By Hans Christian Andersen (1872)
The comet came, shone with its core of fire, and threatened with its rod ; they looked at it from the rich palace, and the poor cottage ; the crowd on the street looked at it, and the lonely one who went his way over the pathless heath ; every one had his thoughts about it.
‘ Come and look at the sign in the heavens ! come and look at the splendid sight,’ they said, and all hastened to look.
But in the room there sat a little boy with his mother ; the tallow candle was burning, and the mother thought that there was a shroud in the candle ; the tallow stood up in a point and curled over ; that meant, she believed, that the little boy must soon die, the shroud turned towards him. It was an old superstition, and she believed it.
The little boy was really destined to live many years on the earth, to live and see the comet, when it reappeared more than sixty years later.
He did not see the shroud in the candle, and had no thought for the comet, which for the first time in his life shone from the heavens. He sat with a mended slop-basin in front of him ; in it were some soap-suds, and he dipped the head of a clay-pipe down into it, put the stem in his mouth and blew soap-bubbles, great and small ; they swayed and floated with the most lovely colours, which changed from yellow to red, lilac and blue, and then became green, like the leaves of the forest when the sun shines through them.
‘ God grant thee as many years here on the earth as the bubbles thou blowest ! ‘
‘ So many, so many,’ said the little one, ‘ the soap-suds can never be all used up ! ‘ and the little one blew bubble after bubble.
‘ There flies a year ! there flies a year ! see how they fly ! ‘ said he, with every bubble which got free and flew off. One or two went right into his eyes ; they smarted and burned, and the tears came into his eyes. In every bubble he saw a vision of the future, shining and glittering.
‘ Now you can see the comet ! ‘ cried the neighbours. ‘ Come out ; don’t sit inside there ! ‘
And the mother took the little boy by the hand ; he was obliged to lay aside the clay -pipe, and stop playing with the soap-bubbles ; the comet was there.
And the little boy saw the shining ball of fire, with the radiant tail ; some people said that it was three yards long, others that it was millions of yards long ; people see so differently. ‘ Children and grandchildren may be dead before it appears again ! ‘ people said.
Most of those who said it were really dead and gone before it reappeared ; but the little boy for whom the shroud stood in the candle, and of whom the mother thought ‘ He will die soon ! ‘ still lived, old and white-haired. ‘ White hair is the flower of age ! ‘ the proverb says, and he had many of the flowers ; he was now an old schoolmaster.
The school-children said he was very wise, and knew so much ; knew history, and geography, and everything that is known about the heavenly bodies.
‘ Everything comes round again ! ‘ said he ; ‘ only take notice of people and events, and you will find that they always come again, in another dress, in another country.’
The schoolmaster had just told about William Tell, who had to shoot an apple off his son’s head, but before he shot the arrow, he hid in his breast another arrow with which to shoot the wicked Gesler in the heart. It was in Switzerland that that happened, but many years before, the same thing had happened in Denmark with Palnatoke ; he also had to shoot an apple off his son’s head, and hid, like Tell, an arrow to avenge himself with ; and more than a thousand years farther back, the same story was recorded as having taken place in Egypt. The same things come again like the comet, they pass away, disappear, and come again.
And he talked about the comet which was expected, the comet he had seen as a little boy. The schoolmaster knew the heavenly bodies, and thought over them, but did not forget history and geography because of them.
He had laid out his garden in the shape of the map of Denmark. The plants and flowers were arranged according as they grow best in the different parts of the country. ‘ Bring me some peas ! ‘ said he, and one went to the bed which represented Lolland. ‘ Fetch me some buck-wheat,’ and one went to Langeland. The lovely blue gentian and sweet-willow were to be found up in Skagen, the glistening holly over at Silkeborg. The towns themselves were marked with stone figures. Here stood St. Canute with the dragon, that signified Odense ; Absalon with a bishop’s staff signified Soro ; the little boat with the oars was the mark that here lay the town of Aarhus. From the schoolmaster’s garden, one could learn the map of Denmark very well ; but one must first be instructed by him, and that was so pleasant.
The comet was expected now, and he told what the people had said and thought about it, in the old days when it was here last. ‘The comet-year is a good wineyear,’ he said ; ‘ one can dilute the wine with water, and it will not be noticed. The wine -sellers should think much of the comet-year.’
The sky was full of clouds for fourteen days and nights. The eomet could not be seen, but it was there.
The old schoolmaster sat in his little room, close by the schoolroom. The grandfather’s clock, which had belonged to his parents, stood in the corner ; the heavy leaden weights neither rose nor fell, the pendulum did not move. The little cuckoo, which used to come forward to cuckoo the hour, had for several years sat silent behind closed doors : all was quiet and silent there, the clock went no more. But the old piano close by, which had also belonged to his parents, still had life, and the strings could sound, though certainly a little hoarse, the melodies of a whole generation. The old man remembered so many of them, both joyful and sorrowful, in the years from the time when he was a little boy and saw the comet, till now when it was here again.
He remembered what his mother said about the shroud in the candle, he remembered the lovely soap-bubbles he blew; every one was a year of life, he had said, how radiant, how rich in colour ! everything lovely and joyful he saw there ; childish games and youthful pleasure, the whole of the wide world open in the sunshine, and he should go out in it ! that was the bubble of the future. As an old man he heard melodies of the vanished times from the strings of the piano : the bubbles of remembrance with memory’s colour tints; there sounded Grandmother’s knitting song :
‘Twas certainly no Amazon
That knitted first a stocking.
There sounded the song which the old servant had
sung for him as a child :
There are so many dangers
Wherein the young may fall,
Who are of years but tender
And understanding small.
Now sounded the melodies from the first ball, a minuet and Polish dance ; now sounded soft, sorrowful tones, which brought tears into the eyes of the old man ; now rushed a battle-march, now a psalm tune, now gay tones, bubble on bubble, just as when he, as a little boy, blew them of soap-suds.
His eyes were fastened on the window, a cloud in the sky glided away and he saw in the clear air the comet, its shining heart, its bright misty veil.
It seemed as if he nad seen it yesterday evening, and yet there lay a whole lifetime between that time and now ; at that time he was a child, and saw the future in the bubbles, now the bubbles pointed backward ; he felt the childish mind and childish faith, his eyes shone, his hand sank down on the keys it sounded as if a string broke.
‘ Come and see, the comet is here,’ cried the neighbours, the sky is so beautifully clear ! come and see ! ‘
The old schoolmaster did not answer, he was gone to see in reality ; his soul had gone on a longer course, in a Wider space than the comet flies through. The comet was again seen from the rich castle, from the poor cottage, by the crowd in the street, and by the lonely one on the trackless heath. His soul was seen by God and by the dear ones who had gone before those he had longed for.