By Hans Christian Andersen (1866)
You remember Ole the watchman in the tower ! I have told of two visits to him, now I shall tell about a third one, but that is not the last.
It is usually at New Year time that I go up to him ; now on the contrary it was on removing-day, for then it is not very pleasant down in the streets of the town ; they are so heaped-up with sweepings and rubbish of all kinds, not to speak of cast-out bed-straw, which one must wade through. I came by just now, and saw that in this great collection of rubbish several children were playing ; they played at going to bed ; it was so inviting for this game, they thought ; they snuggled down in the straw, and pulled an old ragged piece of wallpaper over them for a coverlet. ‘ It was so lovely ! ‘ they said ; it was too much for me, and so I had to run off up to Ole.
‘ It is removing-day ! ‘ said he, The streets and lanes serve as an ash-box, an enormous ash-box. A cart-load is enough for me. I can get something out of that, and I did get something shortly after Christmas. I came down into the street, which was raw, wet, dirty, and enough to give one a cold. The dustman stopped with his cart, which was full, a kind of sample of the streets of Copenhagen on a removing-day. In the back of the cart was a fir-tree, still quite green and with gold-tinsel on the branches ; it had been used for a Christmas-tree and was now thrown out into the street, and the dustman had stuck it up at the back of the heap. It was pleasant to look at, or something to weep over ; yes, one can say either, according to how one thinks about it, and I thought about it, and so did one and another of the things which lay in the cart, or they might have thought, which is about one and the same thing. A lady’s torn glove lay there ; what did it think about ? Shall I tell you ? It lay and pointed with the little finger at the fir-tree. ” That tree concerns me,” it thought ; ” I have also been at a party where there were chandeliers ! my real life was one ball-night ; a hand-clasp, and I split ! there my recollection stops ; I have nothing more to live for ! ” That is what the glove thought, or could have thought. ” How silly the fir-tree is ! ” said the potsherd. Broken crockery thinks everything foolish. ” If one is on the dust-cart,” they said, ” one should not put on airs and wear tinsel ! I know that I have been of use in this world, of more use than a green branch like that.” That was also an opinion such as many people may have ; but the fir-tree looked well, it was a little poetry on the pile of rubbish, and there is plenty of that about in the streets on removing-day ! The way got heavy and troublesome for me down there, and I became eager to come away, up into the tower again, and to stay up here : here I sit and look down with good humour.
‘ The good people down there play at changing houses ! they drag and toil with their belongings ; and the brownie sits in the tub and removes with them. House rubbish, family troubles, sorrows and afflictions remove from the old to the new dwelling, and so what do they and we get out of the whole ? Yes, it is already written down long ago in the good, old verse in the newspaper : ” Think of Death’s great removing-day ! ” It is a serious thought, but I suppose it is not unpleasant for you to hear about it.
Death is, and remains, the most trustworthy official, in spite of his many small occupations. Have you never thought over this ?
‘Death is the omnibus conductor, he is the passportwriter, he puts his name to our character book, and he is the director of the great savings bank pf life. Can you understand it ? All the deeds of our earthly life, great and small, we put in the savings bank, and when Death comes with his removing-day omnibus, and we must go into it and drive to the land of eternity, then at the boundary he gives us our character-book as a passport. For pocketmoney on the journey he takes out of the savings bank one or other of the deeds we have done, the one that most shows our worth. That may be delightful, but it may also be terrible.
‘ No one has escaped yet from the omnibus drive. They certainly tell about one who was not allowed to go with it the shoemaker of Jerusalem, he had to run behind ; if he had got leave to come into the omnibus, then he would have escaped being a subject for the poets. Peep just once with your thoughts into the great omnibus of the removing-day ! It is a mixed company ! The king and the beggar sit side by side, the genius and the idiot ; they must set off, without goods or gold, only with their character-book and the savings bank pocket-money ; but which of one’s deeds will be brought forward and sent with one ? Perhaps a very little one, as small as a pea, but the pea can send out a blossoming plant.
The poor outcast, who sat on the low stool in the corner, and got blows and hard words, will perhaps get his worn-out stool with him as a token and a help. The stool becomes a sedan-chair to carry him into the land of eternity; it raises itself there to a throne, shining like gold, and flower ing like an arbour.
‘ One, who in this life always went about and tippled pleasure’s spicy drink to forget other mischief he had done, gets his wooden keg with him and must drink from it on the omnibus journey ; and the drink is pure and clear, so that the thoughts are cleared ; all good and noble feelings are awakened, he sees and feels what he did not care to see before, or could not see, and so he has his punishment in himself, ” the gnawing worm, which dies not for ages and ages.” If there was written on the glass ” Oblivion “, there is written on the keg ” Remembrance “.
‘ If I read a good book, an historical writing, I must always think of the person I read about as coming into Death’s omnibus at last ; I must think about which of his deeds Death took out of the savings bank for him, what pocketmoney he took into the land of eternity.
‘There was once a French king, I have forgotten his name ; the names of good things are forgotten sometimes, even by me, but they are sure to come back again. It was a king who in time of famine became his people’s benefactor, and the people raised a monument of snow to him, with this inscription : ” Quicker than this melts, you helped ! ” I can imagine, that Death gave him, in allusion to this monument, a single snow-flake which never melts, and that it flew like a white snow-bird over his royal head into the land of immortality.
There was also Louis the Eleventh ; yes, I remember his name, one always remembers bad things well. A trait of him comes often into my mind ; I wish that one could say the story was untrue. He ordered his constable to be beheaded ; he could do that, whether it was just or unjust ; but the constable’s innocent children, the one eight years old, the other seven, he ordered to be stationed at the place of execution and to be sprinkled with their father’s blood ; then to be taken to the Bastille and put in an iron cage, where they did not even get a blanket to cover them ; and King Louis sent the executioners to them every week and had a tooth pulled from each of them, so that they should not have too good a time ; and the eldest said : ” My mother would die of sorrow, if she knew that my little brother suffered so much ; pull out two of my teeth, and let him go free ! ” The tears came to the executioner’s eyes at that, but the King’s will was stronger than the tears, and every week two children’s teeth were brought to the king on a silver salver ; he had demanded them, and he got them. These two teeth, I imagine, Death took out of life’s savings bank for King Louis XI, and gave him them to take with him on his journey into the great land of immortality ; they fly, like two flames of fire, before him ; they shine, they burn, they pinch him, these innocent children’s teeth.
Yes, it is a serious journey, the omnibus drive on the great removingday; and when will it come ?
‘ That is the serious thing about it, that any day, any hour, any minute, one may expect the omnibus. Which of our deeds will Death take out of the savings bank and give to us ? Let us think about it ; that removing-day is not to be found in the Almanac.’