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Olé, the Watchman of the Tower

In the world it is always going up and down, and down and up again; but I can't go higher than I am," said Olé, the watchman of the church tower. "Ups and downs most people have to experience; in point of fact, we each become at last a kind of tower-watchman—we look at life and things from above."

Thus spoke Olé up in the lofty tower—my friend the watchman, a cheerful, chatty old fellow, who seemed to blurt everything out at random, though there were, in reality, deep and earnest feelings concealed in his heart. He had come of a good stock; some people even said that he was the son of a Conferentsraad,[5] or might have been that. He had studied, had been a teacher's assistant, assistant clerk in the church; but these situations had not done much for him. At one time he lived at the chief clerk's, and was to have bed and board free. He was then young, and somewhat particular about his dress, as I have heard. He insisted on having his boots polished and brushed with blacking, but the head clerk would only allow grease; and this was a cause of dissension between them. The one talked of stinginess, the other talked of foolish vanity. The blacking became the dark foundation of enmity, and so they parted; but what he had demanded from the clerk he also demanded from the world—real blacking; and he always got its substitute, grease; so he turned his back upon all mankind, and became a hermit. But a hermitage coupled with a livelihood is not to be had in the midst of a large city except up in the steeple of a church. Thither he betook himself, and smoked his pipe in solitude. He looked up, and he looked down; reflected according to his fashion upon all he saw, and all he did not see—on what he read in books, and what he read in himself.

[5] A Danish title.

I often lent him books, good books; and people can converse about these, as everybody knows. He did not care for fashionable English novels, he said, nor for French ones either—they were all too frivolous. No, he liked biographies, and books that relate to the wonders of nature. I visited him at least once a year, generally immediately after the New Year. He had then always something to say that the peculiar period suggested to his thoughts.

I shall relate what passed during two of my visits, and give his own words as nearly as I can.

THE FIRST VISIT.

Among the books I had last lent Olé was one about pebbles, and it pleased him extremely.

"Yes, sure enough they are veterans from old days, these pebbles," said he; "and yet we pass them carelessly by. I have myself often done so in the fields and on the beach, where they lie in crowds. We tread them under foot in some of our pathways, these fragments from the remains of antiquity. I have myself done that; but now I hold all these pebble-formed pavements in high respect. Thanks for that book; it has driven old ideas and habits of thinking aside, and has replaced them by other ideas, and made me eager to read something more of the same kind. The romance of the earth is the most astonishing of all romances. What a pity that one cannot read the first portion of it—that it is composed in a language we have not learned! One must read it in the layers of the ground, in the strata of the rocks, in all the periods of the earth. It was not until the sixth part that the living and acting persons, Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve, were introduced, though some will have it they came immediately. That, however, is all one to me. It is a most eventful tale, and we are all in it. We go on digging and groping, but always find ourselves where we were; yet the globe is ever whirling round, and without the waters of the world overwhelming us. The crust we tread on holds together—we do not fall through it; and this is a history of a million of years, with constant advancement. Thanks for the book about the pebbles. They could tell many a strange tale if they were able.

"Is it not pleasant once and away to become like a Nix, when one is perched so high as I am, and then to remember that we all are but minute ants upon the earth's ant-hill, although some of us are distinguished ants, some are laborious, and some are indolent ants? One seems to be so excessively young by the side of these million years old, reverend pebbles. I was reading the book on New Year's eve, and was so wrapped up in it that I forgot my accustomed amusement on that night, looking at 'the wild host to Amager,' of which you may have heard.

"The witches' journey on broomsticks is well known—that takes place on St. John's night, and to Bloksberg. But we have also the wild host, here at home and in our own time, which goes to Amager every New Year's eve. All the bad poets and poetesses, newspaper writers, musicians, and artists of all sorts, who come before the public, but make no sensation—those, in short, who are very mediocre, ride—on New Year's eve, out to Amager: they sit astride on their pencils or quill pens. Steel pens don't answer, they are too stiff. I see this troop, as I have said, every New Year's eve. I could name most of them, but it is not worth while to get into a scrape with them; they do not like people to know of their Amager flight upon quill pens. I have a kind of a cousin, who is a fisherman's wife, and furnishes abusive articles to three popular periodicals: she says she has been out there as an invited guest. She has described the whole affair. Half that she says, of course, are lies, but part might be true. When she was there they commenced with a song; each of the visitors had written his own song, and each sang his own composition: they all performed together, so it was a kind of 'cats' chorus'. Small groups marched about, consisting of those who labour at improving that gift which is called 'the gift of the gab:' they had their own shrill songs. Then came the little drummers, and those who write without giving their names—that is to say, whose grease is imposed on people for blacking; then there were the executioners, and the puffers of bad wares. In the midst of all the merriment, as it must have been, that was going on, shot up from a pit a stem, a tree, a monstrous flower, a large toadstool, and a cupola. These were the Utopian productions of the honoured assembly, the entire amount of their offerings to the world during the past year. Sparks flew from these various objects; they were the thoughts and ideas which had been borrowed or stolen, which now took wings to themselves, and flew away as if by magic. My cousin told me a good deal more, which, though laughable, was too malicious for me to repeat.

"I always watch this wild host fly past every New Year's eve; but on the last one, as I told you, I neglected to look at them, for I was rolling away in thought upon the round pebbles—rolling through thousands and thousands of years. I saw them detached from rocks far away in the distant north; saw them driven along in masses of ice before Noah's ark was put together; saw them sink to the bottom, and rise again in a sand-bank, which grew higher and higher above the water; and I said, 'That will be Zealand!' It became the resort of birds of various species unknown to us—the home of savage chiefs as little known to us, until the axe cut the Runic characters which then brought them into our chronology. As I was thus musing three or four falling stars attracted my eye. My thoughts took another turn. Do you know what falling stars are? The scientific themselves do not know what they are. I have my own ideas about them. How often in secret are not thanks and blessings poured out on those who have done anything great or good! Sometimes these thanks are voiceless, but they do not fall to the ground. I fancy that they are caught by the sunshine, and that the sunbeam brings the silent, secret praise down over the head of the benefactor. If it be an entire people that through time bestow their thanks, then the thanks come as a banquet—fall like a falling star over the grave of the benefactor. It is one of my pleasures, especially when on a New Year's eve I observe a falling star, to imagine to whose grave the starry messenger of gratitude is speeding. One of the last falling stars I saw took its blazing course towards the south-west. For whom was it dispatched? It fell, I thought, on the slope by Flensborg Fiord, where the Danish flag waves over Schleppegrell's, Læssöe's, and their comrades' graves. One fell in the centre of the country near Sorö. It was a banquet for Holberg's grave—a thank offering of years from many—a thank offering for his splendid comedies! It is a glorious and gratifying fancy that a falling star could illumine our graves. That will not be the case with mine; not even a single sunbeam will bring me thanks, for I have done nothing to deserve them. I have not even attained to blacking," said Olé; "my lot in life has been only to get grease."

THE SECOND VISIT.

It was on a New Year's day that I again ascended to the church tower. Olé began to speak of toasts. We drank one to the transition from the old drop in eternity to the new drop in eternity, as he called the year. Then he gave me his story about the glasses, and there was some sense in it.

"When the clocks strike twelve on New Year's night every one rises from table with a brimful glass, and drinks to the New Year. To commence the year with a glass in one's hand is a good beginning for a drunkard. To begin the year by going to bed is a good beginning for a sluggard. Sleep will, in the course of his year, play a prominent part; so will the glass.

"Do you know what dwells in glasses?" he asked. "There dwell in them health, glee, and folly. Within them dwell, also, vexations and bitter calamity. When I count up the glasses I can tell the gradations in the glass for different people. The first glass, you see, is the glass of health; in it grow health-giving plants. Stick to that one glass, and at the end of the year you can sit peacefully in the leafy bowers of health.

"If you take the second glass a little bird will fly out of it, chirping in innocent gladness, and men will laugh and sing with it, 'Life is pleasant. Away with care, away with fear!'

"From the third glass springs forth a little winged creature—a little angel he cannot well be called, for he has Nix blood and a Nix mind. He does not come to tease, but to amuse. He places himself behind your ear, and whispers some humorous idea; he lays himself close to your heart and warms it, so that you become very merry, and fancy yourself the cleverest among a set of great wits.

"In the fourth glass is neither plant, bird, nor little figure: it is the boundary line of sense, and beyond that line let no one go.

"If you take the fifth glass you will weep over yourself—you will be foolishly happy, or become stupidly noisy. From this glass will spring Prince Carnival, flippant and crack-brained. He will entice you to accompany him; you will forget your respectability, if you have any; you will forget more than you ought or dare forget. All is pleasure, gaiety, excitement; the maskers carry you off with them; the daughters of the Evil One, in silks and flowers, come with flowing hair and voluptuous charms. Escape them if you can.

"The sixth glass! In that sits Satan himself—a well-dressed, conversable, lively, fascinating little man—who never contradicts you, allows that you are always in the right—in fact, seems quite to adopt all your opinions. He comes with a lantern to convey you home to his own habitation. There is an old legend about a saint who was to choose one of the seven mortal sins, and he chose, as he thought, the least—drunkenness; but in that state he perpetrated all the other six sins. The human nature and the devilish nature mingle. This is the sixth glass; and after that all the germs of evil thrive in us, every one of them spreading with a rapidity and vigour that cause them to be like the mustard-seed in the Bible, 'which, indeed, is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree.' Most of them have nothing before them but to be cast into the furnace, and be smelted there.

"This is the story of the glasses," said Olé, the watchman of the church tower; "and it applies both to those who use blacking, and to those who use only grease."

Such was the result of the second visit to Olé. More may be forthcoming at some future time.




Hans Christian Andersen