By the Almshouse Window
By Has Christian Andersen (1855)
Near the grass-covered rampart which encircles Copenhagen lies a great red house with many windows ; in these grow balsams and plants of southernwood; the interior is sufficiently poverty-stricken ; and poor and old are the people who inhabit it. The building is the Vartu Almshouse.
Look ! at the window there leans an old maid : she plucks the withered leaf from the balsam, and looks at the grass-covered rampart, on which many children are playing. What is the old maid thinking of ? A whole lifedrama is unfolding itself before her mind.
‘ The poor little children, how happily they play ! What red cheeks and what angels’ eyes ! but they have no shoes nor stockings. They dance on the green rampart, just on the place where, according to the old story, the ground always sank in, many years ago, and where an innocent child had been lured by means of flowers and toys, into an open grave, which was afterwards built up while the child played and ate ; and from that moment the mound remained firm and fast, and was quickly covered with fine green turf. The little people who now play on that spot know nothing of the old tale, else would they fancy they heard the child crying deep below the earth, and the dew-drops on each blade of grass would be to them tears of woe. Nor do they know the story of the Danish King who, when the enemy lay outside, rode past here and took an oath that he would die here in his nest : then came women and men who poured boiling water down over the whiteclad foes, who, in the snow, were crawling up the outer side of the rampart.
‘ No ! the poor little ones are playing with light spirits. Play on, play on, thou little maiden ! Soon the years will come yes, those glorious years. The candidates for confirmation walk hand in hand : thou hast a white frock it has cost thy mother much labour, and yet it is only cut down for thee out of an old larger dress ! You will also wear a red shawl ; and what if it hang too far down ?
People will only see how large, how very large it is. You are thinking of your dress, and of the Giver of all good ; so glorious is it to wander on the green rampart.
‘ And the years roll by with many dark days, but you have your cheerful young spirit, and you have gained a friend, you know not how. You meet, oh, how often ! You walk together on the rampart in the fresh spring, when all the bells of the church steeples ring on the great Day of Intercession.
Scarcely have the violets come forth, but outside Rosenborg there is a tree bright with the first green buds. There you stop. Every year this tree sends forth fresh green shoots. Alas ! it is not so with the human heart ! Dark mists, more in number than those that cover the northern skies, cloud the human heart. Poor child thy friend’s bridal chamber is a black coffin, and thou becomest an old maid. From the almshouse window behind the balsams thou shalt look on the merry children at play and shalt see thy own history renewed.
And that is the life-drama that ‘passes before the old maid while she looks out upon the rampart, where the children with their red cheeks and bare shoeless feet are rejoicing merrily, like the other birds of Heaven.