Old Johanne’s story
The wind soughs in the old willow tree!
It is as if one heard a song; the wind sings it, the tree tells the story. If you can’t understand it, ask old Johanne in the poorhouse, she knows what it’s all about, she was born here in the parish.
Years ago, when the King’s Highway still lay here, the tree was already sizeable and noticeable. It stood where it still stands, outside the whitewashed half-timbered house of the tailor close to the ponds, which back then was so large that cattle were watered here, and during the warm summer months the young peasant boys used to run around naked and paddle in the water. Beneath the tree, close to it, a hewn milestone had been raised; since then it has fallen over, brambles grow over it.
The new King’s Highway was laid on the far side of the fine country manor, the old road became a field lane, the pond a puddle, overgrown with duckweed; if a frog landed there, the greenery would part and one would see the black water; around it grew and still grow reedmace, buckbeans and yellow iris.
The tailor’s house grew old and lopsided, the roof a fertile bed for moss and houseleek; the dovecote collapsed, and the starling built its nest there; the swallows hung nest upon nest on the gable of the house and in under the roof, just as if this was a happy home.
Which it once was; now it had become lonely and quiet here. Alone and in a state of mental torpor, lived ‘Poor Old Rasmus’, as people called him; he had been born here, he had played here, he had leapt over field and fence, splashed when in the open pond when a lad, climbed up the old tree.
With magnificence and splendour it lifted its great boughs, as it still does, but storm winds had already twisted its trunk slightly and time opened up a split, now wind and weather have filled the crack with earth and grass and vegetation grow there – even a small rowan tree has sown itself.
When the swallows came in summer, they flew round tree and roof, they built and repaired their old clay nests, but Poor Old Rasmus let his nest stand or fall as it wanted to; he neither repaired nor supported it: ‘What’s the good of that?!’ was his favourite saying, as it had been his father’s before him.
He remained in his home, the swallows departed, but they came again, the faithful creatures. The starling flew, it came again and whistled its song; once Rasmus managed to whistle along with it, now he neither whistled nor sang.
The wind soughed in the old willow tree, it still does, it is as if one heard a song; the wind sings it, the tree tells the story; if you can’t understand it, ask old Johanne in the poorhouse, she knows what it’s all about, she is a mine of information about what has occurred here, she is like a chronicle, with records and old memories.
When the house was new and in good shape, the village tailor Ivar Ølse moved in with his wife Maren; both of them industrious, honest folk. Old Johanne was a child back then, she was the daughter of the clog-maker, one of the poorest men in the parish. Many a tasty sandwich did she get from Maren, who had no shortage of food; she was on good terms with the squire’s wife, she was always happy and full of laughter, she was never daunted by anything, she used her mouth but also her hands; she was as swift with the needle as with her tongue, and in addition took care of her house and her children; there were almost a dozen of them, eleven all told, a twelfth had not been added.
‘Poor folk always have their nests full of young!’ the squire used to mutter, ‘if one could drown them like kittens and just keep one or two of the strongest, it would be less of a misfortune!’
‘Lord have mercy!’ the tailor’s wife said. ‘But children are God’s blessing; they are a pleasure to have in the house. Each child is another Lord’s Prayer! If there is little room and one has many mouths to feed, one makes an even greater effort, one finds sensible ways and means of doing things. The Good Lord holds onto us as long as we hold onto ourselves!’
The squire’s wife agreed with her, nodded friendlily and patted Maren on the cheek; this she had done many times, even given her a kiss, but then the lady had been a young child, and Maren had been her nurse. The two were very fond of each other, and that sentiment never altered.
Every year, at Christmas, winter supplies came from the manor to the tailor’s house: a barrel of flour, a pig, two geese, a ferkin of butter, cheese and apples. That helped fill the larder. Ivar Ølse also looked extremely pleased, although he soon trotted out his old saying: ‘What’s the good of that?!’
It was always neat and tidy in the house, the curtains in the windows and the flowers too, both carnations and balsam. Samplers hung in picture frames and close by there hung a ‘rhyming letter with riddles’ that Maren herself had composed; she had a flair for rhymes. She was almost a little proud of the family name ‘Ølse’, it was the only word in the Danish language that rhymed with ‘pølse’, which meant ‘sausage’. ‘That is something nobody else can boast!’ she used to say with a laugh. She never lost her good humour, never said to her husband: ‘What’s the good of that?!’ Her maxim was: ‘Hold onto yourself and the Lord God!’, and this she did, which held everything together. The children thrived, became ready to leave the nest, got out into the world and did well. Rasmus was the youngest; he was so delightful a child that one of the great portrait painters in the town borrowed him as a model and painted him as naked as when he had come into the world. The picture now hangs in the royal palace, the squire’s wife had seen it there and recognised little Rasmus, despite the fact he had no clothes on.
Now, however, hard times fell on them. The tailor got pains in both bands, swellings formed, no doctor was able to help, not even wise-woman Stine, who used to do some ‘remedying’.
‘One must not be down-hearted!’ Maren said. ‘It never helps to hang your head! Now we no longer have your father’s two hands to help us, so I must make sure I use mine all the better. Young Rasmus can also use a needle!’
He already sat up on the table, whistled and sang, he was a cheerful lad.
He wasn’t to sit there all day long, his mother said, that would be a pity for the child; he must also run around and play.
The clog-maker’s Johanne was his best playmate; she came from an even poorer family than Rasmus. She was not pretty; she went bare-legged; her clothes hung in tatters, she had no one to help her with them, to do so herself didn’t occur to her; she was a child, and a happy as a bird in the Lord God’s sunshine.
Rasmus and Johanne used to play by the milestone, under the great willow tree.
He had great ambitions; he wanted at some point to become a fine tailor and live in the town where there were master tailors who had ten journeymen on the table, his father had told him; there he wanted to be a journeyman, and there he wanted to become a master, and then Johanne was to come and visit him; and if she knew how to cook, she was to prepare the food for all of them and have her own parlour.
Johanne didn’t quite dare believe in this, but Rasmus believed that it would actually happen. Then they would sit under the old tree, and the wind would sough in the branches and foliage – it was as if the wind sang and the tree told a story.
When autumn came, every leaf fell, rain dripped down from the naked branches.
‘They will grow green again!’ Mother Ølse said.
‘What’s the good of that!’ her husband said. ‘New year, new worries about how to make ends meet!’
‘The larder’s full! his wife said. ‘We can thank the squire’s kind wife for that. I am both healthy and strong. It’s a sin for us to complain!’
Over Christmas the fine folk stay at their country manor, but a week after New Year, they returned to the town, where they spent the winter in pleasure and contentment; they were even invited to a ball and festive occasion at the king’s palace.
The squire’s wife had acquired two expensive dresses from France; they were of a material, a cut and sewing the like of which Maren had never seen, they were so magnificent. She also asked if she might come up to the manor with her husband, so that he could see the dresses. Such dresses had never been seen by a village tailor, she said.
He saw them, and did not say a word before he was back home again, and all he said was what he always said: ‘What’s the good of that?!’ and this time his words came true.
They returned to the town; the balls and festive season were about to start, but in the midst of all these festivities the old squire died and his wife never got to wear the fine garments. She was grief-stricken, and dressed from top to toe in black, close-fitting mourning apparel; there wasn’t even as much as a white band anywhere; all the servants were in black, even the finest coach was covered with a beautiful black cloth.
It was an ice-cold frosty night, the snow gleamed, the stars twinkled; the heavy hearse came with the corpse from the town to the manor chapel, where it was to be buried in the family vault. The steward and the parish bailiff were on horseback with torches, flanking the lych-gate. The chapel was lit up and the vicar stood at the open door and received the deceased. The coffin was borne up into the chancel, followed by the entire congregation. The vicar spoke, a hymn was sung; the widow was present also, she had ridden there in the black-draped finest coach, it was black on the inside and black on the outside, something that had never been seen before in the parish.
All the mourning finery was talked about the whole winter; it had indeed been a funeral.
‘There one could see the importance of the man! the parishioners said. ‘He was nobly born and he was nobly buried!’
‘What’s the good of that!’ the tailor said. ‘Now he has neither life nor property. We’ve still got that, at least!’
‘Don’t say such things!’ Maren said, ‘he has eternal life in Heaven!’
‘Who’s told you that? Maren!’ the tailor said. ‘A dead man makes good manure! but this man was clearly too high and mighty even to be of some use in the earth, he has to lie in a sepulchral chapel!’
‘Don’t speak such ungodly words!’ Maren said. ‘I’m telling you once more: he has eternal life!’
‘Who’s told you that? Maren!’ the tailor repeated. And Maren threw her apron over young Rasmus; he wasn’t to hear such talk. She carried him across to the peat shed and wept.
‘What you heard over there, little Rasmus, was not your father speaking, it was the evil one who walked through the room and took your father’s tongue! Say your Lord’s Prayer! We’ll do so together!’ She folded the child’s hands.
‘Now I feel happy again!’ she said. ‘Hold onto yourself and the Lord God!’ The year of mourning was over, the widow now wore half-mourning, and seemed quite light-hearted.
There were rumours that she had acquired a suitor, and was already contemplating marriage. Maren knew something about this, and the vicar knew a little more.
On Palm Sunday, after the sermon, the marriage banns were to be read for the marriage between the window and her betrothed. He was a woodblock-modeller or stone-carver – people were unsure about the name of his occupation, at that time Thorvaldsen and his art were not yet the talk of the town. The new lord of the manor was not high-born, although he was an extremely stately man: he was someone who was something nobody understood, they said, he carved figures out of stone, he was very good at it, was young and handsome.
‘What’s the good of that!’ tailor Ølse said.
On Palm Sunday the marriage banns were read out, then a hymn was sung and there was Holy Communion. The tailor, his wife and young Rasmus were in the church, his parents went up to the altar, Rasmus sat in the pew, he had not yet been confirmed. Recently they had been short of clothing in the tailor’s house; the old clothes they possessed had been turned time and time again, stitched and patched; now all three of them were in new clothes, but black clothes as if to a funeral, they were wearing what had been draped over the hearse. The tailor had made a coat and trousers out of it, Maren had a high-necked dress and Rasmus a whole suit to grow in until his confirmation. The cloth from both the inside and outside of the hearse had been used. Nobody needed to know what it had previously been used for, but people soon knew even so, the wise woman Stine and a couple of the other wise women who did not make a living out of their wisdom said that the clothes would bring illness and disease into the house, ‘one doesn’t need to clothe oneself in drapings from a hearse except to ride to one’s grave’.
The clog-maker’s wife, Johanne, wept when she heard that said; and since it so happened that from that day onwards the tailor went steadily downhill, it would soon be evident which of them was going to suffer.
And it was.
On the first Sunday after Trinity tailor Ølse died, now Maren had hold everything together on her own; and she did, holding onto herself and the Lord God.
The following year Rasmus was confirmed; now he was going into town to be an apprentice for a large-scale tailor, without, admittedly, twelve journeymen on the table, but with one; young Rasmus could be counted as a half, but he was happy, looked highly contented, but Johanne wept, she was more fond of him than she herself had realised. The tailor’s wife stayed put in the old house and continued her profession.
It was at around then that the new King’s Highway was opened; the old one, past the willow tree and the tailor’s house, became a field lane, the pond became overgrown, duckweed spread out across the puddle of water that was left; the milestone fell over, it had no reason to go on standing, but the tree remained sturdy and handsome; the wind soughed in its branches and foliage.
The swallows flew off, the starling flew off, but they returned with the spring, and the fourth time they returned, Rasmus also came back to his home. He had completed his apprenticeship, was a fine-looking although slight young man; now he wanted to pack his knapsack, to see foreign parts; that was what his mind was set on. But his mother wanted him to stay with her; home was best, after all! the rest of her children were scattered far and wide, he was the youngest, the house would one day be his. There was plenty of work for him if he was prepared to cover the local area, be a travelling tailor, sew fourteen days at one place, and fourteen at another. That was also travelling. And Rasmus followed his mother’s advice.
So he slept once more under the roof of the house where he was born, sat once more under the old willow tree and heard it soughing. He was good-looking, could whistle like a bird, and sing songs both new and old. He was highly regarded on the large farms, especially that of Klaus Hansen, the second-richest farmer in the parish.
His daughter, Else, was like the loveliest flower, and she was always laughing; there were of course those who were spiteful enough to say that she only laughed so as to show her beautiful teeth. She was good-humoured and always ready to get up to pranks; everything suited her.
She fell in love with Rasmus and he fell in love with her, but neither of them said so straight out.
So he grew heavy-hearted; he had more of his father’s temperament than that of his mother. He only cheered up when Else came, and then both of them laughed, made jokes and played pranks, but despite the fact that there was plenty of opportunity, he never secretly mentioned his love. ‘What’s the good of that1?’ was what he thought. ‘Her parents are interested in her future prosperity, and I have no chance of offering her that; the best thing to do would be to leave this place!’ but he was unable to leave the farm, it was as if Else had attached a thread to him, he was like a trained bird with her, he sang and whistled to suit her inclination and will.
Johanne, the clog-maker’s daughter, was a servant on the farm, employed to do menial tasks; she drove the milk-cart out to the field where she and the other girls milked the cows, she even had to cart manure when necessary. She never came into the parlour and saw very little of Rasmus and Else, but she had nevertheless heard that the two of them were as good as sweethearts.
‘That will make Rasmus well-off!’ she said. ‘I don’t begrudge him that!’ And her eyes became quite moist, though there was nothing to cry about! There was a market in the town; Klaus Hansen drove in to it and Rasmus was with him, he was sitting beside Else, both on their way into town and home again. He was love-struck, but said not a word about it.
‘He really must say something to me about this!’ the young woman felt, and she was right about that. ‘If he refuses to speak, I’ll have to give him a bit of a scare!’
And soon the rumour on the farm was that the richest farmer in the parish had proposed to Else, and he head, but nobody knew what answer she had given him.
This set thoughts spinning around in Rasmus’ head.
One evening Else put a gold ring on her finger, and then asked Rasmus what that meant.
‘Betrothal!’ he said.
‘And who do you think that is with?’ she asked.
‘With the rich farmer!’ he said.
‘You’ve hit the nail on the head!’ she said, nodded and slipped away.
But he also slipped away, came home to his mother’s house like someone utterly perplexed, packed his knapsack. He had to be off into the wide world; his mothers tears availed nothing.
He cut himself a stick from the old willow, he whistled as if he was in a good mood, he was off to see all the wonderful things the world had to offer.
‘It’s a source of great sadness to me!’ his mother said. ‘But for you it is probably the best and most proper thing to leave, so I must put up with it. Hold onto yourself and the Lord God, and I will see you happy and contented once again!’
He set out along the new highway. There he saw Johanne coming towards him driving a cartload of manure, she hadn’t noticed him and he did want to be seen by her; he squatted down behind the hedge by the ditch, there he was hidden – and Johanne drove past.
Off he went into the world, no one knew where, his mother thought he’ll be home again before the year is out; now he’s discovering new things to see, new things to think about, then he’ll settle in his old folds again, they couldn’t be ironed out of him with a flat-iron. He’s a little too much of his father’s temperament, I would have preferred him to have had mine, poor child! but he’ll come home all right, he can’t relinquish me and the house!’
His mother was prepared to wait days and years; Else waited for only one month, then she went in secret to the wise woman Stine Madsdatter, who was able to ‘do remedying’, tell fortunes in the cards and coffee grounds and knew more than her ‘Lord’s Prayer’. She also knew where Rasmus was, she had read it in the coffee grounds. He was in a foreign town, but the name of it she couldn’t read. In that town there were soldiers and charming young maidens. He was thinking about either taking the king’s shilling or one of the young maidens.
Else couldn’t stand hearing of this. She was prepared to give away all her savings to buy him out, but no one was to know that she was the one who had done it.
And Stine promised that he could come back, she knew a certain art, a dangerous art for the person concerned, but it was the last possible remedy. She would put on the pot and boil it for him, and then, no matter where he was in the world, he would have to come home to where the pot was boiling and his sweetheart was waiting for him; months might pass before he came, but he would have to come, if he was still alive.
With neither peace of mind nor rest either night or day he had to be off across seas and mountains, no matter whether the weather was mild or harsh, or how tired his feet grew. He would return home, he had to.
The moon was in its first quarter; it had to be for the art to be effective, old Stine said. The weather was stormy, the old willow tree creaked; Stine cut off a branch, tied it in a knot, that would help pull Rasmus home to his mother’s house. Moss and houseleek was taken from the roof, laid in the pot, which was placed on the fire. Else was to tear a page out of the hymnbook, she happened to tear out the last page, the one with the printing errors on it. ‘That will do just as well!’ Stine said and threw it into the pot.
All sorts of things were needed for the thick gruel that had to keep on boiling until Rasmus came home. The black cockerel in Stine’s room had to lose its red comb, it went into the pot. Else’s thick gold ring did too, and that she would never get back again, Stine told her in advance. She was so wise, was Stine. Many things not worth mentioning went into it; it always stood on the fire, or on glowing embers or hot ashes. Only she and Else knew about it.
The moon waxed, the moon waned; each time Else came and asked: ‘Can’t you see him coming?’
‘I know a great deal!’ Stine said, ‘and I see a great deal, but I cannot see the length of the road he has to take. Now he is over the first mountains! now he is at sea in bad weather! The road through great forests is long, he has blisters on his feet, he is gripped by a fever, but still he has to be off once more.’
‘No, no!’ Else said. ‘I feel so sorry for him!’
‘Now he can’t be stopped! If we were to do so, he would drop dead on the highway!’
A year and a day passed. The moon shone round and large, the wind soughed in the old tree, a rainbow was seen in the moon-lit sky.
‘That is the sign of confirmation!’ Stine said. ‘Now Rasmus is coming.’
But he did not come.
‘It is a long wait!’ Stine said.
‘And I’m getting tired of waiting!’ Else said. She came less often to Stine, brought her no new presents.
Her mood grew lighter, and one fine morning everyone in the parish knew that Else had said yes to the richest farmer.
She went over to see the farm and the estate, the cattle and the household goods. Everything was in good condition, there was no reason to delay the wedding.
It was held with large-scale celebrations that lasted for three days. There was dancing to clarinet and violins. No one in the parish was left out of the invitations. Mother Ølse was there too; and when all the festivities were over, the hosts had said thank you to the guests and the trumpets had rounded off the proceedings, she went home with the left-overs from the party.
She had only shut the door with a peg, it had been taken out, the door stood open, and in the living room sat Rasmus. He had returned home at that very hour. Good Lord, the state he was in, mere skin and bone, he was quite pale and wan.
‘Rasmus!’ his mother said. ‘Is that you!’ – how wretched you look! But my heart rejoices to have you back!’
And she gave him some of the good food she had with her from the celebration, a piece of the roast joint of meat and of the wedding cake.
Recently, he told her, he had been thinking of his mother, his home village and the old willow tree. It was strange how often he had seen that tree in his dreams as well as the bare-legged Johanne.
He didn’t mention Else at all. He was ill and had to take to his bed; but we do not believe that the pot caused any of this, or that it had exerted any power over him; only old Stine and Else believed that, but they didn’t talk about it.
Rasmus lay in a fever, it was contagious; so nobody went near the tailor’s house, except Johanne, the clog-maker’s daughter. She wept when she saw how miserable Rasmus was.
The doctor wrote a prescription for him from the pharmacy; he refused to take any form of medicine. ‘What’s the good of that!’ he said.
‘Well, it will help make you get better!’ his mother said. ‘Hold onto yourself and the Lord God! If only I could see you get some more flesh on your bones, hear you whistle and sing, I would leave this life contented!’
And Rasmus did recover from his disease, but his mother contracted it, the Lord God called her and not him.
It was lonely in the house, and it grew poorer and poorer inside it. ‘He’s worn out!’ people in the parish said. ‘Poor old Rasmus.’
He had led a wild existence while on his travels; it was that, and not the black pot on the boil, that had sucked the marrow from his bones and given him an inner unrest. His hair grew thin and grey; he didn’t feel up to doing anything. ‘What’s the good of that!’ he said. He would rather frequent the inn than the church.
One autumn evening, in foul weather, he was returning with difficulty along the muddy road from the inn to his house; his mother had died long since, been laid in her grave. The swallows and the starling were also gone, the faithful creatures; Johanne, the clog-maker’s daughter, was not gone; she caught up with him on the road, accompanied him for a while.
‘Pull yourself together, Rasmus!’
‘What’s the good of that!’ he said.
‘That’s a bad saying of yours!’ she said. ‘Remember your mother’s words: hold onto yourself and the Lord God! for you’re not doing that, Rasmus! one must and one shall. Never say: What’s the good of that, for then you pull all your deeds up by the roots!’
She followed him to his front door, where she took leave of him. He didn’t say inside, he went over to the old willow tree, sat down on a stone from the collapsed milestone.
The wind soughed in the branches of the tree, it was like a song, it was like someone talking. Rasmus answered it, he spoke out loud but nobody heard him, except the tree and the soughing wind.
‘I feel such a coldness come over me! It’s time to go to bed. To sleep! to sleep!’
And he walked over, not to the house but to the pond, where he staggered and fell. The rain poured down, the wind was so icy cold, he didn’t feel anything; but when the sun rose and the crows flew over the reeds of the pond, he woke up, feeling half-dead. If he had laid his head where his feet lay, he would never have got up, the green duckweed would have been his winding-sheet.
Later that day Johanne came to the tailor’s house. She helped him, got him to hospital.
‘We’ve known each other since we were small, she said, ‘your mother has given me both beer and food, that I can never repay her! You will recover your health, you will once more become a man with a will to live!’
And the Lord God wished him to live. But his physical and mental health went up and down. The swallows and the starling came and flew away and came again; Rasmus grew prematurely old. He sat on his own in the house, which became more and more dilapidated. He was poor, even more poverty-stricken now than Johanne.
‘You have no faith,’ she said, and if we do not have the Lord God, what do we then have! – You ought to take communion!’ she said, ‘you haven’t done so since your confirmation.’
‘Well, What’s the good of that!’ he said.
‘If you speak like that and believe such things, then forget it! The Lord does not want to see an unwilling guest at his table. Think though of your mother and your childhood! You were such a nice, devout boy then. May I read a hymn aloud for you!’
‘What’s the good of that!’ he said.
‘It always comforts me!’ she replied.
‘Johanne, you seem to have become one of the saints!’ and he looked at her with dull, tired eyes.
And Johanne recited the hymn, but not from a book, she had none, she knew it by heart.
‘Those were beautiful words!’ he said, ‘but I couldn’t quite follow it all. It’s so heavy inside my head!’
Rasmus had become an old man, but Else was no longer young, were we to mention her, Rasmus never mentioned her. She was a grandmother; a little, roguish girl was her grandchild, it used to play with the other children in the village. Rasmus came, leaning on his stick, he stood still, watched the children playing, smiled at them, the old days shone into his thoughts. Else’s grandchild pointed at him, ‘Poor old Rasmus!’ she called out; the other small girls followed suit, ‘Poor old Rasmus’ they shouted and pursued the old man with their cries.
It was a grey, heavy day, followed by several more, but after grey and heavy days there also comes a day of sunshine.
It was a lovely Whitsunday, the church was decorated with sprigs of green birch, there was a woodland scent in there and the sun shone over the pews. The large altar candles had been lit, there was communion, Johanne was among the kneelers, but Rasmus was not among them. The Lord God had called him precisely that morning.
In God there is grace and mercy.
Many years have passed since then; the tailor’s house still stands there, but nobody lives there, it could well collapse at the first nighttime gale. The pond is overgrown with reeds and buckbeans. The wind soughs in the old tree, it is as if one could hear a song; the wind sings it, the tree tells it; if you can’t understand it, ask old Johanne in the poorhouse.
She lives there, she sings her hymn, the one she sang for Rasmus, she thinks of him, prays to the Lord God for him, faithful soul that she is. She can tell her story of times long past, the memories that sough in the old tree.