Tower Keeper Ole
‘Things go up and down in the world and down and up! now I can’t get any higher!’ tower keeper Ole said. ‘Up and down and down and up is what most people get to experience; in a way, we all end up as tower keepers – we see life and things from above!’
That’s how Ole, my friend, the old tower keeper, often used to say – an entertaining, talkative chap who appeared to say everything yet kept so much seriousness hidden deep inside him; well, he came from good, honest folk, there were those who said that he was the son of a royal adviser, or could have been! He had studied, had been an assistant teacher, assistant parish clerk, but what help was that! he then lived at the clerk’s house, with everything free; back then he was young and still a bit grand, as it’s called: he wanted to have his boots polished with blacking, but the clerk would only give him dubbin, and they had a disagreement about that; the one spoke of minginess, the other spoke of vanity, the boot polish became the black source of animosity, and so they went their separate ways; but what he insisted on from the clerk he also did from the world: blacking, and all he ever got was dubbin; – so he turned his back on humanity and became a hermit, but a hermitage that provides a living in a big city is only to be found in the church tower, and there he would ascend and smoke his pipe in his lonely passage; he would look down, and he would look up, thinking while he did so and in his own manner would talk about what he saw and did not see, what he read in books and in himself. I often lent him some reading matter, good books, and one is known by the company one keeps. He did not like English ‘governess’ novels, he said, nor French ones that were brewed on hot air and raisin stalks, no, biographies was what he wanted to have, books about the wonders of nature. I used to visit him at least once a year, normally just after New Year, for he always had something or other that connected up with his thoughts when one year was replaced by another.
I would now like to tell of two visits, in his own words if I am able.
Among the books I most recently had lent Ole was one about rounded stones, and this he had particularly enjoyed and given him food for thought.
‘Oh yes, they are quite chirpy old characters, these rounded stones!’ he said, ‘and one passes them without giving them a thought! I’ve done so myself out in the fields and down on the beach, where they lie in great numbers. There one walks as if on cobbles, these lumps of the very oldest prehistoric remains! I’ve done so myself. Now every cobblestone commands my respect! Thank you for that book, it has filled my mind, pushed aside old thoughts and habits, made me most eager to read more of the same kind. The story of the earth is definitely the most remarkable of all novels! A pity that one cannot read the first volumes, since they have been composed in a language we have not learnt; one must read in the earth’s strata, in the pebbles, in all the geological periods, and the actors did not appear on the stage until the sixth volume, Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve – that’s a bit late for many readers who would like to see them there from the start, but I don’t mind it a bit. It is a quite extraordinary story, and we are all part of it. We creep and crawl away yet stay in the same place, but the globe revolves, without spilling the water of its oceans over us; the crust on which we move stays firm, we do not fall through it; and then it is a story lasting millions of years, with constant progress. Thank you for that book about the rounded stones! they are fellows that could say a thing or two if only they were able! Isn’t it disdainful to occasionally turn into a nobody when one sits as high up as I do and then recall that all of us, even those with blacking to their boots, are merely minute ants on the anthill of the world, even if we are ants with orders and ribbons, ants with rank and high-standing. One feels so shame-facedly young alongside these million-year-old venerable rounded stones. I was reading the book on New Year’s Eve and was so engrossed in it that I forgot my usual pleasure that night, which is to gaze at ‘the Wild Hunt to Amager!’ Yes, well, I don’t expect you know about that!
The role of the witches on broomsticks is familiar enough, that is on Midsummer’s Eve and to Blocksberg, but we also have a Wild Hunt that is domestic and present-day, it goes to Amager on New Year’s Eve. All the bad poets, poetesses, fiddlers, hack journalists and literary figures, those that are no good, ride through the air on New Year’s Eve out to Amager; they sit astride their brushes or quill pens – a steel pen is too heavy and too stiff. As I said, I always look at it every New Year’s Eve; most of them I know the names of, but it’s not worth falling foul of them; they don’t like people to know about their Amager trip on a quill pen. I have some sort of niece who is a fisherman’s wife and who writes scandal to three respected newspapers, she says that she has been out there as an invited guest, she was carried as she does not own a quill pen and is unable to ride. She has told me all this. Half of what she said is utter lies, but the other half is already more than sufficient. When she was out there, they started with songs, every guest had written a song and each sang his or her own, for it was the best one; they were all much of a muchness, and had the same ‘tune’. Then they marched past in small societies, those who only have the gift of the gab – they were the carillons that clanged away in turn, then came the small drummers that drum away out in families. – Their acquaintance was made with those who write without appending their name, in other words, where dubbin is passed off as blacking; there was the executioner and his assistant, and the latter was the more hard-boiled, otherwise no one take any notice of him; there was the good old dustman who up-ends the bin and calls it ‘good, very good, extremely good!’ – In the midst of all the entertainment that was possibly taking place, out of the pit there rose a stalk, a tree, an enormous flower, a large toadstool, a whole roof, it was the cockaigne-pole that bore everything which the old year had given the world; out of it burst sparks, like flames, it was all the borrowed thoughts and ideas that had been used which were now escaping and shooting off, like a whole firework display. People played ‘you’re getting warm’, and the small poets played ‘the heart’s getting warm!’, the the self-styled wits told puns, nothing less was accepted. The jokes rang out as if one struck doors with empty pots, or pots with peat-ash. It was most enjoyable! the niece said; in actual fact she said a great deal more than that that was most malicious, though amusing! I won’t say what is was, one must be a good person and not express a point of view. You realise, though, that when, like me, one knows about the festivities out there, it is reasonable for me to make sure I see the Wild Hunt fly off every New Year’s Eve; if one year I miss a few, then new ones have turned up, but this year I neglected to look at the guests, I rolled off on the rounded stones, rolled through millions of years, and saw the stones tumbling freely up in the North, so them drifting on pieces of ice long before Noah’s Ark was built, saw them sink to the sea bed and come up again on a longshore bar, the one that stuck up out of the water and said ‘this must be Sealand!’ I saw them become a seat for species of birds we do not know, a seat for wild chieftains we also do not know, until the axe bit runes into a pair of them which then could be placed chronologically, but I had ended up completely outside of things, become a nobody. Then three or four lovely shooting stars fell, they lit up, my thoughts took a new turn. – You know what a shooting star is, don’t you? Scholars don’t seem to! – I have my own thoughts about them, and it’s this: How often, in secret, are kind thoughts and blessings not expressed for anyone who has carried out something that is fine and good; often such thanks is silent, but it doesn’t fall to the ground! What I think is that it is caught up by the sunshine, and a ray of the sun brings this silently felt secret thanks down over the benefactor’s head; if it is a whole people that through time sends its thanks, then they come like a bouquet, fall like a shooting star on the benefactor’s grave. It gives me such great pleasure to see shooting stars, especially on New Year’s Eve, to work out who is destined to be recipient of a bouquet of thanks. A bright shooting star recently fell in the south-west: grateful thanks for many, many! who could it be! it definitely fell, I think, on the slope by Flensburg Fjord, where the Danish flag flutters over the graves of Schleppegrell, Læssøe and their comrades of the Three-Year War. One fell in the middle of the country, it fell down on Sorø, a bouquet on Holberg’s coffin, grateful thanks from so many people over the years for those wonderful comedies!
It is a great thought, a happy thought to know that a shooting star falls on our grave, it probably won’t do on mine, no ray of the sun will convey thanks to me, for I’ve done nothing to merit thanks! I will not attain blacking,’ Ole said, ‘my lot in the world is to get dubbin.’
It was New Year’s Day when I climbed up the tower, Ole spoke of the toasts that were drunk at the transition from the old drip to the new drip, as he called each year. Then he gave me the story of the glasses, which gave me food for thought.
‘When midnight has struck on New Year’s Eve, people at table stand up, their glassed filled, and toast the New Year. One starts the year with the glass in one’s hand, that is a good beginning for drunkards! one starts the year by going to bed, that is a good beginning for idlers! In the course of the year sleep will play a large role, as will the glasses. Do you know what resides in the glasses?’ he asked. ‘Well, there good health, happiness and wildness reside! there harm and bitter misfortune reside! When I count up the glasses, I naturally count the gradations for the various people.
You see, the first glass is that of good health! in it there grows the plant of health, if you place it in a beam, at the end of the year you can sit in the bower of health.
If you take the second glass -! well, out of this flies a small bird, it chirps innocently and merrily, so that others listen and perhaps join in: Life i beautiful! Don’t be down in the mouth! Boldly forwards!
Out of the third glass rises a small winged creature, it can hardly be called a cherub, for it has the blood and mind of a imp, not for teasing but for shenanigans! he sits behind our ear and whispers mischievous ideas to us! he lies down in the region of our heart and warms it so that one becomes light-headed, the star of the show as judged by the others!
In the fourth glass there is no plant, bird or creature, that is the boundary of reason and beyond that boundary one should never go!
If you take a fifth glass, you will weep at yourself, become so pleasantly moved emotionally, or make sure things go off with a bang! for with a bang Prince Carnival will leap out of the glass, loquacious and quite wild; he will drag you along, you will forget your dignity, if you have any! you will forget more than you are to forget or dare to forget. Everything is dancing, singing and carousing; the masks will carry you off, the devil’s daughters, in crape and in silk, come with their flowing hair and lovely limbs – tear yourself free if you can!
The sixth glass! – Well, Satan himself sits in that one, a small, well-dressed, well-spoken, charming, extremely pleasant man who completely understands you, agrees with every word you say, is your entire ego! He comes with a lamp to accompany you back to his place. There is an old legend about the saint who had to choose one of the seven deadly sins and he chose the one he thought was the least deadly, insobriety, and when drunk he committed all the other six sins. Man and the devil mix blood, that is what is in the sixth glass, and then all the small wicked shoots begin to grow; each of them speeds upwards with great force like the mustard seed of the Bible, grows into a tree that covers the whole world, and most of them are only interested in ending up in the melting furnace and being recast.
That is the story of the glasses!’ tower keeper Ole said, ‘and it can be given both with blacking and with dubbin! I give it with both!’
That was my second visit to Ole. If you want to hear any more, the visits must continue.