By HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
The sheriff stood at the open window; he wore ruffles, and a dainty breastpin decorated the front of his shirt; he was neatly shaven, and a tiny little strip of sticking-plaster covered the little cut he had given himself during the process. "Well, my little man?" quoth he.
The "little man" was no other than the laundress's son, who respectfully took off his cap in passing. His cap was broken in the rim, and adapted to be put into the pocket on occasion; his clothes were poor, but clean, and very neatly mended, and he wore heavy wooden shoes. He stood still when the sheriff spoke, as respectfully as though he stood before the king.
"Ah, you're a good boy, a well-behaved boy!" said the sheriff. "And so your mother is washing down at the river; _she_ isn't good for much. And you're going to her, I see. Ah, poor child!--well, you may go."
And the boy passed on, still holding his cap in his hand, while the wind tossed to and fro his waves of yellow hair. He went through the street, down a little alley to the brook, where his mother stood in the water, at her washing-stool, beating the heavy linen. The water-mill's sluices were opened, and the current was strong; the washing-stool was nearly carried away by it, and the laundress had hard work to strive against it.
"I am very near taking a voyage," she said, "and it is so cold out in the water; for six hours have I been standing here. Have you anything for me?"--and the boy drew forth a phial, which his mother put to her lips. "Ah, that is as good as warm meat, and it is not so dear. O, the water is so cold--but if my strength will but last me out to bring you up honestly, my sweet child!"
At that moment approached an elderly woman, poorly clad, blind of one eye, lame on one leg, and with her hair brushed into one large curl to hide the blind eye--but in vain, the defect was only the more conspicuous. This was "Lame Maren," as the neighbors called her, a friend of the washerwoman's. "Poor thing, slaving and toiling away in the cold water! it is hard that you should be called names"--for Maren had overheard the sheriff speaking to the child about his own mother-- "hard that your boy should be told you are good-for-nothing."
"What! did the sheriff really say so, child?" said the Laundress, and her lips quivered. "So you have a mother who is good-for-nothing! Perhaps he is right, only he should not say so to the child--but I must not complain, for good things have come to me from that house."
"Why yes, you were in service there once, when the sheriff's parents were alive, many years since. There is a grand dinner at the sheriff's to-day," went on Maren; "it would have been put off, though, had not everything been prepared. I heard it from the porter. News came in a letter, an hour ago, that the sheriff's younger brother, at Copenhagen, is dead."
"Dead!" repeated the Laundress, and she turned as white as a corpse.
"What do you care about it?" said Maren. "To be sure, you must have known him, since you served in the house."
"Is he dead? he was the best, the kindest of creatures! indeed, there are not many like him," and the tears rolled down her cheeks. "O, the world is turning round, I feel so ill!" and she clung to the washing-stool for support.
"You are ill, indeed!" cried Maren. "Take care, the stool will overturn. I had better get you home at once."
"But the linen?"
"I will look after that--only lean on me. The boy can stay here and watch it till I come back and wash what is left; it is not much."
The poor laundress's limbs trembled under her. "I have stood too long in the cold water; I have had no food since yesterday. O, my poor child!" and she wept.
The boy cried too, as he sat alone beside the brook, watching the wet linen. Slowly the two women made their way up the little alley and through the street, past the sheriff's house. Just as she reached her humble home, the laundress fell down on the paving-stones, fainting. She was carried upstairs and put to bed. Kind Maren hastened to prepare a cup of warm ale--that was the best medicine in this case, she thought--and then went back to the brook and did the best she could with the linen.
In the evening she was again in the laundress's miserable room. She had begged from the sheriff's cook a few roasted potatoes and a little bit of bacon, for the sick woman. Maren and the boy feasted upon these, but the patient was satisfied with the smell of them--that, she declared, was very nourishing.
Supper over, the boy went to bed, lying crosswise at his mother's feet, with a coverlet made of old carpet-ends, blue and red, sewed together.
The Laundress now felt a little better; the warm ale had strengthened her, the smell of the meat had done her good.
"Now, you good soul," said she to Maren, "I will tell you all about it, while the boy is asleep. That he is already; look at him, how sweetly he looks with his eyes closed; he little thinks how his mother has suffered. May he never feel the like! Well, I was in service with the sheriff's parents when their youngest son, the student, came home; I was a wild young thing then, but honest--that I must say for myself. And the student was so pleasant and merry, a better youth never lived. He was a son of the house, I only a servant, but we became sweethearts--all in honor and honesty--and he told his mother that he loved me; she was like an angel in his eyes, so wise, kind, and loving! And he went away, but his gold ring of betrothal was on my finger. When he was really gone, my mistress called me in to speak to her; so grave, yet so kind she looked, so wisely she spoke, like an angel, indeed. She showed me what a gulf of difference in tastes, habits, arid mind lay between her son and me. 'He sees you now to be good-hearted and pretty, but will you always be the same in his eyes? You have not been educated as he has been; intellectually you cannot rise to his level. I honor the poor,' she continued, 'and I know that in the kingdom of heaven many a poor man will sit in a higher seat than the rich; but that is no reason for breaking the ranks in this world, and you two, left to yourselves, would drive your carriage full tilt against all obstacles till it toppled over with you both. I know that a good honest handicraftsman, Erik, the glove-maker, has been your suitor; he is a widower without children, he is well off; think whether you cannot be content with him.' Every word my mistress spoke went like a knife through my heart, but I knew she was right; I kissed her hand, and shed such bitter tears! But bitterer tears still came when I went into my chamber and lay upon my bed. O, the long, dreary night that followed! Our Lord alone knows what I suffered. Not till I went to church on Sunday did a light break upon my darkness. It seemed providential that as I came out of church I met Erik the glove-maker. There were no more doubts in my mind; he was a good man, and of my own rank. I went straight to him, took his hand, and asked, 'Art thou still in the same mind toward me?'--'Yes, and I shall never be otherwise minded,' he replied.--'Dost thou care to have a girl who likes and honors thee, but does not love thee?'--'I believe love will come,' he said, and so he took my hand. I went home to my mistress; the gold ring that her son had given to me, that I wore all day next my heart, and on my finger at night in bed, I now drew forth; I kissed it till my mouth bled, I gave it to my mistress, and said that next week the bans would be read for me and the glove-maker. My mistress took me in her arms and kissed me; she did not tell me I was good-for-nothing; I was good for something then, it seems, before I had known so much trouble. The wedding was at Candlemastide, and our first year all went well; my husband had apprentices, and you, Maren, helped me in the housework."
"O, and you were such a good mistress!" exclaimed Maren. "Never shall I forget how kind you and your husband were to me."
"Ah, you were with us during our good times! We had no children then. The student I never saw again--yes, once I saw him, but he did not see me. He came to his mother's funeral; I saw him standing by her grave, looking so sad, so ashy pale--but all for his mother's sake. When afterward his father died, he was abroad and did not come to the funeral. Nor has he been here since; he is a lawyer, that I know, and he has never married. But he thought no more of me, and had he seen me, he would certainly have never recognized me, so ugly as I am now. And it is right it should be so."
Then she went on to speak of the bitter days of adversity, when troubles had come upon them in a flood. They had five hundred rix-dollars, and as in their street a house could be bought for two hundred, it was considered a good investment to buy it, take it down, and build it anew. The house was bought; masons and carpenters made an estimate that one thousand and twenty rix-dollars more would be required. Erik arranged to borrow this sum from Copenhagen, but the ship that was to bring him the money was lost, and the money with it. "It was just then that my sweet boy, who lies sleeping here, was born. Then his father fell sick; for three-quarters of a year I had to dress and undress him every day. We went on borrowing and borrowing; all our things had to be sold, one by one; at last Erik died. Since then I have toiled and moiled for the boy's sake, have gone out cleaning and washing, done coarse work or fine, whichever I could get; but I do everything worse and worse; my strength will never return any more; it is our Lord's will! He will take me away, and find better provision for my boy."
She fell asleep. In the morning she seemed better, and fancied she was strong enough to go to her work again. But no sooner did she feel the cold water than a shivering seized her, she felt about convulsively with her hands, tried to step forward, and fell down. Her head lay on the dry bank, but her feet were in the water of the brook, her wooden shoes were carried away by the stream. Here she was found by Maren.
A message had been taken to her lodging that the sheriff wanted her, had something to say to her. It was too late; the poor washerwoman was dead. The letter that had brought the sheriff news of his brother's death also gave an abstract of his will; among other bequests he had left six hundred rix-dollars to the glove-maker's widow, who had formerly served his parents. "There was some love-nonsense between my brother and her," quoth the sheriff. "It is all as well she is out of the way; now it will all come to the boy, and I shall apprentice him to honest folk who will make him a good workman." For whatever the sheriff might do, were it ever so kind an action, he always spoke harshly and unkindly. So he now called the boy to him, promised to provide for him, and told him it was a good thing his mother was dead; she was good-for-nothing!
She was buried in the paupers' churchyard. Maren planted a little rose-tree over the grave; the boy stood by her side the while.
"My darling mother!" he sighed, as the tears streamed down from his eyes. "It was not true that she was good-for-nothing!"
"No, indeed!" cried her old friend, looking up to heaven. "Let the world say she was good-for-nothing; our Lord in his heavenly kingdom will not say so."