it ; if you don’t understand it, then ask old Johanna in the alinshouse.

She lives there, she sings her psalm, the one she sang for Rasmus ; she thinks of him, prays to our Lord for him, the faithful soul that she is. She can tell about the past times, the memories, which moan in the old tree.

When he found the old A-B-C Book had fallen open on the floor, he flapped his wings, flew out, and perched himself on a corner of the bookcase. There he preened himself with his beak and crowed loudly and long. Every single book in the case, all of which would stand day and night, as if in a trance when nobody was reading them, was roused by his trumpet call. Then the Cock spoke out loudly and clearly about the way the worthy old A-B-C Book had been insulted.

“Everything has to be new and different nowadays,” he said. “Everything has to be advanced. Children are so wise that they can read before they have even learned the alphabet. ‘They should have something new!’ said the man who wrote those new verses sprawling there on the floor. I know them all by heart; he admires them so much that I have heard him read them aloud more than ten times over. No, I prefer my own, the good old rhymes with Xanthus for X, and with the pictures that belong to them! I’ll fight for them and crow for them! Every book in the case here knows them very well. Now I’ll read aloud these new rhymes. I’ll try to read them patiently, and I know we’ll all agree they’re worthless.

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