The story we have for you here is really divided into two parts. The first part could be omitted, but it gives us some preliminary information which is useful.
We were staying at a manor house in the country, and it happened that the owner was absent for a day or so. Meanwhile a lady with a pug dog arrived from the next town; come, she explained, to dispose of the shares in her tannery. She had her certificates with her, and we advised her to seal them in an envelope and to write on it the address of the proprietor of the estate, "General War Commissary, Knight," etc.
The biggest leaf we have in this country is certainly the burdock leaf. If you hold one in front of your little stomach, it's just like a real apron; and in rainy weather, if you lay it on your head, it does almost as well as an umbrella. It's really amazingly large. Now, a burdock never grows alone; no, when you see one you'll always see others around it. It's a splendid sight; and all this splendor is nothing more than food for snails-the big white snails which the fine people in olden days used to have made into fricassees. When they had eaten them, they would smack their lips and say, "My! How good that is!" For somehow they had the idea that the snails tasted delicious. You see, these snails lived on the burdock leaves, and that's why the burdock was first grown.
There was a certain old manor house where the people didn't eat snails any more. The snails had almost died out, but the burdock hadn't. These grew and grew on all the walks and flower beds-they couldn't be stopped-until the whole place was a forest of burdocks. Here and there stood an apple or a plum tree, but except for that, people wouldn't have thought there had ever been a garden there. Everywhere was burdock, and among the burdocks lived the last two incredibly old snails!
There was a little sea fish of good family, the name of which I don't remember; that the more learned will have to tell you. This little fish had eighteen hundred brothers and sisters, all the same age; they didn't know their father or mother, so they had to care for themselves and swim about on their own, but that was a lot of fun. They had plenty of water to drink - the entire ocean. They didn't think about their food; that was sure to come their way. Each did as he pleased; each would have his own story, but then none of them thought about that.
The sun shone down into the water, making it light and clear. It was a world full of the strangest creatures, some of them enormously big, with great, horrible mouths that could sallow all the eighteen hundred brothers and sisters, but none of them thought about that, either, for none of them had ever been swallowed.
Great-Grandfather was so lovable, wise and good. All of us looked up to Great-Grandfather. As far back as I can remember, he was really called "Father's Father," and "Mother's Father" as well, but when my Brother Frederick's little son came along he was promoted, and got the title of "Great-Grandfather." He could not expect to go any higher than that.
He was very fond of us all, but he did not appear to be fond of our times. "Old times were the good times," he used to say. "Quiet and genuine they were. In these days there's too much hurrying and turning everything upside down. The young folk lay down the law, and even speak about the Kings as if they are their equals. Any ne'er-do-well can sop a rag in dirty water and wring it out over the head of an honorable man."
Grandmother is so very old; she has so many wrinkles, and her hair is completely white, but her eyes shine just like two stars; yes, yet they are much more beautiful; they are so gentle, so wonderful to look into. And then she knows the most delightful stories, and she has a gown of heavy, rustling silk, with great big flowers in it. Grandmother knows a great deal, for she was alive long before father and mother-that much is certain! She has a hymnbook with heavy clasps of silver, and often reads from it. In the middle of the book is a rose, which is very flat and dry, and not nearly so lovely as the roses she has in the vase, yet she smiles at it the most sweetly of all, and the tears even come into her eyes. Why is it that Grandmother looks that way at the withered flower in the old book? Do you know? Why, every time her tears fall upon the rose its colors become fresh again; the rose swells and fills the whole room with its perfume; the walls sink as if they were made of mist, and all about her is the green, beautiful wood, with the summer sunlight streaming through the leaves of the trees. And Grandmother-why, she's young again, a lovely girl with yellow curls and round red cheeks, pretty, graceful, fresher than any rose. But the eyes, the mild, blessed eyes, they are still Grandmother's eyes. Beside her is a man, so young, strong, and handsome; he hands her a rose, and she smiles. Grandmother cannot smile like that now. Yes, the smile is coming back now! He has gone, and with him many other thoughts and forms of the past; the handsome man has gone, and only the rose lies in the hymnbook, and Grandmother-yes, she still sits there, an old woman, glancing down at the withered rose in her book.
From my father I have inherited that most worthy of bequests-a cheerful temper. And who was my father? Well, that really has nothing to do with a good humor. He was thrifty and lively, fat and round; in fact, his exterior and interior were both at variance with his office.
And what was his office, his position in the community? Why, if the answer to that question were written and printed at the very beginning of a book, most people would lay the book down as soon as they opened it, saying, "There is something dismal about it. I don't want anything like this."
The drummer's wife went to church and saw the new altar with painted pictures and carved angels. The angels were very beautiful, both those painted on cloth, in all their colors and glory, and those carved in wood, painted and gilded. Their hair shone like gold and sunshine and was beautiful to look at. But God's sunshine was still more beautiful; it glowed bright and red between the dark trees as the sun was setting. And as the woman gazed on the descending sun, her innermost thoughts were about the little child the stork was bringing her. She was radiantly happy as she gazed, and she wished most fervently that her child might be as bright as a sunbeam, or at least look like one of the shining angels on the altarpiece.
And when she actually lifted up her child in her arms to show her husband, it seemed to her that the infant really did resemble one of the angels in the church; at least it had golden hair, hair that had caught the reflection of that setting sun.
Godfather could tell stories, so many of them and such long ones, and he could cut out paper figures and draw pictures. When it was nearly Christmas he would bring out a scrapbook with clean white pages, and on these he pasted pictures cut out of books and newspapers; and if there weren't enough for the story he was going to tell, he drew them himself. When I was a little boy I got several of these picture books, but the prettiest of them all was the one from "that memorable year when gas replaced the old oil lamps in Copenhagen" - and that was the inscription written on the first page.
"We must take great care of this book," said Father and Mother, "and only bring it out on important occasions."
It was a Sunday morning. The sun shone brightly and warmly into the room, as the air, mild and refreshing, flowed through the open window. And out under God's blue heaven, where fields and meadows were covered with greens and flowers, all the little birds rejoiced. While joy and contentment were everywhere outside, in the house lived sorrow and misery. Even the wife, who otherwise always was in good spirits, sat that morning at the breakfast table with a downcast expression; finally she arose, without having touched a bite of her food, dried her eyes, and walked toward the door.
It really seemed as if there were a curse hanging over this house. The cost of living was high, the food supply low; taxes had become heavier and heavier; year after year the household belongings had depreciated more and more, and now at last there was nothing to look forward to but poverty and misery. For a long time all this had depressed the husband, who always had been a hard-working and law-abiding citizen; now the thought of the future filled him with despair; yes, many times he even threatened to end his miserable and hopeless existence. Neither the comforting words of his good-humored wife nor the worldly or spiritual counsel of his friends had helped him; these had only made him more silent and sorrowful. It is easy to understand that his poor wife finally should lose her courage, too. However, there was quite another reason for her sadness, which we soon shall hear.