‘She was worthless’
The recorder stood by the open window; he was in his shirtsleeves, with a pin-brooch in his shirt frill and exceedingly well-shaven, his own handiwork; although he had happened to give himself a small nick, but a small piece of newspaper had been placed over it.
‘Hey, young’un!’ he called out.
And the young’un was nobody else than the washerwoman’s son, who was just passing and respectfully doffed his cap; it was cracked at the brim and designed to be stuffed into his pocket. in his poor though clean and well-patched clothes and his heavy clogs, the boy stood there respectfully, as if for the king himself.
‘You’re a good boy!’ the recorder said, you’re a well-behaved boy! your mother is probably rinsing clothes down by the river; you’ve been asked to go down there with what you have in your pocket. It’s a dreadful thing with your mother! how much have you got there?’
‘A gill!’ the boy said with a frightened, half-whispering voice. ‘And this morning she got the same!’ the man went on.
‘No, that was yesterday!’ the boy replied.
‘Two gills make half a pint! – She’s worthless! It’s a sad plight with that class of people! Tell your mother she ought to be ashamed! and never become a drunkard, though you probably will! – Poor child! – Off with you now!’
And the boy hurried off; he kept his cap in his hand, and the wind blew in his blond hair, so that it stuck up in long tufts. He went down the street, into the alley, down to the river where he mother was standing out in the water with the washing bench beating the heavy linen with a batlet. There was a strong current, for the sluices of the water mill were open, the sheet was being carried off by the current and it nearly tipped the bench over; the washerwoman had to hold on tight.
‘I’m almost sailing off!’ she said, ‘it’s a good thing that you’ve come, for I would do with a little help to hold on! it’s cold out here in the water; I’ve been standing here for six hours. Have you got anything for me?’
‘The boy took out the bottle, and his mother put it to her lips and took a swig.
‘Oh, that’s the ticket! It really warms you through and through! it’s just as good as a hot meal, and less expensive! Have a drink, my lad! You look so pale, you’ll freeze in those thin clothes of yours! after all it’s autumn. Ooh! the water’s cold! I only hope I don’t fall ill! but I won’t! give me a drop more and take one yourself, but only a small one, you mustn’t get used to it, my poor young child!’
And she went round the bridge where the boy was standing and came up onto dry land; the water was pouring off the rush mat she had round her waist, the water was streaming from her blouse.
‘I slave away till the blood almost spurts from the roots of my nails! but it’s all the same to me, just as long as I can make an honest man of you, my dear, sweet child!’
At that moment a rather elderly woman came along, poor in clothing and body, lame in one leg and with a huge false curl dangling over one eye, which was meant to be hidden by it, but this only made the defect even more obvious. It was a friend of the washerwoman, ‘Lame Maren with the Curl’ was what the neighbours called her.
‘You poor thing, how you slave away out there in the cold water! You need a little something to warm you up, but the stuff you take won’t do you any good!’ – and now almost all of the recorder’s remarks to the boy were passed on to the washerwoman, for Maren had heard everything, and it had annoyed her that he spoke in that way to the child about his own mother and about the drop of spirits she drank, when the recorder held large dinner parties with bottles and bottles of wine! ‘fine wines and strong wines! more than to quench many people’s thirst! but that they don’t call drinking! they’re worthy folk, but you’re worthless!’
‘That’s how he spoke to you, child, is it!’ the washerwoman said, and her lips quivered: ‘You’ve a mother who is worthless! perhaps he’s right! but he shouldn’t say so to a child! I have to put up with a great deal from that household!’
‘You’ve served at the house when the recorder’s parents were alive and lived there; that was many years ago! Many bushels of salt have been eaten since then, so one can well get thirsty!’ and Maren laughed. ‘There’s a large dinner party today at the recorder’s, it was to have been cancelled but they left it too late, and the food had been prepared. I have it from the servant. An hour ago a letter came to say that his younger brother had died in Copenhagen.’
‘Dead!’ the washerwoman exclaimed and turned as white as a sheet.
‘Aaah!’ the woman said; ‘don’t take it to heart so! oh yes, you knew them, from the time you served at the house.’
‘Is he dead! He was the best, the nicest person! Our Lord doesn’t get many the likes of him!’ and the tears coursed down her cheeks. ‘Oh God, my head’s spinning! that must be because I emptied the bottle! I can’t take it! I feel so ill!’ – and she supported herself by the woodwork.
‘Dear Lord, is that a nasty turn you’re having, dear!’ the woman said. ‘Try and get over it! – no, you’re really ill! I’d better get you home!’
‘But the washing!’
‘I’ll take care of it! Take hold of my arm! the boy can stay here and keep an eye on things till I come back and wash the rest – there’s hardly any left!’
And the washerwoman felt unsteady on her feet.
‘I’ve stood in the cold water too long! I’ve had nothing to eat or drink since early morning! I’m running a temperature! Oh, Lord Jesus! help me home! my poor child!’ – and she wept.
The boy wept and was soon left there alone by the river with the wet washing. The two women went off slowly, the washerwoman unsteadily, up the alley, along the street, past the recorder’s house, and right outside it she sank down on the cobbles. People gathered. Lame-Maren ran into the yard for help. The recorder with his guests looked out of the window.
‘It’s the washerwoman!’ he said, ‘she’s had a drop too much; she’s a good-for-nothing. It’s a pity for that handsome boy of hers. I feel an interest in the child. The mother’s worthless!
And she was brought round and led back to her poor home, where she was put to bed. A bowl of warm beer with butter and sugar was soon made by good-natured Maren, it was the medicine she most believed in, and then she went back to the rinsing place, rinsed very badly though well-meaningly, did little more than drag the wet washing ashore and put it in a laundry box.
That evening she sat in the humble room of the washerwoman. A couple of roasted potatoes and a nice juicy piece of pork she had got from the recorder’s kitchen maid for the sick woman, the boy and Maren also enjoyed some of it; the sick mother enjoyed the smell of it – it was so nourishing, she said.
And the boy went to bed, the very same one in which his mother lay, but he had his own place across the foot end, with an old carpet over him sewn out of blue and red strips of cloth.
And the washerwoman felt a little better, the warm beer had strengthened her, and the smell of the fine food had a positive effect.
‘Thank you, you kind soul!’ she said to Maren, ‘I’ll tell you everything when the boy’s asleep! I think he is already, yes, he is! how sweet and lovely he looks! with his eyes closed! he doesn’t know how his mother feels. May the Lord God save him from ever going through it! – I was in service with the counsellor, the recorder’s parents, as it so happened that the youngest of the sons came home, the student; back then I was young, wild and crazy, though good-natured, that I can say to God in person!’ the washerwoman said. – ‘The student was so cheerful, happy and wonderful! every drop of blood in him was upright and true! there has been no better person on this earth. He was the son of the house and I was only a maid, but we became sweethearts, though it was all above board! for kiss isn’t a sin if two are really fond of each other. And I told his mother this, he was like the Lord God to him here on earth! and so was so wise, kind and loving! – He went away, and placed a gold ring on my finger. Once he had left, my mistress called me in; she stood there, serious but oh so mild, spoke to me as our Lord would have been able to; she explained to me the distance in spirit and truth between him and me. ‘He now sees how pretty you are, but your looks will fade! You have not been educated as he has, you are not equals within the realm of the intellect, and that is where the misfortune lies. I respect the one who is poor, she said, with God that person may well gain a higher place than many who are rich, but one must not cross over onto a wrong track here on earth when driving forwards, otherwise the carriage will overturn – and you two will overturn! I know that a worthy man, a craftsman, has proposed to you, Erik Glovemaker, he is a widower, has no children, has done well, think about it!’ Every word she said, cut like knives through my heart, but the woman was right! and it wrung my heart and oppressed me! – I kissed her hand and cried my salt tears, and even more so when I had gone back to my room and lay down on my bed. A troubled night followed, the Lord knows how I suffered and fought. The next Sunday I went to the communion table to get to see things more clearly. And it was almost providence: as I left the church, I met Erik Glovemaker. Then there was no longer any doubt in my mind, we were well-suited in position and circumstance, in fact he was quite a wealthy man! and so I went straight up to him, took him hand and said: do you still have thoughts about me? – Yes, always and for ever! he said. – Will you have a young woman who respects and honours you but is not fond of you, although that may come! – It will come! he said, and we held hands. I went back to my mistress; the gold ring that her son had given me I wore at my breast, I could not put it on my finger during the daytime, only every evening when I lay in my bed. I kissed the ring, noticed that my mouth bled when I did so, and then I gave it to my mistress, and said that the following week the banns would be read from the pulpit for me and the glovemaker. Then my mistress took me in her arms and kissed me – she didn’t say I was worthless, but back then I was perhaps worth something, even though I had not yet experienced so much adverse fortune in life. And the wedding took place at Candlemas; and the first year went well, we had both a journeyman and an apprentice, and you, Maren, were in service with us.
‘Oh, you were a wonderful mistress!’ Maren said, ‘I will never forget how gentle you and your husband were!’
‘It was during the good years that you were with us! – We had no offspring then. – I never saw the student! – Well yes, I saw him, but he didn’t see me! he came home for his mother’s funeral. I saw him standing at the grave, he was so deathly pale and so sad, but that was because of his mother. When his father died later, he was abroad and did not come, nor has he ever done so since. He never married, I know that; - he was an attorney, I think! – he didn’t remember me, and if he has seen me, he would probably not have recognised me, since I am now so ugly. And that’s just as well!’
And she spoke of the heavy days of her trials and tribulations, how misfortunes almost crowded in on them. They had five hundred Thalers, and since a house in that street could be had for two hundred, and it would be profitable to have it pulled down and build a new one, the house was bought. The builder and carpenter came with an estimate, and the further cost would be a thousand and twenty. Erik Glovemaker had credit, he borrowed the money they needed from Copenhagen, but the ship of the skipper who was to come with it went down – and the money with it.
‘It was then that I gave birth to my wonderful boy, who lies asleep here. – His father fell ill, a long serious illness; I had to dress and undress him for nine months. Things went from bad to worse for us, we had to keep on borrowing money: all we owned was lost, and then father died, leaving us alone! – I have slaved away ever since for the child’s sake, washed steps and stairs, washed linen, coarse and fine, but I will never recover, God knows! but he will surely call me home and make provision for the boy!’
And then she fell asleep.
The next morning she felt stronger, strong enough, she thought, to go down to her work once more. She had just waded out into the fold water when a tremor seized her, she felt faint; she stretched her hands out desperately, took a step towards the bank and collapsed. She lay with her head on dry land but her feet out in the river, her clogs, which she had been standing in on the river bed – there was a wisp of straw in each of them – floated on the current; here she was found by Maren, who arrived with some coffee.
A messenger from the recorder had been to her house to say that she must come to him immediately, he had something to tell her. It was too late. A barber was fetched to let her blood; the washerwoman was dead.
‘She’s drunk herself to death!’ the recorder said.
In the letter that informed of the brother’s death stood the contents of his will, and among other things it stated that 600 Thalers were to be left to the glovemaker’s widow, who had formerly been in service for his parents. As was seen fit, the money, in larger or smaller amounts, was to be given her and her child.
‘There was some funny business between my brother and her!’ the recorder said, ‘a good thing that she’s out of the way; the boy will now get all of it, and I will get him placed with good, honest people – he can become a good craftsman!’ – and in those words Our Lord lay his blessing.
And the recorder called the boy to him, promised to take care of him, and said what a good thing it was that his mother was dead, she was worthless!
She was taken to the cemetery, the poor people’s cemetery. Maren planted a small rose bush on the grave, the boy stood beside her.
‘My dear, sweet mother!’ he said, and the tears flowed down his cheeks.
‘Is it true that she was worthless?’
‘Not at all!’ the old woman said and looked up at the sky. ‘I know this for sure from many years with her and from her last night. I assure you she was a most worthy person! and the Lord God in Heaven says the same, so just let the world say: she was worthless!’