Denmark is rich in old legends of heroes, of churches and manor houses, of hills and fields, and of the bottomless moorland. These stories date from the days of the great plague, from times of war, and from times of peace. They live on in books or on the tongues of people. They fly far about like a flock of birds, but they are as different, one from another, as the thrush is from the owl, and the wood pigeon from the gull. Listen to me, and I will tell you some of these legends.
In the olden days, when invaders were ravaging the Danish countryside, it happened that a pitched battle was fought, and the Danes won. That evening, many dead and many wounded men lay on the stricken field. One of these was an enemy, who had lost both his legs by a shot. Near-by a Danish soldier had just taken a flask filled with beer from his pocket and was about to put it to his mouth, when the desperately wounded man begged him for a drink. As the soldier bent down to give the bottle to his enemy, the wounded man discharged his pistol at him, but he missed his aim. The soldier took his bottle back, and drank half of it. As he handed the rest to his enemy, his only comment was, "You rascal, now you will get only half of it."
"Yes, this is a song for very small children!" declared Aunt Malle. "As much as I should like to, I cannot follow this 'Dance, Dance, Doll of Mine!' "
But little Amalie could; she was only three years old, played with dolls, and brought them up to be just as wise as Aunt Malle.
There was a student who came to the house to help her brothers with their lessons, and he frequently spoke to little Amalie and her dolls; he spoke differently from anyone else, and the little girl found him very amusing, although Aunt Malle said he didn't know how to converse with children - their little heads couldn't possibly grasp that silly talk. But little Amalie did. Yes, the student even taught her the whole song, "Dance, Dance, Doll of Mine!" and she sang it to her three dolls; two were new, one a girl doll and the other a boy doll, but the third doll was old; her name was Lise-moér. She also heard the song, and was even in it.
Now listen to this! Out in the country, close by the side of the road, there stood a country house; you yourself have certainly seen many just like it. In front of it was a little flower garden, with a painted fence around it. Close by the fence, in the midst of the most beautiful green grass beside a ditch, there grew a little daisy. The sun shone just as warmly and brightly on her as on the beautiful flowers inside the garden, and so she grew every hour. Until at last one morning she was in full bloom, with shining white petals spreading like rays around the little yellow sun in the center.
The daisy didn't think that she was a little despised flower that nobody would notice down there in the grass. No, indeed! She was a merry little daisy as she looked up at the warm sun and listened to the lark singing high in the sky.
All the birds of the forest were sitting upon the branches of the trees, which had quite enough leaves; and yet the birds were unanimous in their desire for more leaves - the "leaves" of a journal; a new, good journal was what they longed for - a critical newspaper such as humans have so many of, so many that half of them would be sufficient.
The songbirds wanted a music critic, each for his own praise - and for criticism (where it was needed) of the others. But they, the birds themselves, could not agree on an impartial critic.
"It must be a bird, though," said the Owl, who had been elected president by the assembly, for he is the bird of wisdom. "We ought not elect anyone from another branch of animals, except perhaps from the sea. There fish fly, like birds in the sky, but that, of course, is our only relationship. However, there are quite enough animals to select from between fish and birds."
There was an old manor house where a young, splendid family lived. They had riches and many blessings; they liked to enjoy themselves, and yet they did a lot of good. They wanted to make everybody happy, as happy as they themselves were.
On Christmas Eve a beautifully decorated Christmas tree stood in the large old hall, where fire burned in the fireplaces and fir branches were hung around the old paintings. Here gathered the family and their guests; here they sang and danced.
The Christmas festivities had already been well under way earlier in the evening in the servants' quarters. Here also stood a large fire tree, with lighted red and white candles, small Danish flags, swans and fishing nets cut out of colored paper and filled with candies and other sweets. The poor children from the parish had been invited, and each had its mother along. The mothers didn't pay much attention to the Christmas tree, but looked rather at the Christmas table, where there lay woolen and linen cloths, for dresses and trousers. Yes, the mothers and the older children looked at this; only the smallest children stretched out their hands toward the candles, the tinsel, and the flags. This whole gathering had come early in the afternoon; they had been served Christmas porridge and roasted goose with red cabbage. Then when the Christmas tree had been looked over and the gifts distributed, each got a small glass of punch and apple-filled æbleskiver.
Oh, so many dainty things can be cut out of pasteboard and pasted together! In this fashion there was cut and pasted a castle so large that it took up a whole table top, and it was painted so that it seemed to be built out of red brick. It had a shining copper roof; it had towers and a drawbridge; the water in the canals looked like plate glass, which is just what it was; and in the topmost tower there stood a watchman cut out of wood. He had a trumpet, but he didn't blow it.
All this belonged to a little boy named William. He raised and then lowered the drawbridge himself, and made his tin soldiers march over it. He opened the castle gate to peep into the spacious reception hall, where all the face cards from a pack - Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades - hung in frames upon the wall, like portraits in a real reception hall. The Kings each held a scepter and wore a crown. The Queens wore flowing veils over their shoulders, and in their hands each held a flower or a fan. The Knaves had halberds and nodding plumes.
Now there came a comet with its shiny nucleus and its menacing tail. People from the great castles and people from the poor huts gazed at it. So did the crowd in the street, and so did the man who went his solitary way across the pathless heath. Everyone had his own thoughts. "Come and look at the omen from heaven. Come out and see this marvelous sight," they cried, and everyone hastened to look.
But a little boy and his mother still stayed inside their room. The tallow candle was burning and the mother thought she saw a bit of wood-shaving in the light. The tallow formed a jagged edge around the candle, and then it curled. The mother believed these were signs that her son would soon die. The wood-shaving was circling toward him. This was an old superstition, but she believed it. The little boy lived many more years on earth. Indeed he lived to see the comet return sixty years later.
Out in the country there was an old mansion where an old squire lived with his two sons, who were so witty that they thought themselves too clever for words. They decided to go out and propose to the King's daughter, which they were at liberty to do, for she had announced publicly that she would take for a husband the man who had the most to say for himself.
The two brothers made their preparations for eight days beforehand. That was all the time they had, but it was enough, for they had many accomplishments, and everyone knows how useful they can be. One of them knew the whole Latin dictionary by heart and the town's newspaper for three years - so well that he could repeat it backward or forward. The other had learned all the articles of law and knew what every alderman must know; consequently, he was sure he could talk of governmental affairs, and besides this he could embroider suspenders, for he was very gentle and also clever with his fingers.
There was a large party for children at the house of the merchant; rich people's children and important people's children were all there. Their host, the merchant, was a learned man; his father had insisted that he have a college education. You see, his father had been only a cattle dealer, but he had always been honest and thrifty. This business had brought him a fortune, and his son, the merchant, had later managed to increase this fortune. Clever as he was, he also had a kind heart, but there was less talk about his heart than about his money. His house was always full of guests; some who had "blue blood," as it is called, and some who had mind; some who had both, and some who had neither. But this time it was a children's party, with children's prattle; and children say what they mean. Among the guests was a pretty little girl, most absurdly proud that her father was a groom of the bedchamber. The servants had taught her this arrogance, not her parents; they were much too sensible.
"I'm a child of the chamber," she said. She might as well have been a child of the cellar, for no one can help his birth. Then she explained to the other children that she had "birth," and insisted that anyone who didn't have "birth" from the beginning couldn't in any way get it; it did no good to study or be ever so industrious if you didn't have "birth." And as for people whose names ended with "sen," she declared, "They'll never amount to anything. You must put your arms out at the side and keep them, these 'sen' people, at a distance, like this!" And with this she stretched her delicate little arms with the elbows turned out to show what she meant-and the little arms were very pretty. Sweet child!
There was sorrow in the house; there was sorrow in every heart, for the youngest child, a four-year-old boy, the joy and future hope of his parents, was dead. They had two older daughters, the eldest of whom was to be confirmed that year; sweet, good girls, they both were; but the child one has lost is always the most precious, and this was not only the youngest but the only son. It was indeed a heavy affliction. The sisters grieved as the young grieve, awed by the sorrow of their parents; the father's head bowed in grief; but most of all the mother suffered.
Night and day she had cared for the sick child, nursed it, carried it with her, guarded it constantly until it was a part of herself. She could not conceive that he was dead, that he should be laid in a coffin and rest in a dark grave. God would never take her child from her, she thought; when it happened, however, and was a certainty, she cried aloud in her agony, "God had known nothing of this! He has heartless servants here upon earth; they do as they like and pay no heed to the prayers of a mother!"