Ib and little Christine
Down by the Gudenaa river, inside Silkeborg Wood, a ridge called ‘The Divide’ rises up like a large embankment and beneath it on the west side there lay – well, there still lies – a small farmhouse with some poor land; the sand shines through the sparse fields of rye and barley. Quite some years have passed since then; the people who used to live there farmed on a small scale, and also had three sheep, one pig and two head of cattle; in short, they had enough to feed themselves, if they cut their coat according to their cloth – indeed, they could even have managed to keep a couple of horses, but they said exactly as the other farmers over there in Jutland: ‘A horse eats itself up!’ – it consumes as much as the good it does. Jeppe-Jens tended his small plot of land in the summer, and in the winter he was good at making clogs. He also had a farmhand who knew how to make clogs that were strong, light and stylish; they used to carve spoons and ladles; that gave a small income, so one couldn’t call Jeppe-Jens a pauper.
Little Ib, the seven-year-old boy, the only child in the house, used to sit and watch, and pare sticks with a knife, and sometimes he pared his fingers as well, but one day he had carved two pieces of wood that looked like small clogs. They were, he said, to be given to little Christine, who was the bargeman’s daughter, and she was as fine and pretty as a child of high rank; had the clothes she was wearing reflected her bearing, no one would ever have believed she came from the turf cottage on Seishede heath. Over there her father lived, a widower who earned his living from transporting firewood by barge from the wood down to the Silkeborg eel traps, and often on from there up to Randers. He had no one who could take care of little Christine, who was a year younger than Ib, and so she was nearly always with him on the barge or among the heather and the cowberry bushes; if he was going to travel all the way to Randers, then little Christine used to stay at Jeppe-Jens’ place.
Ib and little Christine got on well with each other, both when playing and eating; they rummaged and dug, they crept and walked, and one day just the two of them dared to climb to the top of the ridge and enter the wood – once they found snipe eggs there, that was really something.
Ib had not yet been over at Seishede, had never travelled by barge through the lakes along the Gudenaa, but now he was about to: he was invited by the bargeman, and the evening before the bargeman took him home with him.
Early the following morning, the two children sat on the heaped-up firewood in the barge eating bread and raspberries. The bargeman and his assistant poled their way along, following the current, moving swiftly downstream, through the lakes that seemed to close in when there was woodland or reeds, though there was always enough space to move past, even when the old trees leant far out and the oak trees stretched out peeled branches, as if they had rolled up their sleeves and wanted to show their gnarled, naked arms; old alders that the current had loosened from the bank, held on with their roots to the river bed, and looked like small wooded islands; water lilies rocked on the water; it was a delightful journey! – and then they came to the eel traps, where the water roared through the sluices – that was a fine sight to Ib and Christine!
Back then, there was neither a factory nor a town, here there only stood the old home farm where the number of livestock was not large; the falling of the water through the sluice and the quacking of the wild duck meant that there used to be constant liveliness there. – When the firewood had been unloaded, Christine’s father bought a large bundle of eels and a small slaughtered pig, which were placed in a basket together and stowed at the stern of the barge. Now they were to return against the current, but they had the wind behind them and when they raised their sail, it was just as good as having a couple of horses up front.
When the barge was so high up beneath the wood that they had reached the point where the man helping to pole the barge only had a short way home, he and Christine’s father went ashore, but told the children to keep still and be careful, but they were not able to do so for long, they had to take a look down into the basket where the eels and the pig were kept and had to lift the pig up and hold it, and when both of them wanted to hold it, it slipped through their fingers and fell straight into the water; there it drifted off with the current – that was a quite a disaster.
Ib leapt ashore and ran a short way, and then Christine came too: ‘take me with you!’ she cried, and soon they were in among the bushes and could no longer see the barge or the river; a little further on, Christine fell over and started to cry; Ib picked her up.
‘Come with me!’ he said. ‘The house is over there!’ but it didn’t lie where he thought. They walked and walked, over withered leaves and dry, fallen branches that crackled under their small feet; now they heard loud cries – they stood still and listened; now an eagle screeched, it was a horrible sound, the were quite frightened, but in front of them, inside the wood, there grew the loveliest blueberries, an incredible number of them; it was far too inviting not to stop, so they did and they ate until their mouths and cheeks had turned quite blue. One again there were loud cries.
‘We’ll be punished for that pig!’ Christine said.
‘Let’s go home to our place!’ Ib said; ‘it’s here in the wood!’ and they walked on; they came to a cart track, but it didn’t lead them home, it grew dark and they were scared. The strange silence around them was interrupted by horrible screeches from the large horned owl or sounds of birds they were unfamiliar with; finally both of them got caught in a bush, Christine cried and Ib cried, and when they had both cried for a while, they lay down in the leaves and fell asleep.
The sun was high in the sky when they woke up, they were very cold, but up on the high ground nearby the sun was shining down through the trees, there they could warm themselves and from there, Ib felt sure, they must be able to see his parents’ house; but they were a long way from it, in a completely different part of the wood. They crawled up to the top of the ridge and stood on a slope by a clear, transparent lake; the fish in it stood in shoals, lit up by the rays of the sun; what they saw there was so unexpected and close by was a bush laden with nuts, with no less than seven clusters; and they picked and cracked them and took out the fine kernels that had started to form – and then came another surprise, another scare. Out from the bush stepped a large, old woman whose face was so brown and hair so gleaming and black; the whites of her eyes shone as in the face of a blackamoor; she was carrying a bundle over her shoulder, and a knobbly stick in her hand – it was a gypsy traveller. The children couldn’t at first understand what she said; and she took three large nuts up from her pocket, inside each other them the loveliest things were hidden, she said, they were wishing nuts.
Ib looked at her, she was so friendly, and then he pulled himself together and asked if he might have the nuts and the woman gave them to him and picked a whole pocketful of them from the bush.
And Ib and Christian looked wide-eyed at the three wishing-nuts. ‘Is there a carriage in that one with horses up front?’ Ib asked
‘There’s a golden carriage with golden horses!’ the woman said.
‘Then give it to me!’ little Christine said, and Ib gave it to her and the woman tied the nut in her scarf.
‘Is there a lovely little scarf in that one like the one Christine is wearing?’ Ib asked.
‘There are ten scarves!’ the woman said, ‘there are fine dresses, stockings and a hat!’
‘Then I would also like to have that one!’ Christine said, and little Ib gave her the second nut too; the third was a small black one.
‘You can keep that one!’ Christine said, ‘it’s quite nice to look at too.’
‘And what is there in that one?’ Ib asked.
‘The very best for you, the gypsy woman said.
And Ib held onto the nut. The woman promised to lead them the right way home, and they walked, although it was in completely the opposite direction to the one they ought to take, but that doesn’t mean it is justified to accuse her of wanting to steal children.
In the wild wood they met gamekeeper Chræn, he knew Ib, and he took Ib and little Christine back home, where they were greatly worried about them, and they were forgiven, although both of them had deserved a good thrashing, firstly because they had dropped the pig in the water, and then because they had run away.
Christine came back home on the heath, and Ib remained in the small woodland farmstead; the first thing he did that evening was to take out the nut that contained ‘the very best’; – he placed it between the door and the door frame, shut it sharply, the nutshell cracked, but there was no kernel to be seen, it was full of what looked like snuff or earth; a worm had got at it, as it’s called.
‘Yes, I thought as much!’ Ib said to himself, ‘how could there be any room in that little nut for the very best! Christine will get neither fine clothes nor a golden carriage out of her two nuts either!’
And the winter came and the New Year came.
And several more years passed. Now Ib was to prepare for his confrirmation and had to visit a vicar who he lived a long way off. At that time, the bargeman came past one day and told Ib’s parents that little Christine was now to go out into the world and earn her daily bread, and that it was sheer good luck for her that she had obtained service with good-natured folk; just think, she was to work for rich inn-owners in the Herning area, further west; there she was to assist the missus and later, if she behaved well and became confirmed, she could stay on there.
And Ib and Christine said goodbye to each other: sweethearts is what people called them; and on parting she showed him the two nuts that she still had, the ones he had given her when they got lost in the wood, and she said that in her clothes chest she had placed the small clogs that he had carved when a small boy and given her. And then they parted.
Ib became confirmed, but he remained in his mother’s house, for he was good at carving clogs and in the summer took good care of the small amount of farming there was – his mother only had him for this, Ib’s father had died. Only very rarely, when a postman or an eel-farmer came by, was there any news of Christine: things went well for her with the rich inn-owners and when she had become confirmed she wrote letters to her father with greetings to Ib and his mother; in the letter she mentioned six new shifts and lovely dress that she had been given by the master and mistress. That was really good news.
The following spring, on a lovely day, there was a knock at Ib and his mother’s door, it was the bargeman with Christine, she had come to visit them for the day; there was a chance during a journey to Them and back and that she had made use of. She was beautiful, like a fine young lady, and she wore good clothes, well-sewn, that suited her. She stood there in all her glory while Ib was in his everyday, old clothes. He couldn’t find words; he took her hand, held it tightly, was so intensely happy, but he couldn’t get his tongue working, though little Christine could, she chattered away, had a lot to tell and kissed Ib right on the mouth:
‘You recognise me, don’t you!’ she said; but even when the two of them were alone and he stood there holding her hand, all he was able to say was just this: ‘You have really become a fine lady! and I look so shabby! how much I have thought of you, Christine! and of the old days!’
And they walked arm in arm up the ridge and looked down over the Gudenaa river to Seishede with its large slopes of heather, but Ib didn’t say anything, although when they parted it was obvious to him that Christine had to be his wife, after all they had been called sweethearts since their childhood, they were – as he saw it – a betrothed couple, even though neither of them had said this.
They could only be together for a few hours, for she had to get back to Them, from where she would take the early morning carriage westwards once more. Ib and his father accompanied them to Them, the moon shone brightly, and when they arrived, Ib was still holding Christine’s hand, he was unable to let go of it, his eyes were so bright, but his words were few, though each one came straight from the heart: ‘Are you now too used to finery, ‘ he said, ‘or is it possible for you to live in our mother’s house with me as your husband, with us as man and wife? – – though we can of course wait for a while!’
‘Yes, let us wait and see, Ib!’ she said; and then she squeezed his hand and he kissed her on the lips. ‘I trust you, Ib!’ Christine said, ‘and I believe I am fond of you! But let me sleep on it!’
And so they parted. And Ib said to the bargeman that he and Christine were as good as engaged, and the bargeman thought this was as he always imagined it; and he went home with Ib and shared a bed with him there, and nothing more was said about any engagement.
A year had passed; two letters had been exchanged between Ib and Christine; ‘faithful unto death!’ stood next to the signature. One day the bargeman entered Ib’s house, he had a greeting to him from Christine; what else he had to tell went rather slowly, but it was that all was well with Christine, more than that, she was of course a pretty girl, respected and popular. The innkeeper’s son had been home on a visit; he had a position with some important business in Copenhagen, in an office: he like Christine very much, she also found him to her liking, his parents were not unwilling, but Christine was troubled at Ib still thinking about her so much, and so she had decided to put her happiness aside, the bargeman said.
At first, Ib said not a word, but he went as white as a sheet, shook his head a bit and then said: ‘Christine must not put her happiness aside!’
‘Write her a few lines about it!’ the bargeman said.
And Ib tried to write, but he couldn’t put his words together as he wanted to, and he struck through what he had written and tore the letter up, – but the next morning a letter had been written to little Christine, and here it is!
‘I have read the letter you wrote to your father and see that everything is well with you and that you can have a life that is even better! Ask your heart, Christine! and think about what you would have ahead of you if you choose me; I have only a little to offer. Do not think of me and what I might feel, but think of what would be in your own best interest! you are not bound to me by any promise, and if in your heart you have given me such a promise, I release you from it. May all the happiness in the world be yours, little Christine! The Lord God is sure to provide solace for my heart!
Always your most sincere friend,
And the letter was sent, and Christine received it.
At Martinmas the banns were read for her from the pulpit, in the church on the heath and over in Copenhagen, where the bridegroom was, and she travelled there with her mistress, since the bridegroom, because of all his business commitments, was unable to make the journey to Jutland. As agreed, Christine had met up with her father in the village of Funder, which the road passes through and which was the nearest meeting place for him; there the two of them took their farewell.
A few words were said, but Ib did not say anything; he had become so meditative, his old mother said; yes, he thought all the time about the three nuts he as a child had been given by the gypsy woman and the two he had then given Christine – they were wishing nuts, in one of her two there lay a golden carriage with horses, in the other the loveliest clothes – it all fitted! She was now to have all of this splendour over in the royal city of Copenhagen! everything came true for her –! All that Ib had in his nut was the black earth. ‘The very best’ for him, the gypsy woman had said – well, that had also come true! black earth was the best for him. Now he clearly understood what the woman had meant, in the black earth, in the hidden chamber of the grave – that was what was best for him!
And years passed – not many, but long years, Ib felt; the old inn-owners died, one shortly after the other; all the wealth they had amassed, many thousands of thalers, went to the son. Yes, now Christine could have her golden carriage and plenty of fine clothes.
During those two long years that followed no letter came from Christine, and when his father received one, there had not been written from a life of wealth and well-being. Poor Christine! neither she nor her husband had been able to exercise restraint with all that wealth, it had vanished as it had come, no blessing had it brought, for neither of them had wished for that themselves.
And the heather was in bloom and the heather withered once more; during many winters the snow had swept over Seishede, over the ridge where Ib lived on the leeward side; the spring sun was shining and Ib was ploughing the land when it struck against something which he thought was a flintstone, and something resembling a large black wood-shaving stuck up out of the earth, and when Ib took hold of it, he could feel that it was of metal, and where the plough had cut into it, it gleamed and shone. It was a heavy, large arm ring from days of yore; the barrow had been levelled here, its precious treasures found. Ib showed it to the vicar, who told him how splendid it was and from there Ib went to the lord bailiff, who reported the find to Copenhagen and advises Ib to hand the treasure trove over in person.
‘You have found in the earth the best that one could find!’ the lord bailiff said.
‘The best!’ Ib thought. ‘The very best for me – and in the earth! so the gypsy woman was also right about me, when it turned out to be the best!’
And Ib took the smack from Aarhus to the royal city of Copenhagen; it was like a journey across the ocean to him, who had only crosses the Gudenaa river until then. And Ib came to Copenhagen. The value of the gold he had found was paid him, it was a large sum: six hundred thalers.
There in the hustle and bustle of the great city walked Ib from the wood near Seishede.
It was precisely the evening before he had planned to return with the skipper to Aarhus that he god lost in the streets, went in completely the opposite direction from the one he wanted and, on the other side of Knippelsbro, had ended up in Christianshavn instead of down by the ramparts at Vesterport! He was admittedly travelling westwards, but not to where he wanted to go. There was no one to be seen in the street. Then a very young girl came out from a dismal dwelling; Ib asked her about the street he wanted to get to; she gave a start and burst into tears. So now he asked her what was wrong, she said something he didn’t understand and when they were both right under a street lamp and its light shone directly into her face, he felt very strange, for he saw someone exactly like little Christine, precisely as he recalled her from the time they both were children.
And he went with the little girl into the dismal dwelling, up the narrow, worn staircase, all the way up to a tiny, lopsided attic room. The air was heavy and close inside the room, no candle had been lit; over in the corner was someone moaning and gasping for breath. Ib lit a match. It was the child’s mother, who lay on her wretched bed.
‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ Ib said. ‘The little girl took hold of me, but I am a stranger here in the city. Isn’t there a neighbour or someone I can call for!’ – And he lifted her head.
It was Christine from Seishede.
For years her name had not been mentioned, for it would have stirred up memories in Ib’s meditative mind, and it was not good either what rumours and truth both reported, that the large amount of money her husband had inherited from his parents had made him overbearing and wild – he had given up his position, travelled for six months abroad, returned and amassed debts and yet simply lounged about; the cart tipped more and more to one side, and finally it overturned. The many merry friends from around his table said that he deserved what came to him, he had lived like a madman! – His body had been found one morning in Slotshaven canal.
Christine had carried death inside her – her youngest child, only a few weeks old, conceived in prosperity, born in misery, already lay in the grave, and now things were so bad with Christine that she lay here mortally ill, abandoned, in a humble room, humble, something she could have put up with in her early years on Seishede, but now that she had lived differently, she really felt the misery of it all. It was her eldest young child, also called little Christine, that suffered distress and hunger with her and had brought Ib up with her.
‘I’m afraid of dying and leaving the poor child on her own!’ she moaned, ‘what in the world is to become of her!’ She was unable to say more.
And Ib lit another match and found a stump of candle, he lit it and it lit up the wretched room.
And Ib looked at the little girl and thought of Christine as she had been when young; for Christine’s sake he could be kind to this child that he did not know. The dying woman looked at him, her eyes opened wider and wider –! Did she recognise him? He didn’t know, he did not hear her say a word.
And he was back in the wood by the Gudenaa river, near Seishede; the sky was grey, the heather stood there no longer flowering, the stormy gales from the west whirled the yellow leaves from the wood out into the river and over the heath where the turf cottage stood, where strangers lived; but under the ridge, well-sheltered behind tall trees, the little farmstead stood, newly whitewashed; inside in the living room the stove burnt slabs of peat, in the living room there was sunshine, there were the two bright eyes of a child, the chirping of larks sounded in the words from her red, smiling lips; there was life and gaiety, little Christine was there – she sat on Ib’s knee – Ib was her father and mother, for both of them were gone, it was like a dream for both the child and the grown man. Ib sat in the tidy, well-tended house, a prosperous man; the little girl’s mother lay in the paupers’ cemetery in the royal city of Copenhagen.
Ib had money put by, people said, gold from the soil, and what was more he also had little Christine.