The Door-Key

The Door-Key

By Hans Christian Andersen (1872)

Every key has its story, and there are many keys ; the chamberlain’s key, the clock-key, St. Peter’s key ; we could tell about all the keys, but now we shall only tell about the chamberlain’s door-key.

It came into being at a locksmith’s, but it could well believe that it was at a blacksmith’s, it was hammered and filed so much. It was too big for the trousers pocket, so it had to be carried in the coat pocket. Here it lay for the most part in the dark, but it also had its appointed place on the wall, by the side of the chamberlain’s portrait from childhood’s days, in which he looked like a force-meat ball with a frill on.

They say that every person has in his character and conduct something of the constellation he was born under, the bull, the virgin, or the scorpion, as they are called in the almanac. The chamberlain’s wife named none of these, but said her husband was born under the ‘ sign of the wheelbarrow ‘, because he had always to be shoved forward.

His father pushed him into an office, his mother pushed him into marriage, and his wife pushed him up to be chamberlain, but she did not say so, she was an excellent discreet woman, who was silent in the right place, and talked and pushed in the right place.

Now he was up in years, ‘ well proportioned,’ as he said himself, a man with education, good humour, and a knowledge of keys as well, something which we shall understand better presently.

He was always in a good humour, every one thought much of him and liked to talk with him. If he went into the town, it was difficult to get him home again if mother was not with him to push him along. He must talk with every acquaintance he met. He had many acquaintances, and the result was bad for the dinner.

His wife watched from the window. ‘ Now he is coming ! ‘ said she to the servant, ‘ put on the pot ! Now he is stopping to talk to some one, so take off the pot, or the food will be cooked too much ! Now he is coming ! Yes, put the pot on again ! ‘ But he did not come for all that.

He would stand right under the window and nod up to her, but if an acquaintance came past, then he could not help it, he must say a word or two to him ; if another one came past while he talked with the first, he held the first one by the button-hole and seized the other one by the hand, whilst he shouted to another one who was passing.

It was a trial of patience for his wife. ‘ Chamberlain ! Chamberlain ! ‘ she shouted then. ‘ Yes, the man is born under the sign of the wheelbarrow, he cannot come away unless he is pushed ! ‘

He liked very much to go into the bookshops, to look at the books and papers. He gave the bookseller a little present, to be allowed to take the new books home to read that is to say, to have leave to cut the books up the long way, but not along the top, because then they could not be sold as new. He was a living journal of etiquette, knew everything about engagements, weddings, literary talk and town gossip ; he threw out mysterious allusions about knowing things which nobody knew. He got it from the door-key.

As young newly married people the chamberlain and his wife had lived on their own estate, and from that time they had the same door-key, but then they did not know its wonderful power they only got to know that later on.

It was in the time of Frederick VI. Copenhagen at that time had no gas ; it had oil lamps ; it had no Tivoli or Casino, no tramways and no railways. There were not many amusements compared to what there are now. On Sunday people went out of the town on an excursion to the churchyard, read the inscriptions on the graves, sat in the grass and ate and drank, or they went to Fredericksberg, where the band played before the castle, and many people watched the royal family rowing about on the little, narrow canals where the old king steered the boat, and he and the queen bowed to all the people without making any distinctions. Prosperous families came out there from the town and drank their evening tea. They could get hot water at a peasant’s little house, outside the garden, but they had to bring the other things with them.

The chamberlain’s family went there one sunny Sunday afternoon ; the servant went on first with the tea-basket, and a basket with eatables. ‘ Take the door-key ! ‘ said the wife, ‘ so that we can slip in ourselves when we come back ; you know they lock up at dusk, and the bell-wire was broken yesterday ! We shall be late in coming home ! After we leave Fredericksberg we shall go to the theatre to see the pantomime.’

And so they went to Fredericksberg, heard the music, saw the royal boat with the waving flag, saw the old king, and the white swans. After they had had a good tea, they hurried off, but did not come in time to the theatre.

The rope-dance was over and the stilt-dance was past and the pantomime begun : they were too late, as usual, and it was the chamberlain’s fault ; every minute he stood and talked to some acquaintance on the way ; in the theatre he also found good friends, and when the performance was over, he and his wife must necessarily go in with a family, to enjoy a glass of punch : it would only take about ten minutes, but they dragged on to an hour. They talked and talked.

Particularly entertaining was a Swedish Baron, or was he a German ? the chamberlain did not exactly remember, but on the contrary, the trick he taught him with the key he remembered for all time. It was extraordinarily interesting ! he could get the key to answer everything he asked it about, even the most secret things.

The chamberlain’s key was peculiarly fitted for this, it was heavy in the wards, and it must hang down. The Baron let the handle of the key rest on the first finger of his right hand. Loose and easy it hung there, every pulsebeat in the finger point could set it in motion, so that it turned, and if that did not happen, then the Baron knew how to make it turn as he wished without being noticed.

Every turning was a letter, from A, and as far down the alphabet as one wished. When the first letter was found, the key turned to the opposite side, and then one sought for the next letter, and so one got the whole word, then whole sentences ; the answer to the question. It was all fabrication, but always entertaining. That was also the chamberlain’s first idea, but he did not stick to it.

‘ Man ! Man ! ‘ shouted his wife. e The west gate is shut at twelve o’clock ! we will not get in, we have only a quarter of an hour.

They had to hurry themselves ; several people who wished to get into the town went quickly past them. As they approached the last guard-house, the clock struck twelve, and the gate banged to : many people stood shut out, and amongst them the chamberlain and his wife and the girl with the tea-basket. Some stood there in great terror, others in vexation : each took it in his own way. What was to be done ?

Fortunately, it had been settled lately that one of the town gates should not be locked, and through the guardhouse there, foot-passengers could slip into the town.

The way was not very short, but the weather was beautiful, the sky clear and starry, frogs croaked in ditch and pond. The party began to sing, one song after another, but the chamberlain neither sang nor looked at the stars, nor even at his own feet, so he fell all his length, along by the ditch ; one might have thought that he had been drinking too much, but it was not the punch, it was the key, which had gone to his head and was turning about there.

Finally they got to the guard-house, slipped over the bridge and into the town.

Now I am glad again,’ said the wife. ‘ Here is our door ! ‘

‘ But where is the door-key ? ‘ said the chamberlain. It was neither in the back pocket, nor the side pocket.

‘ Merciful God ! ‘ shouted his wife. ‘ Have you not got the key ? You have lost it with your key-tricks with the Baron. How can we get in now ? The bell -wire was broken yesterday, and the policeman has no key for the house. We are in despair ! ‘

The servant girl began to sob, the chamberlain was the only one who had any self-possession.

‘ We must break one of the chandler’s window-panes,’ said he ; ‘ get him up and then slip in.’

He broke one pane, he broke two. ‘ Petersen ! ‘ he shouted, and stuck his umbrella handle through the panes ; the cellar-man’s daughter inside screamed. The cellar-man threw open the shop door and shouted ‘ Police ! ‘ and before he had seen the chamberlain’s family, recognized and let them in ; the policeman whistled, and in the next street another policeman answered with a whistle. People ran to the windows. ‘Where is the fire ? Where is the disturbance ? ‘ they asked, and were still asking when the chamberlain was already in his room ; there he took his coat off, and in it lay the door-key not in the pocket, but in the lining ; it had slipped down through a hole, which should not have been in the pocket.

From that evening the door-key had a particularly great significance, not only when they went out in the evening, but when they sat at home, and the chamberlain showed his cleverness and let the key give answers to questions. He himself thought of the most likely answer, and so he let the key give it, till at last he believed in it himself ; but the apothecary a young man closely related to the chamberlain did not believe. The apothecary had a good critical head ; he had, from his schooldays, written criticisms on books and theatres, but without signing his name, that does so much. He was what one calls a wit, but did not believe in spirits, and least of all in key-spirits.

‘ Yes, I believe, I believe,’ said he, ‘ dear chamberlain, I believe in the door-key and all key-spirits, as firmly as I believe in the new science which is beginning to be known, table-turning and spirits in old and new furniture. Have you heard about it ? I have ! I have doubted, you know I am a sceptic, but I have become converted by reading in a quite trustworthy foreign paper, a terrible story. Can you imagine, chamberlain I give you the story as I have it. Two clever children had seen their parents waken the spirit in a big dining-table. The little ones were alone and would now try in the same way to rub life into an old bureau. The life came, the spirit awoke, but it would not tolerate the command of the children ; it raised itself, a crash sounded, it shot out its drawers and laid each of the children in a drawer and ran with them out of the open door, down the stair and into the street, along to the canal, into which it rushed and drowned both of them. The little ones were buried in Christian ground, but the bureau was brought into the council room, tried for child murder, and burnt alive in the market.

‘ I have read it ! ‘ said the apothecary, ‘ read it in a foreign paper, it is not something that I have invented myself. It is, the key take me, true ! now I swear a solemn oath ! ‘

The chamberlain thought that such a tale was too rude a jest. These two could never talk about the key, the apothecary was stupid on the subject of keys.

The chamberlain made progress in the knowledge of keys ; the key was his amusement and his hobby.

One evening the chamberlain was just about to go to bed he stood half undressed, and then he’ heard a knocking on the door out in the passage ; it was the cellar-man who came so late ; he also was half undressed, but he had, he said, suddenly got a thought which he was afraid he could not keep over the night.

‘ It is my daughter, Lotte-Lena, I must speak about. She is a pretty girl, and she is confirmed, and now I would like to see her well placed.’

‘ I am not yet a widower,’ said the chamberlain, and smiled, ‘ and I have no son I can offer her ! ‘

‘ You understand me, I suppose, Chamberlain said the cellar -man. ‘ She can play the piano, and sing ; you might be able to hear her up here in the house. You don’t know all that that girl can hit upon. She can imitate everybody in speaking and walking. She is made for comedy, and that is a good way for pretty girls of good family, they might be able to marry a count, but that is not the thought with me or Lotte-Lena. She can sing and she can play the piano ! so I went with her the other day up to the music school. She sang, but she has not the finest kind of voice for a woman ; she has not the canary -shriek in the highest notes which one demands in lady singers, and so they advised her against that career. Then, I thought, if she cannot be a singer, she can at any rate be an actress, which only requires speech. To-day I spoke to the instructor, as they call him. ” Has she education ? ” he asked. ” No,” said I, ” absolutely none ! ” ” Education is necessary for an artist ! ” said he. She can get that yet, I thought, and so I went home. She can go into a lending library and read what is there. But as I sat this evening, undressing, it occurred to me, why hire books when one can borrow them? The chamberlain is full up with books, let her read them ; that is education enough, and she can have that free ! ‘

‘ Lotte-Lena is a nice girl ! ‘ said the chamberlain, ‘ a pretty girl ! She shall have books for her education. But has she that which one calls ” go ” in her brain genius ? And has she, what is of as much importance luck ? ‘

‘ She has twice won a prize in the lottery,’ said the cellar-man, ‘ once she won a wardrobe, and once six pairs of sheets ; I call that luck, and she has that ! ‘

‘ I will ask the key ! ‘ said the chamberlain. And he placed the key upon his forefinger and on the cellar-man’s forefinger, let it turn itself and give letter by letter.

The key said, ‘ Victory and Fortune ! ‘ and so Lotte- Lena’s future was settled.

The chamberlain at once gave her two books to read : the play of ‘ Dyveke ‘ and Knigge’s ‘ Intercourse with People ‘. From that evening a kind of closer acquaintanceship between Lotte-Lena and the chamberlain’s family began. She came up into the family, and the chamberlain thought that she was an intelligent girl ; she believed in him and in the key. The chamberlain’s wife saw, in the boldness with which she every moment showed her great ignorance, something childish and innocent. The couple, each in their own way, thought much of her, and she of them.

‘ There is such a nice smell upstairs/ said Lotte-Lena. There was a smell, a scent of apples in the passage, where the wife had laid out a whole barrel of ‘ greystone apples. There was also an incense smell of roses and lavender through all the rooms.

‘ It is something lovely,’ said Lotte-Lena. Her eyes were delighted with the many lovely flowers, which the chamberlain’s wife always had here ; yes, even in winter the lilac and cherry branches flowered here. The leafless branches were cut off and put in water, and in the warm room they soon bore leaves and flowers.

‘ One might believe that the bare branches were dead, but, look ! how they rise up from the dead.’

‘ That has never occurred to me before,’ said Lotte-Lena. ‘ Nature is charming !

And the chamberlain let her see his ‘ Key-book ‘ where he had written the remarkable things the key had said, even about half of an apple cake which had disappeared from the cupboard just the evening when the servant girl had a visit from her sweetheart. The chamberlain asked his key, ‘ Who has eaten the apple cake the cat or the sweetheart ? ‘ and the door-key answered, ‘ The sweet- heart ! ‘ The chamberlain knew it before he asked, and the servant girl confessed : the cursed key knew everything.

‘ Yes, is it not remarkable ? ‘ said the chamberlain. ‘ The key ! the key ! and about Lotte-Lena it predicted ” Victory and Fortune ! ” We shall see that yet 1 answer for it ! ‘

‘ That is delightful,’ said Lotte-Lena.

The chamberlain’s wife was not so confident, but she did not express her doubt when her husband could hear it, but confided to Lotte-Lena that the chamberlain, when he was a young man, had been quite given up to the theatre. If any one at that time had pushed him, he would certainly have been trained as an actor, but the family pushed the other way. He insisted on going on the stage, and to get there he wrote a comedy.

‘ It is a great secret I confide to you, little Lotte-Lena. The comedy was not bad, it was accepted at the Royal Theatre and hissed off the stage, so that it has never been heard of since, and I am glad of it. I am his wife and know him. Now, you will go the same way ; I wish you everything good, but I don’t believe it will happen, I do not believe in the key ! ‘

Lotte-Lena believed in it; and the chamberlain agreed with her. Their hearts understood each other in all virtue and honour. The girl had several abilities which the chamberlain appreciated. Lotte-Lena knew how to make starch from potatoes, to make silk gloves from old silk stockings, and to cover her silk dancing-shoes, although she had had the means to buy everything new. She had what the chandler called ‘ money in the table-drawer, and bonds in the bank’. The chamberlain’s wife thought she would make a good wife for the apothecary, but she did not say so and did not let the key say it either. The apothecary was going to settle down soon, and have his own business in one of the nearest and biggest provincial towns.

Lotte-Lena constantly read the books she had borrowed from the chamberlain. She kept them for two years, but by that time she knew by heart all the parts of ‘ Dyveke ‘, but she only wished to appear in one of them, that of Dyveke herself, and not in the capital where there was so much jealousy, and where they would not have her. She would begin her artistic career (as the chamberlain called it) in one of the bigger provincial towns.

Now it was quite miraculous, that it was just the very same place where the young apothecary had settled himself as the town’s youngest, if not the only, apothecary.

The long-looked-for evening came when Lotte-Lena should make her first appearance and win victory and fortune, as the key had said. The chamberlain was not there, he was ill in bed and his wife nursed him ; he had to have warm bandages and camomile tea ; the bandages on the stomach and the tea in the stomach.

The couple were not present themselves at the performance of ‘ Dyveke ‘, but the apothecary was there and wrote a letter about it to his relative the chamberlain’s wife.

‘ If the chamberlain’s key had been in my pocket,’ he wrote, ‘ I would have taken it out and whistled in it ; she deserved that, and the door-key deserved it, which had so shamefully lied to her with its ” Victory and Fortune “.’

The chamberlain read the letter. The whole thing was malice, said he hatred of the key which vented itself on the innocent girl.

And as soon as he rose from his bed, and was himself again, he sent a short but venomous letter to the apothecary, who answered it as if he had not found anything but jest and good humour in the whole epistle.

He thanked him for that as for every future, benevolent contribution to the publication of the key’s incomparable worth and importance. Next, he confided to the chamberlain, that he, besides his work as apothecary, was writing a great key romance, in which all the characters were keys ; without exception, keys. ‘ The door-key ‘ was naturally the leading person, and the chamberlain’s door-key was the model for him, endowed with prophetic vision and divination.

All the other keys must revolve round it ; the old chamberlain’s key, which knew the splendour and festivities of the court ; the clock-key, little, fine, and elegant, costing threepence at the ironmonger’s ; the key of the pulpit, which reckons itself among the clergy, and has, by sitting through the night in the key-hole, seen ghosts. The dining-room, the wood-house and the wine-cellar keys all appear, curtsy, and revolve around the door-key. The sunbeams light it up like

silver ; the wind, the spirit of the universe, rushes in on it, so that it whistles. It is the key of all keys, it was the chamberlain’s door-key, now it is the key of the gate of Heaven, it is the Pope’s key, it is ‘ infallible ‘.

‘ Malice,’ said the chamberlain, ‘ colossal malice !

He and the apothecary did not see each’other again except at the funeral of the chamberlain’s wife.

She died first.

There was sorrow and regret in the house. Even the branches of cherry-tree, which had sent out fresh shoots and flowers, sorrowed and withered ; they stood forgotten, she cared for them no more.

The chamberlain and the apothecary followed her coffin, side by side, as the two nearest relations ; here was no time or inclination for wrangling.

Lotte-Lena sewed the mourning-band round the chamberlain’s hat. She was here in the house, come back long ago without victory and fortune in her artistic career. But it would come ; Lotte-Lena had a future. The key had said it, and the chamberlain had said it.

She came up to him. They talked of the dead, and they wept, Lotte-Lena was tender ; they talked of art, and Lotte-Lena was strong.

‘ The theatre life is charming ! ‘ said she, ‘ but there is so much quarrelling and jealousy ! I would rather go my own way. First myself, then art ! ‘

Knigge had spoken truly in his chapter about actors ; she saw that the key had not spoken truly, but she did not speak about that to the chamberlain ; she thought too much of him.

The door-key was his comfort and consolation all the year of mourning. He asked it questions and it gave answers. And when the year was ended, and he and Lotte- Lena sat together one evening, he asked the key,

‘ Shall I marry, and whom shall I marry ? ‘

There was no one to push him, he pushed the key, and it said ‘ Lotte-Lena ‘. So it was said, and Lotte-Lena became the chamberlain’s wife.

‘ Victory and Fortune ! ‘ These words had been said beforehand by the door-key.