Ole the Tower-Keeper (Danish Folk Tale)

Folk Tales, Danish Folk Tales2156

“In the world it”s always going up and down–and now I can”t go up any

higher!” So said Ole the tower-keeper. “Most people have to try both

the ups and the downs; and, rightly considered, we all get to be

watchmen at last, and look down upon life from a height.”

Such was the speech of Ole, my friend, the old tower-keeper, a strange

talkative old fellow, who seemed to speak out everything that came

into his head, and who for all that had many a serious thought deep in

his heart. Yes, he was the child of respectable people, and there were

even some who said that he was the son of a privy councillor, or that

he might have been; he had studied too, and had been assistant teacher

and deputy clerk; but of what service was all that to him? In those

days he lived in the clerk”s house, and was to have everything in the

house, to be at free quarters, as the saying is; but he was still, so

to speak, a fine young gentleman. He wanted to have his boots cleaned

with patent blacking, and the clerk could only afford ordinary grease;

and upon that point they split–one spoke of stinginess, the other of

vanity, and the blacking became the black cause of enmity between

them, and at last they parted.

This is what he demanded of the world in general–namely, patent

blacking–and he got nothing but grease. Accordingly he at last drew

back from all men, and became a hermit; but the church tower is the

only place in a great city where hermitage, office, and bread can be

found together. So he betook himself up thither, and smoked his pipe

as he made his solitary rounds. He looked upward and downward, and had

his own thoughts, and told in his way of what he read in books and in

himself. I often lent him books, good books; and you may know a man by

the company he keeps. He loved neither the English governess-novels,

nor the French ones, which he called a mixture of empty wind and

raisin-stalks: he wanted biographies and descriptions of the wonders

of the world. I visited him at least once a year, generally directly

after New Year”s-day, and then he always spoke of this and that which

the change of the year had put into his head.

I will tell the story of three of these visits, and will reproduce his

own words whenever I can remember them.


Among the books which I had lately lent Ole, was one which had greatly

rejoiced and occupied him. It was a geological book, containing an

account of the boulders.

“Yes, they”re rare old fellows, those boulders!” he said; “and to

think that we should pass them without noticing them! And over the

street pavement, the paving-stones, those fragments of the oldest

remains of antiquity, one walks without ever thinking about them. I

have done the very thing myself. But now I look respectfully at every

paving-stone. Many thanks for the book! It has filled me with thought,

and has made me long to read more on the subject. The romance of the

earth is, after all, the most wonderful of all romances. It”s a pity

one can”t read the first volumes of it, because they “re written in a

language that we don”t understand. One must read in the different

strata, in the pebble-stones, for each separate period. Yes, it is a

romance, a very wonderful romance, and we all have our place in it. We

grope and ferret about, and yet remain where we are, but the ball

keeps turning, without emptying the ocean over us; the clod on which

we move about, holds, and does not let us through. And then it”s a

story that has been acting for thousands upon thousands of years, and

is still going on. My best thanks for the book about the boulders.

Those are fellows indeed! they could tell us something worth hearing,

if they only knew how to talk. It”s really a pleasure, now and then to

become a mere nothing, especially when a man is as highly placed as I

am. And then to think that we all, even with patent lacquer, are

nothing more than insects of a moment on that ant-hill the earth,

though we may be insects with stars and garters, places and offices!

One feels quite a novice beside these venerable million-year-old

boulders. On New Year”s-eve I was reading the book, and had lost

myself in it so completely, that I forgot my usual New Year”s

diversion, namely, the wild hunt to Amack. Ah, you don”t know what

that is!

“The journey of the witches on broomsticks is well enough known–that

journey is taken on St. John”s-eve, to the Brocken; but we have a wild

journey also, which is national and modern, and that is the journey to

Amack on the night of the New Year. All indifferent poets and

poetesses, musicians, newspaper writers and artistic notabilities, I

mean those who are no good, ride in the New Year”s-night through the

air to Amack. They sit backwards on their painting brushes or quill

pens, for steel pens won”t bear them, they”re too stiff. As I told

you, I see that every New Year”s night, and could mention the

majority of the riders by name, but I should not like to draw their

enmity upon myself, for they don”t like people to talk about their

ride to Amack on quill pens. I've a kind of niece, who is a fishwife,

and who, as she tells me, supplies three respectable newspapers with

the terms of abuse and vituperation they use, and she has herself been

at Amack as an invited guest; but she was carried out thither, for she

does not own a quill pen, nor can she ride. She has told me all about

it. Half of what she said is not true, but the other half gives us

information enough. When she was out there, the festivities began with

a song: each of the guests had written his own song, and each one sung

his own song, for he thought that the best, and it was all one, all

the same melody. Then those came marching up, in little bands, who are

only busy with their mouths. There were ringing bells that sang

alternately; and then came the little drummers that beat their tattoo

in the family circle; and acquaintance was made with those who write

without putting their names, which here means as much as using grease

instead of patent blacking; and then there was the beadle with his

boy, and the boy was the worst off, for in general he gets no notice

taken of him; then too there was the good street-sweeper with his

cart, who turns over the dust-bin, and calls it “good, very good,

remarkably good.” And in the midst of the pleasure that was afforded

by the mere meeting of these folks, there shot up out of the great

dirt-heap at Amack a stem, a tree, an immense flower, a great

mushroom, a perfect roof, which formed a sort of warehouse for the

worthy company, for in it hung everything they had given to the world

during the Old Year. Out of the tree poured sparks like flames of

fire; these were the ideas and thoughts, borrowed from others, which

they had used, and which now got free and rushed away like so many

fireworks. They played at “the stick burns,” and the young poets

played at “heart-burns,” and the witlings played off their jests, and

the jests rolled away with a thundering sound, as if empty pots were

being shattered against doors. “It was very amusing!” my niece said;

in fact, she said many things that were very malicious but very

amusing, but I won”t mention them, for a man must be good-natured and

not a carping critic. But you will easily perceive that when a man

once knows the rights of the journey to Amack, as I know them, it”s

quite natural that on the New Year”s-night one should look out to see

the wild chase go by. If in the New Year I miss certain persons who

used to be there, I am sure to notice others who are new arrivals: but

this year I omitted taking my look at the guests. I bowled away on the

boulders, rolled back through millions of years, and saw the stones

break loose high up in the North, saw them drifting about on icebergs,

long before Noah”s ark was constructed, saw them sink down to the

bottom of the sea, and reappear with a sand-bank, with that one that

peered forth from the flood and said, “This shall be Zealand!” I saw

them become the dwelling-place of birds that are unknown to us, and

then become the seat of wild chiefs of whom we know nothing, until

with their axes they cut their Runic signs into a few of these stones,

which then came into the calendar of time. But as for me, I had gone

quite beyond all lapse of time, and had become a cipher and a nothing.

Then three or four beautiful falling stars came down, which cleared

the air, and gave my thoughts another direction. You know what a

falling star is, do you not? The learned men are not at all clear

about it. I have my own ideas about shooting stars, as the common

people in many parts call them, and my idea is this: How often are

silent thanksgivings offered up for one who has done a good and noble

action! the thanks are often speechless, but they are not lost for all

that. I think these thanks are caught up, and the sunbeams bring the

silent, hidden thankfulness over the head of the benefactor; and if it

be a whole people that has been expressing its gratitude through a

long lapse of time, the thankfulness appears as a nosegay of flowers,

and at length falls in the form of a shooting star upon the good man”s

grave. I am always very much pleased when I see a shooting star,

especially in the New Year”s-night, and then find out for whom the

gift of gratitude was intended. Lately a gleaming star fell in the

south-west, as a tribute of thanksgiving to many, many! “For whom was

that star intended?” thought I. It fell, no doubt, on the hill by the

Bay of Flensberg, where the Danebrog waves over the graves of

Schleppegrell, Läslöes, and their comrades. One star also fell in the

midst of the land, fell upon Sorö, a flower on the grave of Holberg,

the thanks of the year from a great many–thanks for his charming


“It is a great and pleasant thought to know that a shooting star falls

upon our graves; on mine certainly none will fall–no sunbeam brings

thanks to me, for here there is nothing worthy of thanks. I shall not

get the patent lacquer,” said Ole; “for my fate on earth is only

grease, after all.”


It was New Year”s-day, and I went up on the tower. Ole spoke of the

toasts that were drunk on the transition from the old year into the

new, from one grave into the other, as he said. And he told me a story

about the glasses, and this story had a very deep meaning. It was


“When on the New Year”s-night the clock strikes twelve, the people at

the table rise up, with full glasses in their hands, and drain these

glasses, and drink success to the New Year. They begin the year with

the glass in their hands; that is a good beginning for topers. They

begin the New Year by going to bed, and that”s a good beginning for

drones. Sleep is sure to play a great part in the New Year, and the

glass likewise. Do you know what dwells in the glass?” asked Ole. “I

will tell you–there dwell in the glass, first, health, and then

pleasure, then the most complete sensual delight: and misfortune and

the bitterest woe dwell in the glass also. Now suppose we count the

glasses–of course I count the different degrees in the glasses for

different people.

“You see, the _first glass_, that”s the glass of health, and in that

the herb of health is found growing; put it up on the beam in the

ceiling, and at the end of the year you may be sitting in the arbour

of health.

“If you take the _second glass_–from this a little bird soars

upwards, twittering in guileless cheerfulness, so that a man may

listen to his song and perhaps join in “Fair is life! no downcast

looks! Take courage and march onward!”

“Out of the _third glass_ rises a little winged urchin, who cannot

certainly be called an angel-child, for there is goblin blood in his

veins, and he has the spirit of a goblin; not wishing to hurt or harm

you, indeed, but very ready to play off tricks upon you. He”ll sit at

your ear and whisper merry thoughts to you; he”ll creep into your

heart and warm you, so that you grow very merry and become a wit, so

far as the wits of the others can judge.

“In the _fourth glass_ is neither herb, bird, nor urchin: in that

glass is the pause drawn by reason, and one may never go beyond that


“Take the _fifth glass_, and you will weep at yourself, you will feel

such a deep emotion; or it will affect you in a different way. Out of

the glass there will spring with a bang Prince Carnival, nine times

and extravagantly merry: he”ll draw you away with him, you”ll forget

your dignity, if you have any, and you”ll forget more than you should

or ought to forget. All is dance, song, and sound; the masks will

carry you away with them, and the daughters of vanity, clad in silk

and satin, will come with loose hair and alluring charms: but tear

yourself away if you can!

“The _sixth glass_! Yes, in that glass sits a demon, in the form of a

little, well-dressed, attractive and very fascinating man, who

thoroughly understands you, agrees with you in everything, and becomes

quite a second self to you. He has a lantern with him, to give you

light as he accompanies you home. There is an old legend about a saint

who was allowed to choose one of the seven deadly sins, and who

accordingly chose drunkenness, which appeared to him the least, but

which led him to commit all the other six. The man”s blood is mingled

with that of the demon–it is the sixth glass, and with that the germ

of all evil shoots up within us; and each one grows up with a strength

like that of the grains of mustard seed, and shoots up into a tree,

and spreads over the whole world; and most people have no choice but

to go into the oven, to be re-cast in a new form.

“That”s the history of the glasses,” said the tower-keeper Ole, “and

it can be told with lacquer or only with grease; but I give it you

with both!”


On this occasion I chose the general “moving-day” for my visit to Ole,

for on that day it is anything but agreeable down in the streets in

the town; for they are full of sweepings, shreds, and remnants of all

sorts, to say nothing of the cast-off bed straw in which one has to

wade about. But this time I happened to see two children playing in

this wilderness of sweepings. They were playing at “going to bed,” for

the occasion seemed especially favourable for this sport: they crept

under the straw, and drew an old bit of ragged curtain over themselves

by way of coverlet. “It was splendid!” they said; but it was a little

too strong for me, and besides, I was obliged to mount up on my visit.

“It”s moving-day to-day,” he said; “streets and houses are like a

dust-bin, a large dust-bin; but I'm content with a cartload. I may get

something good out of that, and I really did get something good out of

it, once. Shortly after Christmas I was going up the street; it was

rough weather, wet and dirty; the right kind of weather to catch cold

in. The dustman was there with his cart, which was full, and looked

like a sample of streets on moving-day. At the back of the cart stood

a fir tree, quite green still, and with tinsel on its twigs: it had

been used on Christmas-eve, and now it was thrown out into the street,

and the dustman had stood it up at the back of his cart. It was droll

to look at, or you may say it was mournful–all depends on what you

think of when you see it; and I thought about it, and thought this and

that of many things that were in the cart: or I might have done so,

and that comes to the same thing. There was an old lady”s glove too: I

wonder what that was thinking of? Shall I tell you? The glove was

lying there, pointing with its little finger at the tree. “I'm sorry

for the tree,” it thought; “and I was also at the feast, where the

chandeliers glittered. My life was, so to speak, a ball-night: a

pressure of the hand, and I burst! My memory keeps dwelling upon that,

and I have really nothing else to live for!” This is what the glove

thought, or what it might have thought. “That”s a stupid affair with

yonder fir tree,” said the potsherds. You see, potsherds think

everything is stupid. “When one is in the dust-cart,” they said, “one

ought not to give one”s self airs and wear tinsel. I know that I have

been useful in the world, far more useful than such a green stick.”

That was a view that might be taken, and I don”t think it quite a

peculiar one; but for all that the fir tree looked very well: it was

like a little poetry in the dust-heap; and truly there is dust enough

in the streets on moving-day. The way is difficult and troublesome

then, and I feel obliged to run away out of the confusion; or if I am

on the tower, I stay there and look down, and it is amusing enough.

“There are the good people below, playing at “changing houses.” They

toil and tug away with their goods and chattels, and the household

goblin sits in an old tub and moves with them; all the little griefs

of the lodging and the family, and the real cares and sorrows, move

with them out of the old dwelling into the new; and what gain is there

for them or for us in the whole affair? Yes, there was written long

ago the good old maxim: “Think on the great moving-day of death!”

That is a serious thought; I hope it is not disagreeable to you that

I should have touched upon it? Death is the most certain messenger

after all, in spite of his various occupations. Yes, Death is the

omnibus conductor, and he is the passport writer, and he countersigns

our service-book, and he is director of the savings bank of life. Do

you understand me? All the deeds of our life, the great and the little

alike, we put into this savings bank; and when Death calls with his

omnibus, and we have to step in, and drive with him into the land of

eternity, then on the frontier he gives us our service-book as a pass.

As a provision for the journey he takes this or that good deed we have

done, and lets it accompany us; and this may be very pleasant or very

terrific. Nobody has ever escaped this omnibus journey: there is

certainly a talk about one who was not allowed to go–they call him

the Wandering Jew: he has to ride behind the omnibus. If he had been

allowed to get in, he would have escaped the clutches of the poets.

“Just cast your mind”s eye into that great omnibus. The society is

mixed, for king and beggar, genius and idiot, sit side by side: they

must go without their property and money; they have only the

service-book and the gift out of the saving”s bank with them. But

which of our deeds is selected and given to us? Perhaps quite a little

one, one that we have forgotten, but which has been recorded–small as

a pea, but the pea can send out a blooming shoot. The poor bumpkin,

who sat on a low stool in the corner, and was jeered at and flouted,

will perhaps have his worn-out stool given him as a provision; and the

stool may become a litter in the land of eternity, and rise up then as

a throne, gleaming like gold, and blooming as an arbour. He who always

lounged about, and drank the spiced draught of pleasure, that he might

forget the wild things he had done here, will have his barrel given to

him on the journey, and will have to drink from it as they go on; and

the drink is bright and clear, so that the thoughts remain pure, and

all good and noble feelings are awakened, and he sees and feels what

in life he could not or would not see; and then he has within him the

punishment, the _gnawing worm_, which will not die through time

incalculable. If on the glasses there stood written “_oblivion_,” on

the barrel “_remembrance_” is inscribed.

“When I read a good book, an historical work, I always think at last

of the poetry of what I am reading, and of the omnibus of death, and

wonder which of the hero”s deeds Death took out of the savings bank

for him, and what provisions he got on the journey into eternity.

There was once a French king–I have forgotten his name, for the names

of good people are sometimes forgotten, even by me, but it will come

back some day; there was a king who, during a famine, became the

benefactor of his people; and the people raised to his memory a

monument of snow, with the inscription, “Quicker than this melts didst

thou bring help!” I fancy that Death, looking back upon the monument,

gave him a single snow-flake as provision, a snow-flake that never

melts, and this flake floated over his royal head, like a white

butterfly, into the land of eternity. Thus too, there was a Louis

XI.–I have remembered his name, for one remembers what is bad–a

trait of him often comes into my thoughts, and I wish one could say

the story is not true. He had his lord high constable executed, and he

could execute him, right or wrong; but he had the innocent children of

the constable, one seven and the other eight years old, placed under

the scaffold so that the warm blood of their father spurted over them,

and then he had them sent to the Bastille, and shut up in iron cages,

where not even a coverlet was given them to protect them from the

cold. And King Louis sent the executioner to them every week, and had

a tooth pulled out of the head of each, that they might not be too

comfortable; and the elder of the boys said, “My mother would die of

grief if she knew that my younger brother had to suffer so cruelly;

therefore pull out two of my teeth, and spare him.” The tears came

into the hangman”s eyes, but the king”s will was stronger than the

tears; and every week two little teeth were brought to him on a silver

plate; he had demanded them, and he had them. I fancy that Death took,

these two teeth out of the savings bank of life, and gave them to

Louis XI., to carry with him on the great journey into the land of

immortality: they fly before him like two flames of fire; they shine

and burn, and they bite him, the innocent children”s teeth.

“Yes, that”s a serious journey, the omnibus ride on the great

moving-day! And when is it to be undertaken? That”s just the serious

part of it. Any day, any how, any minute, the omnibus may draw up.

Which of our deeds will Death take out of the savings bank, and give

to us as provision? Let us think of the moving-day that is not marked

in the calendar.”

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