Great-Grandpa was such a splendid, wise and good-natured old man, all of us looked up to him; in actual fact, as far back as I can remember, he was called Grandpa, or sometimes Grandad, but when my brother Frederik’s little son came into the family, he advanced to Great-Grandpa; higher than that was impossible to get! He was so very fond of all of us, but our present age he found it harder to be fond of: ‘The old days were the good old days!’ he used to say; ‘they were slow and steady! now everything goes at such a gallop and turns everything topsy-turvy. The young people hold forth on everything, speak even about monarchs as if they were their equals. Everyone from the street can sop his cloth in stagnant water and wring it out over the head of an honourable man!’
When talking about such things, Great-Grandpa would go quite red in the face; but soon afterwards his friendly smile would return, with the words: ‘Well, well! perhaps I’m completely wrong about that! I live in an old age and can’t get a proper foothold in the new one – may the Good Lord lead and guide it!’
When Great-Grandpa talked about the old days, it was as if they came back to me. In my mind’s eye I saw myself riding in a golden coach with footmen, saw the guilds moving their signboards in processions with music and banners, took part in the amusing pre-Christmas celebrations where one played forfeits and dressed up. Admittedly, there was also a great deal that was ugly and cruel back then: people broken on the wheel and the shedding of blood, though all that horrible stuff somehow had something enticing and exciting about it. But I also thought about the Danish noblemen who had liberated the peasants, and the Danish crown prince who had abolished slave trading.
It was lovely to hear Great-Grandpa talk about all this, to hear about his days as a young man; but it was the times even before that which were the most delightful of all, so powerful and glorious.
‘They were brutal!’ my brother Frederik said, ‘thank God they are over and done with!’ and he said that straight out to Great-Grandpa. That was unseemly, but I had great respect even so for Frederik; he was my eldest brother, he could have been my father, he said; he said so many queer things. He had passed his university exam with top marks and was so proficient in my father’s office that he would soon be able to become a partner in the business. He was the one that Grand-Grandpa most entered into discussions with, although they always used to end up arguing with each other. The two of them never understood each other and never would do, the whole family said, but no matter how young I was, I soon noticed that the two of them could not do without each other.
Great-Grandpa used to listen with shining eyes when Frederik spoke or read aloud about progress in science, discoveries of the forces of nature, and all the remarkable things of our age.
‘People get cleverer but no better!’ Great-Grandpa would say. ‘They invent the most terrible weapons of mass destruction against each other!’
‘That makes wars end much faster!’ Frederik would say, ‘you don’t have to wait seven years for the blessings of peace! The world is full-blooded, there must be some blood-letting from time to time, it is essential!’
One day Frederik told him about something that had actually taken place in our age in a small country. The mayor’s clock, the large clock at the city hall, indicated the time to the city and its population; the clock did not keep perfect time, but the city went by it even so. Now railways also came to the country, and they were connected to those of all other countries, and for this reason it was necessary to know the exact time, otherwise the trains might collide. The railway was provided with its own chronometer, which kept the exact time but not that of the mayor’s clock, and now all those in the city went by the railway clock.
I laughed and thought this was an amusing story, but Great-Grandpa did not laugh, he became quite solemn.
‘There’s a great deal in what you say!’ he said, ‘and I also understand the reason behind your telling me it.
Your story about the clocks contains a moral. It causes me to think of another clock, my parents’ old, simple grandfather clock with leaden weights; that measured the time in their childhood and in mine; it didn’t keep absolutely perfect time, but it worked, and we looked at the clock face, believed what we saw and didn’t think about all the cog-wheels inside. That was also the case with the machinery of government, we looked trustingly at it and believed what we saw. Now the machinery of the state has become a glass clock, one where one can see all the works inside, see the wheels spinning and turning, it makes you get all anxious about this pivot, that cog-wheel! how can all this end up with exactly the right time, I think to myself, and no longer have my childlike trust. That is the precarious nature of the present age!’
And all this made Great-Grandpa get quite het up. He and Frederik couldn’t get on with each other, but they couldn’t do without each other either, ‘just like the old age and the new age’! – both of them sensed this, as did the whole family, when Frederik was to travel far away, to America. It was on family matters that the trip had to be made. This was a hard separation for Great-Grandpa, and the journey was such a long one, over the entire ocean to another part of the earth.
‘I’ll send you a letter every fortnight!’ Frederik said, ‘and you will be able to hear from me faster than all my letters via the telegraph wire; the days will become hours, the hours minutes!’
A telegraph greeting came when Frederik went on board in England. Earlier than a letter would have done, even if the clouds up above had been the postman, came the greeting from America when Frederik had stepped ashore; that had been only a few hours earlier.
‘What divine consideration has been shown our age!’ Great-Grandpa said; ‘a blessing to mankind!’
‘And it was in our country that the natural forces were first understood and expressed, Frederik has told me.’
‘Yes,’ said Great-Grandpa, and gave me a kiss. ‘Yes, and I have looked into the two mild eyes that first saw and understood this natural force, they were the eyes of a child, like yours! and I have shaken his hand!’ And then he kissed me once more.
More than a month had passed when Frederik mentioned in a letter that he had become engaged to a young, beautiful girl that the whole family were sure to be delighted with.
Her photograph was enclosed and scrutinised both with the naked eye and with a magnifying glass, for it is only such images that can stand being closely observed with the very sharpest glass, indeed, that it actually brings out the likeness even more. No painter has ever been able to achieve that, not even the great masters of earlier times.
‘If only one had known of that invention back then!’ Great-Grandpa said, ‘ we would have been able to look face to face at the benefactors and great men of the world! – How gentle and good the young girl looks!’ he said and stared through the glass. ‘Now I will know her when she comes in through the door!’ But this almost never happened; fortunately we did not hear all that much about the danger back home before it was over.
The newly weds reached England safe and sound, from there they were to travel by steamship to Copenhagen. They could see the Danish coast, the white sand-dunes of West Jutland; then a storm blew up, the ship struck one of the sand bars and was stuck; a raging sea pounded the vessel and sought to destroy it; none of the lifeboats could be used; night came, but in the midst of the darkness a gleaming rocket from the shore shot up over the ship that had run aground; the rocket dropped a rope over it, a link was established between those on board and those on land, and soon in a rescue basket a beautiful, young woman was being pulled alive through the heavy waves; and she was ecstatically glad and happy when, soon afterwards, her young husband stood by her side on dry land. Everyone on board was rescued; and it was not yet dawn.
We lay sweetly sleeping in our beds in Copenhagen, with not a thought of sorrow or danger. As we all sitting round the breakfast table, a report came via a telegram of the loss of a British steamship off the west coast of Jutland. We were all seized with anxiety and dread, but within an hour a telegram arrive from those rescued, the safely-returned Frederik and his young wife, who would soon be with us.
We all wept; I did too, and so did Great-Grandpa, he folded his hands and – I am quite sure – blessed the new age.
On that day Great-Grandpa donated two hundred thalers to the monument to Hans Christian Ørsted. When Frederik arrived home with his young wife and heard of this, he said: ‘That was sell done, Great-Grandpa! and now I will read for you what Ørsted already wrote some years ago about the old age and our own age!’
‘He agreed with you, I suppose?’ Great-Grandpa said.
‘Yes, you can be sure of that!’ Frederik said, ‘and now you are a part of it, for you have donated to his monument!’