Hans Christian Andersen, Child Life

POET AND NOVELIST OF DENMARK.

My life is a lovely story, happy and full of incident. If, when I was a boy, and went forth into the world poor and friendless, a good fairy had met me and said, "Choose now thy own course through life, and the object for which thou wilt strive, and then, according to the development of thy mind, and as reason requires, I will guide and defend thee to its attainment," my fate could not, even then, have been directed more happily, more prudently, or better. The history of my life will say to the world what it says to me,—There is a loving God, who directs all things for the best.

In the year 1805 there lived at Odense, in a small mean room, a young married couple, who were extremely attached to each other; he was a shoemaker, scarcely twenty-two years old, a man of a richly gifted and truly poetical mind. His wife, a few years older than himself, was ignorant of life and of the world, but possessed a heart full of love. The young man had himself made his shoemaking bench, and the bedstead with which he began housekeeping; this bedstead he had made out of the wooden frame which had borne only a short time before the coffin of the deceased Count Trampe, as he lay in state, and the remnants of the black cloth on the wood-work kept the fact still in remembrance.

Instead of a noble corpse, surrounded by crape and waxlights, here lay, on the 2d of April, 1805, a living and weeping child,—that was myself, Hans Christian Andersen. During the first day of my existence my father is said to have sat by the bed and read aloud in Holberg, but I cried all the time. "Wilt thou go to sleep, or listen quietly?" it is reported that my father asked in joke; but I still cried on; and even in the church, when I was taken to be baptized, I cried so loudly that the preacher, who was a passionate man, said, "The young one screams like a cat!" which words my mother never forgot. A poor emigrant, Gomar, who stood as godfather, consoled her in the mean time by saying that, the louder I cried as a child, all the more beautifully should I sing when I grew older.

Our little room, which was almost filled with the shoemaker's bench, the bed, and my crib, was the abode of my childhood; the walls, however, were covered with pictures, and over the workbench was a cupboard containing books and songs; the little kitchen was full of shining plates and metal pans, and by means of a ladder it was possible to go out on the roof, where, in the gutters between it and the neighbor's house, there stood a great chest filled with soil, my mother's sole garden, and where she grew her vegetables. In my story of the "Snow Queen" that garden still blooms.

I was the only child, and was extremely spoiled; but I continually heard from my mother how very much happier I was than she had been, and that I was brought up like a nobleman's child. She, as a child, had been driven out by her parents to beg; and once, when she was not able to do it, she had sat for a whole day under a bridge and wept.

My father gratified me in all my wishes. I possessed his whole heart; he lived for me. On Sundays he made me perspective-glasses, theatres, and pictures which could be changed; he read to me from Holberg's plays and the "Arabian Tales"; it was only in such moments as these that I can remember to have seen him really cheerful, for he never felt himself happy in his life and as a handicraftsman. His parents had been country people in good circumstances, but upon whom many misfortunes had fallen,—the cattle had died; the farm-house had been burned down; and, lastly, the husband had lost his reason. On this the wife had removed with him to Odense, and there put her son, whose mind was full of intelligence, apprentice to a shoemaker; it could not be otherwise, although it was his ardent wish to attend the grammar school, where he might learn Latin. A few well-to-do citizens had at one time spoken of this, of clubbing together to raise a sufficient sum to pay for his board and education, and thus giving him a start in life; but it never went beyond words. My poor father saw his dearest wish unfulfilled; and he never lost the remembrance of it. I recollect that once, as a child, I saw tears in his eyes, and it was when a youth from the grammar school came to our house to be measured for a new pair of boots, and showed us his books and told us what he learned.

"That was the path upon which I ought to have gone!" said my father, kissed me passionately, and was silent the whole evening.

He very seldom associated with his equals. He went out into the woods on Sundays, when he took me with him; he did not talk much when he was out, but would sit silently, sunk in deep thought, whilst I ran about and strung strawberries on a bent, or bound garlands. Only twice in the year, and that in the month of May, when the woods were arrayed in their earliest green, did my mother go with us; and then she wore a cotton gown, which she put on only on these occasions and when she partook of the Lord's Supper, and which, as long as I can remember, was her holiday gown. She always took home with her from the wood a great many fresh beech boughs, which were then planted behind the polished stone. Later in the year sprigs of St. John's wort were stuck into the chinks of the beams, and we considered their growth as omens whether our lives would be long or short. Green branches and pictures ornamented our little room, which my mother always kept neat and clean; she took great pride in always having the bed linen and the curtains very white.

One of my first recollections, although very slight in itself, had for me a good deal of importance, from the power by which the fancy of a child impressed it upon my soul; it was a family festival, and can you guess where? In that very place in Odense, in that house which I had always looked on with fear and trembling, just as boys in Paris may have looked at the Bastile,—in the Odense house of correction.

My parents were acquainted with the jailer, who invited them to a family dinner, and I was to go with them. I was at that time still so small that I was carried when we returned home.

The House of Correction was for me a great storehouse of stories about robbers and thieves; often I had stood, but always at a safe distance, and listened to the singing of the men within and of the women spinning at their wheels.

I went with my parents to the jailer's; the heavy iron-bolted gate was opened and again locked with the key from the rattling bunch; we mounted a steep staircase,—we ate and drank, and two of the prisoners waited at the table; they could not induce me to taste of anything, the sweetest things I pushed away; my mother told them I was sick, and I was laid on a bed, where I heard the spinning-wheels humming near by and merry singing, whether in my own fancy or in reality I cannot tell; but I know that I was afraid, and was kept on the stretch all the time; and yet I was in a pleasant humor, making up stories of how I had entered a castle full of robbers. Late in the night my parents went home, carrying me; the rain, for it was rough weather, dashing against my face.

Odense was in my childhood quite another town from what it is now, when it has shot ahead of Copenhagen, with its water carried through the town, and I know not what else! Then it was a hundred years behind the times; many customs and manners prevailed which long since disappeared from the capital. When the guilds removed their signs, they went in procession with flying banners and with lemons dressed in ribbons stuck on their swords. A harlequin with bells and a wooden sword ran at the head; one of them, an old fellow, Hans Struh, made a great hit by his merry chatter and his face, which was painted black, except the nose, that kept its genuine red color. My mother was so pleased with him that she tried to find out if he was in any way related to us; but I remember very well that I, with all the pride of an aristocrat, protested against any relationship with the "fool."

In my sixth year came the great comet of 1811; and my mother told me that it would destroy the earth, or that other horrible things threatened us. I listened to all these stories and fully believed them. With my mother and some of the neighboring women I stood in St. Canut's Churchyard and looked at the frightful and mighty fire-ball with its large shining tail.

All talked about the signs of evil and the day of doom. My father joined us, but he was not of the others' opinion at all, and gave them a correct and sound explanation; then my mother sighed, the women shook their heads, my father laughed and went away. I caught the idea that my father was not of our faith, and that threw me into a great fright. In the evening my mother and my old grandmother talked together, and I do not know how she explained it; but I sat in her lap, looked into her mild eyes, and expected every moment that the comet would rush down, and the day of judgment come.

The mother of my father came daily to our house, were it only for a moment, in order to see her little grandson. I was her joy and her delight. She was a quiet and most amiable old woman, with mild blue eyes and a fine figure, which life had severely tried. From having been the wife of a countryman in easy circumstances she had now fallen into great poverty, and dwelt with her feeble-minded husband in a little house, which was the last poor remains of their property. I never saw her shed a tear; but it made all the deeper impression upon me when she quietly sighed, and told me about her own mother's mother,—how she had been a rich, noble lady, in the city of Cassel, and that she had married a "comedy-player,"—that was as she expressed it,—and run away from parents and home, for all of which her posterity had now to do penance. I never can recollect that I heard her mention the family name of her grandmother; but her own maiden name was Nommesen. She was employed to take care of the garden belonging to a lunatic asylum; and every Sunday evening she brought us some flowers, which they gave her permission to take home with her. These flowers adorned my mother's cupboard; but still they were mine, and to me it was allowed to put them in the glass of water. How great was this pleasure! She brought them all to me; she loved me with her whole soul. I knew it, and I understood it.

She burned, twice in the year, the green rubbish of the garden; on such occasions she took me with her to the asylum, and I lay upon the great heaps of green leaves and pea-straw; I had many flowers to play with, and—which was a circumstance upon which I set great importance—I had here better food to eat than I could expect at home.

All such patients as were harmless were permitted to go freely about the court; they often came to us in the garden, and with curiosity and terror I listened to them and followed them about; nay, I even ventured so far as to go with the attendants to those who were raving mad. A long passage led to their cells. On one occasion, when the attendants were out of the way, I lay down upon the floor, and peeped through the crack of the door into one of these cells. I saw within a lady almost naked, lying on her straw bed; her hair hung down over her shoulders, and she sang with a very beautiful voice. All at once she sprang up, and threw herself against the door where I lay; the little valve through which she received her food burst open; she stared down upon me, and stretched out her long arm toward me. I screamed for terror,—I felt the tips of her fingers touching my clothes,—I was half dead when the attendant came; and even in later years that sight and that feeling remained within my soul.

I was very much afraid of my weak-minded grandfather. Only once had he ever spoken to me, and then he had made use of the formal pronoun, "you." He employed himself in cutting out of wood strange figures,—men with beasts' heads and beasts with wings; these he packed in a basket and carried them out into the country, where he was everywhere well received by the peasant-women, because he gave to them and their children these strange toys. One day, when he was returning to Odense, I heard the boys in the street shouting after him; I hid myself behind a flight of steps in terror, for I knew that I was of his flesh and blood.

I very seldom played with other boys; even at school I took little interest in their games, but remained sitting within doors. At home I had playthings enough, which my father made for me. My greatest delight was in making clothes for dolls, or in stretching out one of my mother's aprons between the wall and two sticks before a currant-bush which I had planted in the yard, and thus to gaze in between the sun-illumined leaves. I was a singularly dreamy child, and so constantly went about with my eyes shut, as at last to give the impression of having weak sight, although the sense of sight was especially cultivated by me.

An old woman-teacher, who had an A B C school, taught me the letters, to spell, and "to read right," as it was called. She used to have her seat in a high-backed arm-chair near the clock, from which at every full stroke some little automata came out. She made use of a big rod, which she always carried with her. The school consisted mostly of girls. It was the custom of the school for all to spell loudly and in as high a key as possible. The mistress dared not beat me, as my mother had made it a condition of my going that I should not be touched. One day having got a hit of the rod, I rose immediately, took my book, and without further ceremony went home to my mother, asked that I might go to another school, and that was granted me. My mother sent me to Carsten's school for boys; there was also one girl there, a little one somewhat older than I; we became very good friends; she used to speak of the advantage it was to be to her in going into service, and that she went to school especially to learn arithmetic, for, as her mother told her, she could then become dairy-maid in some great manor.

"That you can become in my castle when I am a nobleman!" said I; and she laughed at me, and told me that I was only a poor boy. One day I had drawn something which I called my castle, and I told her that I was a changed child of high birth, and that the angels of God came down and spoke to me. I wanted to make her stare as I did with the old women in the hospital, but she would not be caught. She looked queerly at me, and said to one of the other boys standing near, "He is a fool, like his grandpapa," and I shivered at the words. I had said it to give me an air of importance in their eyes; but I failed, and only made them think that I was insane like my grandfather.

I never spoke to her again about these things, but we were no longer the same playmates as before. I was the smallest in the school, and my teacher, Mr. Carsten, always took me by the hand while the other boys played, that I might not be run over; he loved me much, gave me cakes and flowers, and tapped me on the cheeks. One of the older boys did not know his lesson, and was punished by being placed, book in hand, upon the school-table, around which we were seated; but seeing me quite inconsolable at this punishment, he pardoned the culprit.

The poor old teacher became, later in life, telegraph-director at Thorseng, where he still lived until a few years since. It is said that the old man, when showing the visitors around, told them with a pleasant smile, "Well, well, you will perhaps not believe that such a poor old man as I was the first teacher of one of our most renowned poets!"

Sometimes, during the harvest, my mother went into the field to glean. I accompanied her, and we went, like Ruth in the Bible, to glean in the rich fields of Boaz. One day we went to a place the bailiff of which was well known for being a man of a rude and savage disposition. We saw him coming with a huge whip in his hand, and my mother and all the others ran away. I had wooden shoes on my bare feet, and in my haste I lost these, and then the thorns pricked me so that I could not run, and thus I was left behind and alone. The man came up and lifted his whip to strike me, when I looked him in the face and involuntarily exclaimed, "How dare you strike me, when God can see it?"

The strong, stern man looked at me, and at once became mild; he patted me on my cheeks, asked me my name, and gave me money.

When I brought this to my mother and showed it her, she said to the others, "He is a strange child, my Hans Christian; everybody is kind to him. This bad fellow even has given him money."