Uncle Reuben, by Selma Lagerlof
There was once, nearly eighty years ago, a little boy who went out
into the market-place to spin his top. The little boy's name was
Reuben. He was not more than three years old, but he swung his
little whip as bravely as anybody and made the top spin so that it
was a pleasure to see it.
On that day, eighty years ago, it was beautiful spring weather. It
was in the month of March, and the town was divided into two
worlds; one white and warm, where the sun shone, and one cold and
dark, where it was in shadow. The whole market-place was in the sun
except a narrow edge along one row of houses.
Now it happened that the little boy, brave as he was, grew tired of
spinning his top and looked about for some place to rest. It was
not hard to find. There were no benches or seats, but every house
was supplied with stone steps. Little Reuben could not imagine
He was a conscientious little fellow. He had a vague feeling that
his mother did not like to have him sit on strange people's steps.
His mother was poor, but just on that account it must never look as
if they wanted to take anything of anybody. So he went and sat on
their own stone steps, for they also lived on the market-place.
The steps lay in the shadow, and it was very cold there. The little
fellow leaned his head against the railing, drew up his legs and
made himself comfortable. For a little while he watched the
sunlight dance out in the market-place and the boys running and
spinning tops?then he shut his eyes and went to sleep.
He must have slept an hour. When he awoke he did not feel so well
as when he fell asleep; everything felt so dreadfully uncomfortable.
He went in to his mother crying, and his mother saw that he was ill
and put him to bed. And in a couple of days the boy was dead.
But that is not the end of his story. It happened that his mother
mourned for him from the depths of her heart with a sorrow which
defies years and death. His mother had several other children, many
cares occupied her time and thoughts, but there was always a corner
in her heart where her son Reuben dwelt undisturbed. He was ever
alive to her. When she saw a group of children playing in the
market-place, he too was running there, and when she went about her
house, she believed fully and firmly that the little boy was still
sitting and sleeping out on those dangerous stone steps. Certainly
none of her living children were so constantly in her thoughts as
her dead one.
Some years after his death little Reuben had a sister, and when she
grew to be old enough to run out on the market-place and spin tops,
it happened that she too sat down on the stone steps to rest. But
her mother felt instantly as if some one had pulled her skirt. She
came out and seized the little sister so roughly, when she lifted
her up, that she remembered it as long as she lived.
And as little did she forget how strange her mother's face was and
how her voice trembled, when she said: "Do you know that you once
had a little brother, whose name was Reuben, and he died because he
sat on these stone steps and caught cold? You do not want to die
and leave your mother, Berta?"
Brother Reuben soon became just as living to his brothers and
sisters as to his mother. She was able to make them see with her
eyes and they too soon saw him sitting out on the stone steps. And
it naturally never occurred to them to sit down there. Yes,
whenever they saw any one sitting on stone steps, or on a stone
railing, or on a stone by the roadside, they felt a prick in their
heart and thought of Brother Reuben.
Besides, Brother Reuben was always placed highest of all the
children when they spoke of him among themselves. For they all knew
that they were a troublesome and fatiguing family, who only gave
their mother care and inconvenience. They could not believe that
she would grieve much at losing any of them. But as she really
mourned for Brother Reuben, it was certain that he must have been
much better than they were.
They would often think: "Oh, if we could only give mother as much
joy as Brother Reuben!" And yet no one knew anything more about him
than that he had played top and caught cold on the stone steps. But
he must have been something wonderful, as their mother had such a
love for him.
He was wonderful too; he was more of a joy to his mother than any
of the children. Her husband died and she worked in care and want.
But the children had so strong a faith in their mother's grief for
the little three-year-old boy, that they were convinced that if he
had lived she would not have mourned over her misfortunes. And
every time they saw their mother weep, they thought that it was
because Brother Reuben was dead, or because they were not like
Brother Reuben. Soon enough an ever-growing desire was born in them
to rival their little dead brother in their mother's affection.
There was nothing that they would not have done for her, if she had
only cared as much for them as for him. And it was on account of
that longing, I think, that Brother Reuben did more good than any
of the other children.
Fancy that when the eldest brother had earned his first money by
rowing a stranger over the river, he came and gave it to his mother
without reserving a penny! Then his mother looked so happy that he
swelled with pride, and could not help betraying how ambitious
beyond measure he had been.
"Mother, am I not now as good as Brother Reuben?" His mother looked
at him questioningly. She seemed as if she was comparing his fresh,
glowing face with the little pale boy out on the stone steps. And
she would have liked to have answered yes, if she had been able,
but she could not.
"I am very fond of you, Ivan, but you will never be like Reuben."
It was beyond their powers; all the children realized it, and yet
they could not help trying.
They grew up strong and capable; they worked their way up to wealth
and consideration, while Brother Reuben only sat still on his stone
steps. But he still had a start; he could not be overtaken.
And at every success, every improvement, as they by degrees were
able to offer their mother a good home and comfort, it had to be
reward enough for them for their mother to say: "Ah, if my little
Reuben could have seen that!"
Brother Reuben followed his mother through the whole of her life,
even to her deathbed. It was he who robbed the death pangs of their
sting, since she knew that they bore her to him. In the midst of
her greatest suffering the mother could smile at the thought that
she was going to meet little Reuben.
And so died one whose faithful love had exalted and deified a poor
little three-year-old boy.
But neither was that the end of little Reuben's story. To all the
brothers and sisters he had become a symbol of their life of
endeavor, of their love for their mother, of all the touching
memories from the years of struggle and failure. There was always
something rich and warm in their voices when they spoke of him.
So he also glided into the lives of the children of his brothers
and sisters. His mother's love had raised him to greatness, and the
great influence generation after generation.
Sister Berta had a son, who had much to do with Uncle Reuben.
He was four years old the day he sat on the curbstone and stared
down into the gutter. It was full of rain water. Sticks and straws
were carried past in wild swirlings down to the sea. The little boy
sat and looked on with that pleasant calm that people feel in
following the adventurous existence of others, when they themselves
are in safety.
But his peaceful philosophizing was interrupted by his mother, who,
the moment she saw him, thought of the stone steps at home and of
"Oh, my dear little boy," she said, "do not sit there! Do you know
that your mamma had a little brother whose name was Reuben, and he
was four years old just like you? He died because he sat on just
such a curbstone and caught cold."
The little boy did not like being disturbed in his pleasant
thoughts. He sat still and philosophized, while his yellow, curly
hair fell down into his eyes.
Berta would not have done it for any one else, but for her dear
brother's sake she shook her little boy quite roughly. And so he
learned respect for Uncle Reuben.
Another time this little yellow-haired man had fallen on the ice;
he had been thrown down out of sheer spite by a big, naughty boy,
and there he sat and cried to show how badly he had been treated,
especially as his mother could not be very far off.
But he had forgotten that his mother was first and last Uncle
Reuben's sister. When she caught sight of Axel sitting on the ice,
she did not come with anything soothing or consoling, but only with
"Do not sit so, my little boy! Think of Uncle Reuben, who died when
he was five years old, just as you are now, because he sat down in
The boy stood up instantly when he heard her speak of Uncle Reuben,
but he felt a chill in his very heart. How could mamma talk about
Uncle Reuben when her little boy was in such distress! Axel had no
objection to his sitting and dying wherever he pleased, but now it
seemed as if he wished to take his own mamma away from him, and
that Axel could not bear. So he learned to hate Uncle Reuben.
High up on the stairway in Axel's home was a stone railing, which
was dizzily beautiful to sit on. Far below lay the stone floor of
the hall, and he who sat astride up there could dream that he was
being borne along over abysses. Axel called the balustrade the good
steed Grane. On his back he bounded over burning ramparts into an
enchanted castle. There he sat proud and bold with his long curls
waving, and fought Saint George's fight with the dragon. And as yet
it had not occurred to Uncle Reuben to want to ride there.
But of course he came. Just as the dragon was writhing in the agony
of death and Axel sat in lofty consciousness of victory, he heard
his nurse call: "Little Axel, do not sit there! Think of Uncle
Reuben, who died when he was eight years old, just as you are now,
because he sat and rode on a stone railing. You must never sit
Such a jealous old pudding-head, that Uncle Reuben! He could not
bear it, of course, because Axel was killing dragons and rescuing
princesses. If he did not look out, he, Axel, would show that he
could win glory too. If he should jump down to that stone floor and
dash his brains out, he would feel himself thrown into the shade,
that big liar.
Poor Uncle Reuben! The poor, good little boy who went to play top
out in the sunny market-place! Now he was to learn what it was to
be a great man.
It was in the country at Uncle Ivan's. A number of the cousins had
gathered in the beautiful garden. Axel was there, filled with his
hatred of his Uncle Reuben. He was longing to know if he was
tormenting any other besides himself, but there was something which
made him afraid to ask. It was as if he was going to commit some
At last the children were left to themselves. No big people were
present. Then Axel asked if they had ever heard of Uncle Reuben.
He saw how all the eyes flashed and that many small fists were
clenched, but it seemed as if the little mouths had been taught
respect for Uncle Reuben. "Hush!" said the whole crowd.
"No!" said Axel; "I want to know if there is any one else whom he
tortures, for I think he is the most troublesome of all uncles."
That one brave word broke the dam which had held in the indignation
of those tormented childhearts. There was a great murmuring and
shouting. So must a crowd of nihilists look when they revile an
The poor, great man's register of sins was unrolled. Uncle Reuben
persecuted the children of all his brothers and sisters. Uncle
Reuben died wherever he chose. Uncle Reuben was always the same age
as the child whose peace he wished to disturb.
And they had to show respect to him, although he was quite plainly
a liar. They might hate him in the most silent depths of their
heart, but overlook him or show him disrespect, no, then they were
What an air the old people put on when they spoke of him! Had he
ever really done anything so wonderful? To sit down and die was
nothing so surprising. And whatever great thing he may have done,
it was certain that he was now abusing his power. He opposed the
children in everything that they wanted to do, the old scarecrow.
He drove them from a noonday nap in the grass. He had discovered
their best hiding places in the park and forbidden them to go
there. His last performance was to ride on barebacked horses and to
drive in the hay-rigging.
They were all sure that the poor thing had never been more than
three years old. And now he fell upon the big children of fourteen
and insisted that he was their age. It was the most provoking thing.
It was perfectly incredible what came to light about him. He had
fished from the dam; he had rowed in the little flat-bottomed boat;
he had climbed up in the willow which hangs over the water, and in
which it was so nice to sit; yes, he had even slept on the powder-horn.
But they were all certain that there was no escape from his
tyranny. It was a relief to have spoken out, but not a remedy. They
could not rebel against Uncle Reuben.
You never would have believed it, but when these children grew to
be big and had children of their own, they immediately began to
make use of Uncle Reuben, just as their parents had done before them.
And their children again, the young people who are growing up now,
have learned their lesson so well, that it happened one summer out
in the country that a five-year-old boy came up to his old
grandmother Berta, who had sat down on the steps while waiting for
"Grandmother once had a brother whose name was Reuben."
"You are quite right, my little boy," grandmother said, and stood
That was as much of a sign to the young people as if they had seen
an old Royalist bow before King Charles's portrait. It made them
understand that Uncle Reuben always must remain great, however he
abused his position, only because he had been so deeply loved.
In these days, when all greatness is so carefully examined, he has
to be used with greater moderation than formerly. The limit for his
age is lower; trees, boats and powder-horns 'are safe from him, but
nothing of stone which can be sat upon can escape him.
And the children, the children of the day, treat him quite
otherwise than their parents did. They criticise him openly and
frankly. Their parents no longer understand how to inspire blind,
terrified obedience. Little boarding-school girls discuss Uncle
Reuben and wonder if he is anything but a myth. A six-year-old
child proposes that he should prove by experiment that it is
impossible to catch a mortal cold on stone steps.
But that is only a passing mood. That generation in their heart of
hearts is just as convinced of Uncle Reuben's greatness as the
preceding one and obey him just as they did. The day will come when
those scoffers will go down to the home of their ancestors, try to
find the old stone steps, and raise on it a tablet with a golden
They joke about Uncle Reuben for a few years, but as soon as they
are grown and have children to bring up, they will become convinced
of the use and need of the great man.
"Oh, my little child, do not sit on those stone steps! Your
mother's mother had an uncle whose name was Reuben. He died when he
was your age, because he sat down to rest on just such steps."
So will it be as long as the world lasts.