The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Stratton)/The Story of a Mother
The Story of a Mother
Some one knocked at the door, and in came an old man, wrapped up in what looked like a horse-cloth, for that keeps one warm; and he stood in need of such covering, for it was a cold winter's day. Abroad everything lay covered with snow and ice, and the wind was so sharp that it cut one's face.
Seeing the old man shiver with cold, and as the little child had gone to sleep for a moment, the mother got up and placed a small pot of beer on the stove, to warm it for him. And the old man sat and rocked the cradle, while the mother sat on a chair beside him, and looked at her sick child, who was breathing so heavily, and took hold of its little hand.
THE MOTHER THEN WRUNG HER HANDS, WEPT, AND SANG.
"You think that I shall preserve him, do you not?" asked she. "An all-merciful God will surely not take him from me."
The old man—who was no other than Death—nodded his head so oddly, that it might just as well have stood for yes as no. And the mother cast down her eyes, while tears rolled down her cheeks. Her head felt so heavy, for she had never closed her eyes for three days and three nights, that she now fell asleep, but only for a minute, and then she got up and shivered with cold. "How is this?" asked she, looking all about her. But the old man was gone, and her little child was gone; he had evidently taken it with him. And the old clock in the corner began to rattle—the heavy leaden weights fell to the ground:—whirr! and the clock stood still.
But the poor mother rushed out of the house, calling after her child.
Outside in the snow sat a woman in long black clothes, who said: "Death has been into your room. I saw him hastening away with your little child. He strode faster than the wind: and he never brings back what he has taken."
"Only tell me which way he is gone," said the mother,—"tell me the way, and I'll find him."
"I know it," said the woman in black; "but before I tell you, you must first sing me all the songs you used to sing your child. I am fond of those songs. I have heard them before. I am Night; and I saw your tears flowing while you sang them."
I will sing them all—all," said the mother; "but don't detain me now, that I may overtake him, and get back my child."
But Night sat silent and still. The mother then wrung her hands, wept, and sang. There were many songs sung, but still more tears were shed. Then Night said: "Go to the right, in the gloomy forest of pines, it was thither I saw Death carrying the little child."
In the depths of the wood was a cross way, and she knew not which direction to take. There stood a bramble-bush, without either leaves or flowers, for it was cold winter, and icicles hung to the twigs.
"Have you not seen Death go past with my little child?"
"Yes," said the bramble-bush; "but I will not tell you which way he has taken, until you have warmed me on your bosom. I am freezing here to death, and turning to ice."
And she pressed the bramble-bush close to her breast, in order that it might thaw. And the thorns ran into her flesh, and her blood trickled down in large drops. But the bramble-bush put forth green leaves, and blossomed in the cold winter's night—for warm, indeed, is the heart of
AND SHE WEPT AND WEPT TILL HER EYES DISSOLVED INTO THE LAKE, AND BECAME TWO COSTLY PEARLS.
She then reached a large lake, where there was neither a ship nor a boat to be seen. The lake was not sufficiently frozen to bear her on its surface, nor yet shallow enough to be waded through—yet over it must she go to find her child. She then lay down to drink up the lake; but that was an impossible task for any mortal to perform. Nevertheless, the sorrowing mother thought that a miracle might perhaps take place.
"No, that will never do," said the lake; let us two rather agree upon a bargain. I love to collect pearls, and your eyes are the purest pearls I have ever seen. If you will cry them away, then will I take you to yonder large hot-house, where Death lives, and rears trees and flowers, every one of which is a mortal's life."
"What would I not give to find my child?" said the weeping mother. And she wept and wept till her eyes dissolved into the lake, and became two costly pearls. Then the lake raised her up as if she sat on a see-saw, and swung her over to the opposite shore, where stood a strange house a mile long. There was no saying whether it was a mountain covered with forests and caverns, or whether it was timbered. But the poor mother could not see, for she had cried her eyes away.
"Where shall I find Death, who took away my little child? " asked she.
"He has not yet arrived here," said a grey old woman, who took care of Death's hot-house. "How have you come hither, and who has helped you?"
"God has helped me," answered she. "He is compassionate; and do you be the same. Where shall I find my little child?"
"I do not know it," said the old woman, "and you can't see. Many flowers and trees withered to-night, and Death will soon come and transplant them. You know that every human being has his tree of life, or his flower of life, according as the case may be. They look like other plants, but their hearts beat. Children's hearts beat likewise. Therefore be guided by that, and perhaps you may recognise the beatings of your child's heart. But what will you give me if I tell you what more you must do?"
"I have nothing to give," said the afflicted mother; "but I would go to the world's end for you."
"I have no business there," said the old woman; "but you can give me your long black hair. You know yourself that it is beautiful, and it pleases me. You can take my white locks in exchange, and that would be something."
AND DEATH STRETCHED OUT HIS HAND TOWARDS THE LITTLE DELICATE FLOWER.
"Is that all you ask?" said she. "I will give it you with pleasure." And she gave her fine hair in exchange for the old woman's snow-white locks.
And they went into Death's large hot-house, where trees and flowers were growing promiscuously in a strange fashion. There were delicate hyacinths, under glass shades; and large peonies, as strong as trees. There were water-plants; some quite fresh, others half sickly from being entwined in the coils of water-snakes, while black crabs were hugging their stems. Then there were splendid palm-trees, oak, and plane-trees, besides parsley and thyme. Each tree and each flower had its name, and to each was attached the life of some human being, who might be living in China, in Greenland, or in any other part of the world, as it might happen. Some large trees were planted in little pots, so that they were stifled, and ready to shiver the pots to atoms; while many little weakly flowers were set in a rich soil, surrounded with moss, and nurtured with the utmost care. But the afflicted mother bent over the smallest plants, and could hear in each the beatings of a human heart; and she recognised the beatings of her child's heart amongst a million.
"There he is," cried she, stretching out her hand towards a little crocus, that drooped its sickly head on one side.
"Do not touch the flower," said the old woman. "But place yourself here, and when Death comes—and I expect him every minute—don't let him root up the plant, but threaten him to serve other flowers the same, and then he'll be uneasy! He must account for each to God, and none must be uprooted till leave be given him to do so."
A cold wind blew through the hot-house, and the blind mother felt it must be Death who had just arrived.
"How did you find your way hither?" asked he. "How could you come faster than I did?"
"I am a mother!" answered she.
And Death stretched out his hand towards the little delicate flower; but she held her hands fast around it, and clung to it so anxiously, yet so carefully withal, that not one of its leaves were injured. Then Death breathed on her hands, and she felt his breath to be colder than the biting wind, and her hands relaxed their hold.
"You cannot prevail against me," said Death.
"But a merciful God may," said she.
"I only obey His will," said Death. "I am His gardener. I take all His flowers and trees, and transplant them into the vast garden of paradise, in an unknown land. How they flourish there, and what that garden is like, I may not say."
"Give me back my child," said the mother, with tears and entreaties. And she seized hold of two pretty flowers, and said to Death: "I will tear up all your flowers, for I am in despair!"
"Do not touch them," said Death. "You say you are unhappy; and would you make another mother just as unhappy as yourself?"
"Another mother!" cried the poor woman, leaving hold of the flowers.
"There are your eyes," said Death. "I have fished them up out of the lake. They were so bright, that I knew they were yours. Take them back—they are now more brilliant than before—and then look into the deep well just by. I will speak the names of the two flowers that you wished to root up, when their whole future career shall lie displayed before you. And then you will see what you wanted to ruin and destroy in the bud."
And she then looked down into the well; and it was delightful to see how the existence of one of these flowers was a blessing to the world, and how much happiness it spread around; while the life of the other was full of care, anxiety, misery, and wretchedness.
"Both are the will of God," said Death.
"Which is the unhappy flower, and which is the blessed one?" said she.
"I may not tell you," answered Death: "but this much shall you learn from me: that one of these flowers was attached to your child's existence. It was the future fate that awaited your child that you beheld!"
The mother then uttered a scream of alarm.
"Which of them was my child's fate? Tell me. Deliver the innocent one! Deliver my child from so much misery! Rather take it away! Take it to the kingdom of God! Forget my tears and my entreaties, and all that I have done!"
"I do not understand you," said Death. "Do you wish to have your child back again, or shall I take him to that place which you do not know?"
The mother then wrung her hands, fell on her knees, and prayed to God: "Grant not my prayers when they are contrary to Thy will, which must always be the best! Oh! grant them not!" And her head drooped upon her bosom.
And Death carried her child to the unknown land.