By HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
"I will be Something," declared the eldest of five brothers; "I will be of use in the world; be it ever so humble a position that I may hold, let me be but useful, and that will be Something. I will make bricks; folk cannot do without them, so I shall at least do Something."
"Something very little, though," replied the second brother. "Why, it is as good as nothing! it is work that might be done by a machine. Better be a mason, as I intend to be. Then one belongs to a guild, becomes a citizen, has a banner of one's own. Nay, if all things go well, I may become a master, and have apprentices and workmen under me. That will be Something!"
"It will be nothing at all then, I can tell you that!" rejoined the third. "Think how many different ranks there are in a town far above that of a master-mason. You may be an honest sort of a man, but you will never be a gentleman; gentle and simple; those are the two grand divisions, and you will always be one of the 'simple.' Well, I know better than that. I will be an architect; I will be one of the thinkers, the artists; I will raise myself to the aristocracy of intellect. I may have to begin from the very lowest grade; I may begin as a carpenter's boy, and run about with a paper-cap on my head, to fetch ale for the workmen; I may not enjoy it, but I shall try to imagine it is only a masquerade. 'To-morrow,' I shall say, 'I will go my own way, and others shall not come near me.' Yes, I shall go to the Academy, learn to draw, and be called an architect. That will be Something! I may get a title, perhaps; and I shall build and build, as others before me have done. Yes, that will be Something!"
"But it is Something that I care nothing about," said the fourth. "I should not care to go on, on, in the beaten track, to be a mere copyist; I will be a genius, cleverer than all of you put together; I will create a new style, provide ideas for buildings suited to the climate and materials of our country, suited to our national character, and the requirements of the age."
"But supposing the climate and the materials don't agree," suggested the fifth, "how will you get on then, if they won't co-operate? As for our national character, to be following out that in architecture will be sheer affectation, and the requirements of modern civilization will drive you perfectly mad. I see you will none of you ever be anything, though of course you won't believe me. But do as you please, I shall not be like you. I shall reason over what you execute; there is something ridiculous in everything; I shall find it out, show you yeur faults--that will be Something!"
And he kept his word; and folk said of this fifth brother, "There is something in him, certainly; he has plenty of brains! but he does nothing." But he was content, he was Something.
But what became of the five brothers? We will hear the whole.
The eldest brother, the brickmaker, found that every brick he turned out whole yielded him a tiny copper coin--only copper--but a great many of these small coins, added together, could be converted into a bright silver dollar, and through the power of this, wheresoever he knocked, whether at baker's, butcher's, or tailor's, the door flew open, and he received what he wanted. Such was the virtue of his bricks; some, of course, got broken before they were finished, but a use was found even for these. For up by the trench would poor Mother Margaret fain build herself a little house, if she might; she took all the broken bricks, ay, and she got a few whole ones besides, for a good heart had the eldest brother, though only a brickmaker. The poor thing built her house with her own hands; it was very narrow, its one window was all on one side, the door was too low, and the thatch on the roof might have been laid on better, but it gave her shelter and a home, and could be seen far over the sea, which sometimes burst over the trench in its might, and sprinkled a salt shower over the little house, which kept its place there years after he who made the bricks was dead and gone.
As for the second brother, he learned to build after another fashion, as he had resolved. When he was out of his apprenticeship, he buckled on his knapsack and started, singing as he went, on his travels. He came home again, and became a master in his native town; he built, house after house, a whole street of houses; there they stood, looked well, and were a credit to the town; and these houses soon built him a little house for himself. How? Ask the houses, and they will give you no answer; but the people will answer you and say, "Why, of course, the street built him his house!" It was small enough, and had only a clay floor, but when he and his bride danced over it, the floor grew as smooth as if it had been polished, and from every stone in the wall sprung a flower, that looked as gay as the costliest tapestry. It was a pretty house and a happy wedded pair. The banner of the Masons' Guild waved outside, and workmen and apprentices shouted "Hurra!" Yes, that was Something! and at last he died--that, too, was Something!
Next comes the architect, the third brother. He began as a carpenter's apprentice, and ran about the town on errands, wearing a paper-cap; but he studied industriously at the Academy, and rose steadily upward. If the street full of houses had built a house for his brother the mason, the street took its name from the architect; the handsomest house in the whole street was his--that was Something, and he was Something! His children were gentlemen, and could boast of their "birth"; and when he died, his widow was a widow of condition--that is Something--and his name stood on the corner of the street, and was in everybody's lips--that is Something, too!
Now for the genius, the fourth brother, who wanted to invent something new, something original. Somehow the ground gave way beneath his feet; he fell and broke his neck. But he had a splendid funeral, with music and banners, and flowery paragraphs in the newspapers; and three eulogiums were pronounced over him, each longer than the last, and this would have pleased him mightily, for he loved speechifying of all things. A monument was erected over his grave, only one story high--but that is Something!
So now he was dead, as well as his three elder brothers; the youngest, the critic, outlived them all, and that was as it should be, for thus he had the last word, which to him was a matter of the greatest importance. "He had plenty of brains," folk said. Now his hour had struck, he died, and his soul sought the gates of heaven. There it stood side by side with another soul--old Mother Margaret from the trenches.
"It is for the sake of contrast, I suppose, that I and this miserable soul should wait here together," thought the critic. "Well now, who are you, my good woman?" he inquired.
And the old woman replied, with as much respect as though St. Peter himself were addressing her--in fact, she took him for St. Peter, he gave himself such grand airs--"I am a poor old soul, I have no family, I am only old Margaret from the house near the trenches."
"Well, and what have you done down below?"
"I have done as good as nothing in the world! nothing whatever! It will be mercy, indeed, if such as I am suffered to pass through this gate."
"And how did you leave the world?" inquired the critic, carelessly. He must talk about something; it wearied him to stand there, waiting.
"Well, I can hardly tell how I left it; I have been sickly enough during these last few years, and could not well bear to creep out of bed at all during the cold weather. It has been a severe winter, but now that is all past. For a few days, as your highness must know, the wind was quite still, but it was bitterly cold; the ice lay over the water as far as one could see. All the people in the town were out on the ice; there was dancing, and music, and feasting, and sledge-racing, I fancy; I could hear something of it all as I lay in my poor little chamber. And when it was getting toward evening, the moon was up, but was not yet very bright; I looked from my bed through the window, and I saw how there rose up over the sea a strange white cloud; I lay and watched it, watched the black dot in it, which grew bigger and bigger, and then I knew what it foreboded; that sign is not often seen, but I am old and experienced. I knew it, and I shivered with horror. Twice before in my life have I seen that sign, and I knew that there would be a terrible storm and a spring flood; it would burst over the poor things on the ice, who were drinking and dancing and merry-making. Young and old, the whole town was out on the ice; who was to warn them, if no one saw it, or no one knew what I knew? I felt so terrified, I felt all alive, as I had not felt for years! I got out of bed, forced the window open; I could see the folk running and dancing over the ice; I could see the gay-colored flags, I could hear the boys shout 'Hurra!' and the girls and lads a-singing. All were so merry; and all the time the white cloud with its black speck rose higher and higher! I screamed as loud as I could; but no one heard me, I was too far off. Soon would the storm break loose, the ice would break in pieces, and all that crowd would sink and drown. Hear me they could not; get out to them I could not; what was to be done? Then our Lord sent me a good thought; I could set fire to my bed; better let my house be burned to the ground than that so many should miserably perish. So I kindled a light; I saw the red flame mount up; I got out at the door, but then I fell down; I lay there, I could not get up again. But the flames burst out through the window and over the roof; they saw it down below, and they all ran as fast as they could to help me; the poor old crone they believed would be burned; there was not one who did not come to help me. I heard them come, and I heard, too, such a rustling in the air, and then a thundering as of heavy cannon-shots, for the spring-flood was loosening the ice, and it all broke up. But the folk were all come off it to the trenches, where the sparks were flying about me; I had them all safe. But I could not bear the cold and the fright, and that is how I have come up here. Can the gates of heaven be opened to such a poor old creature as I? I have no house now at the trenches; where can I go, if they refuse me here?"
Then the gates opened, and the Angel bade poor Margaret enter. As she passed the threshold, she dropped a blade of straw--straw from her bed--that bed which she had set alight to save the people on the ice, and lo! it had changed into gold! dazzling gold! yet flexible withal, and twisting into various forms.
"Look, that was what yonder poor woman brought," said the Angel. "But what dost thou bring? Truly, I know well that thou hast done nothing, not even made bricks. It is a pity thou canst not go back again to fetch at least one brick--not that it is good for anything when it is made, no, but because anything, the very least, done with a good will, is Something. But thou mayst not go back, and I can do nothing for thee."
Then poor Margaret pleaded for him thus: "His brother gave me all the bricks and broken bits wherewith I built my poor little house--that was a great kindness toward a poor old soul like me! May not all those bits and fragments, put together, be reckoned as one brick for him? It will be an act of mercy; he needs it, and this is the home of mercy."
"To thy brother, whom thou didst despise," said the Angel, "to him whose calling, in respect of worldly honor, was the lowest, shalt thou owe this mite of heavenly coin. Thou shalt not be sent away; thou shalt have leave to stand here without, and think over thy manner of life down below. But within thou canst not enter, until thou hast done something that is good--Something!"
"I fancy I could have expressed that better," thought the critic; but he did not say it aloud, and that was already--Something!