Pelle the Conqueror, Complete
Martin Anderson Nexo
Part 14 out of 23
unveiled yet another world: then the death-watches audibly bored their
way beneath the old wall-papers, while rats and mice and the larvae of
wood-beetles vied with one another in their efforts. The darkness was
full of the aromatic fragrance of the falling worm-dust. All through
this old box of a building dissolution was at work, with thousands of
tiny creatures to aid it. At times the sound of it all rose to a
tremendous crash which awoke Pelle from sleep, when some old worm-eaten
timber was undermined and sagged in a fresh place. Then he would turn
over on the other side.
When he went out of an evening he liked to make his way through the
cheerful, crowded streets, in order to share in the brightness of it
all; the rich luxury of the shops awakened something within him which
noted the startling contrast between this quarter of the town and his
own. When he passed from the brightly lit city into his own quarter, the
streets were like ugly gutters to drain the darkness, and the "Ark" rose
mysteriously into the sky of night like a ponderous mountain. Dark
cellar-openings led down into the roots of the mountain, and there, in
its dark entrails, moved wan, grimy creatures with smoky lamps; there
were all those who lived upon the poverty of the "Ark"--the old iron
merchant, the old clothes merchant, and the money-lender who lent money
upon tangible pledges. They moved fearfully, burrowing into strange-
looking heaps. The darkness was ingrained in them; Pelle was always
reminded of the "underground people" at home. So the base of the cliffs
had opened before his eyes in childhood, and he had shudderingly watched
the dwarfs pottering about their accursed treasure. Here they moved
about like greedy goblins, tearing away the foundations from under the
careless beings in the "Ark," so that one day these might well fall into
the cellars--and in the meantime they devoured them hair and hide. At
all events, the bad side of the fairy tale was no lie!
One day Pelle threw down his work in the twilight and went off to carry
out his mission. Pipman had some days earlier fallen drunk from the
rickety steps, and down in the well the children of the quarter
surrounded the place where he had dropped dead, and illuminated it with
matches. They could quite plainly see the dark impress of a shape that
looked like a man, and were all full of the spectacle.
Outside the mouth of the tunnel-like entry he stopped by the window of
the old clothes dealer's cellar. Old Pipman's tools lay spread out there
in the window. So she had got her claws into them too! She was rummaging
about down there, scurfy and repulsive to look at, chewing an
unappetizing slice of bread-and-butter, and starting at every sound that
came from above, so anxious was she about her filthy money! Pelle needed
a new heel-iron, so he went in and purchased that of Pipman. He had to
haggle with her over the price.
"Well, have you thought over my proposal?" she asked, when the deal was
"What proposal?" said Pelle, in all ignorance.
"That you should leave your cobbling alone and be my assistant in the
So that was what she meant? No, Pelle hadn't thought over it
"I should think there isn't much to think over. I have offered you more
than you could earn otherwise, and there's not much to do. And I keep a
man who fetches and carries things. It's mostly that I have a fancy to
have a male assistant. I am an old woman, going about alone here, and
you are so reliable, I know that."
She needed some one to protect all the thousands of kroner which she had
concealed in these underground chambers. Pelle knew that well enough--
she had approached him before on the subject.
"I should scarcely be the one for that--to make my living out of the
poverty of others," said Pelle, smiling. "Perhaps I might knock you over
the head and distribute all your pennies to the poor!"
The old woman stared at him for a moment in alarm. "Ugh, what a horrible
thing to say!" she cried, shuddering. "You libel your good heart, joking
about such things. Now I shan't like to stay here in the cellar any
longer when you've gone. How can you jest so brutally about life and
death? Day and night I go about here trembling for my life, and yet I've
nothing at all, the living God knows I've nothing. That is just gossip!
Everybody looks at me as much as to say, 'I'd gladly strike you dead to
get your money!' And that's why I'd like to have a trustworthy man in
the business; for what good is it to me that I've got nothing when they
all believe I have? And there are so many worthless fellows who might
fall upon one at any moment."
"If you have nothing, you can be easy," said Pelle teasingly. "No need
for an empty stomach to have the nightmare!"
"Have nothing! Of course one always has something! And Pelle"--she
leaned confidentially over him with a smirk on her face--"now Mary will
soon come home, perhaps no later than this summer. She has earned so
much over there that she can live on it, and she'll still be in the
prime of her youth. What do you think of that? In her last letter she
asked me to look out for a husband for her. He need only be handsome,
for she has money enough for two. Then she'd rent a big house in the
fine part of the city, and keep her own carriage, and live only for her
handsome husband. What do you say to that, Pelle?"
"Well, that is certainly worth thinking over!" answered Pelle; he was in
overflowing high spirits.
"Thinking over? Is that a thing to think over? Many a poor lord would
accept such an offer and kiss my hand for it, if only he were here."
"But I'm not a lord, and now I must be going."
"Won't you just see her pictures?" The old woman began to rummage in a
"No." Pelle only wanted to be gone. He had seen these pictures often
enough, grimed with the air of the cellar and the old woman's filthy
hands; pictures which represented Mary now as a slim figure, striped
like a tiger-cat, as she sang in the fashionable variety theaters of St.
Petersburg, now naked, with a mantle of white furs, alone in the midst
of a crowd of Russian officers--princes, the old woman said. There was
also a picture from the aquarium, in which she was swimming about in a
great glass tank amid some curious-looking plants, with nothing on her
body but golden scales and diamond ornaments. She had a magnificent
body--that he could plainly see; but that she could turn the heads of
fabulously wealthy princes and get thousands out of their pockets merely
by undressing herself--that he could not understand. And he was to take
her to wife, was he?--and to get all that she had hoarded up! That was
tremendously funny! That beat everything!
He went along the High Street with a rapid step. It was raining a
little; the light from the street lamps and shop-windows was reflected
in the wet flagstones; the street wore a cheerful look. He went onward
with a feeling that his mind was lifted above the things of everyday;
the grimy old woman who lived as a parasite on the poverty of the "Ark"
and who had a wonderful daughter who was absorbing riches like a leech.
And on top of it all the little Pelle with the "lucky curl," like the
curly-haired apprentice in the story! Here at last was the much-longed-
for fairy tale!
He threw back his head and laughed. Pelle, who formerly used to feel
insults so bitterly, had achieved a sense of the divinity of life.
That evening his round included the Rabarber ward. Pelle had made
himself a list, according to which he went forth to search each ward of
the city separately, in order to save himself unnecessary running about.
First of all, he took a journeyman cobbler in Smith Street; he was one
of Meyer's regular workers, and Pelle was prepared for a hard fight. The
man was not at home. "But you can certainly put him down," said his
wife. "We've been talking it over lately, and we've come to see it's
really the best thing." That was a wife after Pelle's heart. Many would
deny that their husbands were at home when they learned what Pelle
wanted; or would slam the door in his face; they were tired of his
running to and fro.
He visited various houses in Gardener Street, Castle Street, Norway
Street, making his way through backyards and up dark, narrow stairs, up
to the garrets or down to the cellars.
Over all was the same poverty; without exception the cobblers were
lodged in the most miserable holes. He had not a single success to
record. Some had gone away or were at fresh addresses; others wanted
time to consider or gave him a direct refusal. He promised himself that
he would presently give the wobblers another call; he would soon bring
them round; the others he ticked off, keeping them for better times--
their day too would come before long! It did not discourage him to meet
with refusals; he rejoiced over the single sheep. This was a work of
patience, and patience was the one thing in which he had always been
He turned into Hunter Street and entered a barrack-like building,
climbing until he was right under the roof, when he knocked on a door.
It was opened by a tall thin man with a thin beard. This was Peter, his
fellow-'prentice at home. They were speedily talking of the days of
their apprenticeship, and the workshop at home with all the curious
company there. There was not much that was good to be said of Master
Jeppe. But the memory of the young master filled them with warmth. "I
often think of him in the course of the year," said Peter. "He was no
ordinary man. That was why he died."
There was something abstracted about Peter; and his den gave one an
impression of loneliness. Nothing was left to remind one of the
mischievous fellow who must always be running; but something hostile and
obstinate glowed within his close-set eyes. Pelle sat there wondering
what could really be the matter with him. He had a curious bleached look
as though he had shed his skin; but he wasn't one of the holy sort, to
judge by his conversation.
"Peter, what's the truth of it--are you one of us?" said Pelle suddenly.
A disagreeable smile spread over Peter's features. "Am I one of you?
That sounds just like when they ask you--have you found Jesus? Have you
become a missionary?"
"You are welcome to call it that," replied Pelle frankly, "if you'll
only join our organization. We want you."
"You won't miss me--nobody is missed, I believe, if he only does his
work. I've tried the whole lot of them--churches and sects and all--and
none of them has any use for a man. They want one more listener, one
more to add to their list; it's the same everywhere." He sat lost in
thought, looking into vacancy. Suddenly he made a gesture with his hands
as though to wave something away. "I don't believe in anything any
longer, Pelle--there's nothing worth believing in."
"Don't you believe in improving the lot of the poor, then? You haven't
tried joining the movement?" asked Pelle.
"What should I do there? They only want to get more to eat--and the
little food I need I can easily get. But if they could manage to make me
feel that I'm a man, and not merely a machine that wants a bit more
greasing, I'd as soon be a thin dog as a fat one."
"They'd soon do that!" said Pelle convincingly. "If we only hold
together, they'll have to respect the individual as well, and listen to
his demands. The poor man must have his say with the rest."
Peter made an impatient movement. "What good can it do me to club folks
on the head till they look at me? It don't matter a damn to me! But
perhaps they'd look at me of their own accord--and say, of their own
accord--'Look, there goes a man made in God's image, who thinks and
feels in his heart just as I do!' That's what I want!"
"I honestly don't understand what you mean with your 'man,'" said Pelle
irritably. "What's the good of running your head against a wall when
there are reasonable things in store for us? We want to organize
ourselves and see if we can't escape from slavery. Afterward every man
can amuse himself as he likes."
"Well, well, if it's so easy to escape from slavery! Why not? Put down
my name for one!" said Peter, with a slightly ironical expression.
"Thanks, comrade!" cried Pelle, joyfully shaking his hand. "But you'll
do something for the cause?"
Peter looked about him forlornly. "Horrible weather for you to be out
in," he said, and he lighted Pelle down the stairs.
Pelle went northward along Chapel Street. He wanted to look up Morten.
The wind was chasing the leaves along by the cemetery, driving the rain
in his face. He kept close against the cemetery wall in order to get
shelter, and charged against the wind, head down. He was in the best of
humors. That was two new members he had won over; he was getting on by
degrees! What an odd fish Peter had become; the word, "man, man,"
sounded meaningless to Pelle's ears. Well, anyhow, he had got him on the
Suddenly he heard light, running steps behind him. The figure of a man
reached his side, and pushed a little packet under Pelle's arm without
stopping for a moment. At a short distance he disappeared. It seemed to
Pelle as though he disappeared over the cemetery wall.
Under one of the street lamps he stopped and wonderingly examined the
parcel; it was bound tightly with tape. "For mother" was written upon it
in an awkward hand. Pelle was not long in doubt--in that word "mother"
he seemed plainly to hear Ferdinand's hoarse voice. "Now Madam Frandsen
will be delighted," he thought, and he put it in his pocket. During the
past week she had had no news of Ferdinand. He dared no longer venture
through Kristianshavn. Pelle could not understand how Ferdinand had lit
upon him. Was he living out here in the Rabarber ward?
Morten was sitting down, writing in a thick copybook. He closed it
hastily as Pelle entered.
"What is that?" asked Pelle, who wanted to open the book; "are you still
writing in your copybook?"
Morten, confused, laid his hand on the book. "No. Besides--oh, as far as
that goes," he said, "you may as well know. I have written a poem. But
you mustn't speak of it."
"Oh, do read it out to me!" Pelle begged.
"Yes; but you must promise me to be silent about it, or the others will
just think I've gone crazy."
He was quite embarrassed, and he stammered as he read. It was a poem
about poor people, who bore the whole world on their upraised hands, and
with resignation watched the enjoyment of those above them. It was
called, "Let them die!" and the words were repeated as the refrain of
every verse. And now that Morten was in the vein, he read also an
unpretentious story of the struggle of the poor to win their bread.
"That's damned fine!" cried Pelle enthusiastically. "Monstrously good,
Morten! I don't understand how you put it together, especially the
verse. But you're a real poet. But I've always thought that--that you
had something particular in you. You've got your own way of looking at
things, and they won't clip your wings in a hurry. But why don't you
write about something big and thrilling that would repay reading--
there's nothing interesting about us!"
"But I find there is!"
"No, I don't understand that. What can happen to poor fellows like us?"
"Then don't you believe in greatness?"
To be sure Pelle did. "But why shouldn't we have splendid things right
"You want to read about counts and barons!" said Morten. "You are all
like that. You regard yourself as one of the rabble, if it comes to
that! Yes, you do! Only you don't know it! That's the slave-nature in
you; the higher classes of society regard you as such and you
involuntarily do the same. Yes, you may pull faces, but it's true, all
the same! You don't like to hear about your own kind, for you don't
believe they can amount to anything! No, you must have fine folks--
always rich folks! One would like to spit on one's past and one's
parents and climb up among the fine folks, and because one can't manage
it one asks for it in books." Morten was irritated.
"No, no," said Pelle soothingly, "it isn't as bad as all that!"
"Yes, it is as bad as all that!" cried Morten passionately. "And do you
know why? Because you don't yet understand that humanity is holy, and
that it's all one where a man is found!"
"Humanity is holy?" said Pelle, laughing. "But I'm not holy, and I
didn't really think you were!"
"For your sake, I hope you are," said Morten earnestly, "for otherwise
you are no more than a horse or a machine that can do so much work." And
then he was silent, with a look that seemed to say that the matter had
been sufficiently discussed.
Morten's reserved expression made Pelle serious. He might jestingly
pretend that this was nonsense, but Morten was one of those who looked
into things--perhaps there was something here that he didn't understand.
"I know well enough that I'm a clown compared with you," he said good-
naturedly, "but you needn't be so angry on that account. By the way, do
you still remember Peter, who was at Jeppe's with your brother Jens and
me? He's here, too--I--I came across him a little while ago. He's
always looking into things too, but he can't find any foundation to
anything, as you can. He believes in nothing in the whole world. Things
are in a bad way with him. It would do him good if he could talk with
"But I'm no prophet--you are that rather than I," said Morten
"But you might perhaps say something of use to him. No, I'm only a
trades unionist, and that's no good."
On his way home Pelle pondered honestly over Morten's words, but he had
to admit that he couldn't take them in. No, he had no occasion to
surround his person with any sort of holiness or halo; he was only a
healthy body, and he just wanted to do things.
Pelle came rushing home from Master Beck's workshop, threw off his coat
and waistcoat, and thrust his head into a bucket of water. While he was
scrubbing himself dry, he ran over to the "Family." "Would you care to
come out with me? I have some tickets for an evening entertainment--only
you must hurry up."
The three children were sitting round the table, doing tricks with
cards. The fire was crackling in the stove, and there was a delicious
smell of coffee. They were tired after the day's work and they didn't
feel inclined to dress themselves to go out. One could see how they
enjoyed feeling that they were at home. "You should give Hanne and her
mother the tickets," said Marie, "they never go out."
Pelle thought the matter over while he was dressing. Well, why not?
After all, it was stupid to rake up an old story.
Hanne did not want to go with him. She sat with downcast eyes, like a
lady in her boudoir, and did not look at him. But Madam Johnsen was
quite ready to go--the poor old woman quickly got into her best clothes.
"It's a long time since we two have been out together, Pelle," she said
gaily, as they walked through the city. "You've been so frightfully busy
lately. They say you go about to meetings. That is all right for a young
man. Do you gain anything by it?"
"Yes, one could certainly gain something by it--if only one used one's
"What can you gain by it, then? Are you going to eat up the Germans
again, as in my young days, or what is it you are after?"
"We want to make life just a little happier," said Pelle quietly.
"Oh, you don't want to gain anything more than happiness? That's easy
enough, of course!" said Madam Johnsen, laughing loudly. "Why, to be
sure, in my pretty young days too the men wanted to go to the capital to
make their fortunes. I was just sixteen when I came here for purposes of
my own--where was a pretty girl to find everything splendid, if not
here? One easily made friends--there were plenty to go walking with a
nice girl in thin shoes, and they wanted to give her all sorts of fine
things, and every day brought its happiness with it. But then I met a
man who wanted to do the best thing by me, and who believed in himself,
too. He got me to believe that the two of us together might manage
something lasting. And he was just such a poor bird as I was, with empty
hands--but he set to valiantly. Clever in his work he was, too, and he
thought we could make ourselves a quiet, happy life, cozy between our
four walls, if only we'd work. Happiness--pooh! He wanted to be a
master, at all costs--for what can a journeyman earn! And more than once
we had scraped a little together, and thought things would be easier
now; but misfortune always fell on us and took it all away. It's always
hovering like a great bird over the poor man's home; and you must have a
long stick if you want to drive it away! It was always the same story
whenever we managed to get on a little. A whole winter he was ill. We
only kept alive by pawning all we'd got, stick by stick. And when the
last thing had gone to the devil we borrowed a bit on the pawn-ticket."
The old woman had to pause to recover her breath.
"Why are we hurrying like this?" she said, panting. "Any one would think
the world was trying to run away from us!"
"Well, there was nothing left!" she continued, shuffling on again. "And
he was too tired to begin all over again, so we moved into the 'Ark.'
And when he'd got a few shillings he sought consolation--but it was a
poor consolation for me, who was carrying Hanne, that you may believe!
She was like a gift after all that misfortune; but he couldn't bear her,
because our fancy for a little magnificence was born again in her. She
had inherited that from us--poor little thing!--with rags and dirt to
set it off. You should just have seen her, as quite a little child,
making up the fine folks' world out of the rags she got together out of
the dustbins. 'What's that?' Johnsen he said once--he was a little less
full than usual. 'Oh, that's the best room with the carpet on the floor,
and there by the stove is your room, father. But you mustn't spit on the
floor, because we are rich people.'"
Madam Johnsen began to cry. "And then he struck her on the head. 'Hold
your tongue!' he cried, and he cursed and swore at the child something
frightful. 'I don't want to hear your infernal chatter!' That's the sort
he was. Life began to be a bit easier when he had drowned himself in the
sewer. The times when I might have amused myself he'd stolen from me
with his talk of the future, and now I sit there turning old soldiers'
trousers that fill the room with filth, and when I do two a day I can
earn a mark. And Hanne goes about like a sleep-walker. Happiness! Is
there a soul in the 'Ark' that didn't begin with a firm belief in
something better? One doesn't move from one's own choice into such a
mixed louse's nest, but one ends up there all the same. And is there
anybody here who is really sure of his daily bread? Yes, Olsens with the
warm wall, but they've got their daughter's shame to thank for that."
"All the more reason to set to work," said Pelle.
"Yes, you may well say that! But any one who fights against the
unconquerable will soon be tired out. No, let things be and amuse
yourself while you are still young. But don't you take any notice of my
complaining--me--an old whimperer, I am--walking with you and being in
the dumps like this--now we'll go and amuse ourselves!" And now she
looked quite contented again.
"Then take my arm--it's only proper with a pair of sweethearts," said
Pelle, joking. The old woman took his arm and went tripping youthfully
along. "Yes, if it had been in my young days, I would soon have known
how to dissuade you from your silly tricks," she said gaily. "I should
have been taking you to the dance."
"But you didn't manage to get Johnsen to give them up," said Pelle in
"No, because then I was too credulous. But no one would succeed in
robbing me of my youth now!"
The meeting was held in a big hall in one of the side streets by the
North Bridge. The entertainment, which was got up by some of the
agitators, was designed principally for young people; but many women and
young girls were present. Among other things a poem was read which dealt
with an old respectable blacksmith who was ruined by a strike. "That may
be very fine and touching," whispered Madam Johnsen, polishing her nose
in her emotion, "but they really ought to have something one can laugh
over. We see misfortune every day."
Then a small choir of artisans sang some songs, and one of the older
leaders mounted the platform and told them about the early years of the
movement. When he had finished, he asked if there was no one else who
had something to tell them. It was evidently not easy to fill out the
There was no spirit in the gathering. The women were not finding it
amusing, and the men sat watching for anything they could carp at. Pelle
knew most of those present; even the young men had hard faces, on which
could be read an obstinate questioning. This homely, innocent
entertainment did not appease the burning impatience which filled their
hearts, listening for a promise of better things.
Pelle sat there pained by the proceedings; the passion for progress and
agitation was in his very blood. Here was such an opportunity to strike
a blow for unification, and it was passing unused. The women only needed
a little rousing, the factory-girls and the married women too, who held
back their husbands. And they stood up there, frittering away the time
with their singing and their poetry-twaddle! With one leap he stood on
"All these fine words may be very nice," he cried passionately, "but
they are very little use to all those who can't live on them! The
clergyman and the dog earn their living with their mouths, but the rest
of us are thrown on our own resources when we want to get anything. Why
do we slink round the point like cats on hot bricks, why all this
palaver and preaching? Perhaps we don't yet know what we want? They say
we've been slaves for a thousand years! Then we ought to have had time
enough to think it out! Why does so little happen, although we are all
waiting for something, and are ready? Is there no one anywhere who has
the courage to lead us?"
Loud applause followed, especially from the young men; they stamped and
shouted. Pelle staggered down from the platform; he was covered with
The old leader ascended the platform again and thanked his colleagues
for their acceptable entertainment. He turned also with smiling thanks
to Pelle. It was gratifying that there was still fire glowing in the
young men; although the occasion was unsuitable. The old folks had led
the movement through evil times; but they by no means wished to prevent
youth from testing itself.
Pelle wanted to stand up and make some answer, but Madam Johnsen held
him fast by his coat. "Be quiet, Pelle," she whispered anxiously;
"you'll venture too far." She would not let go of him, so he had to sit
down again to avoid attracting attention. His cheeks were burning, and
he was as breathless as though he had been running up a hill. It was the
first time he had ventured on a public platform; excitement had sent him
The people began to get up and to mix together. "Is it over already?"
asked Madam Johnsen. Pelle could see that she was disappointed.
"No, no; now we'll treat ourselves to something," he said, leading the
old woman to a table at the back of the hall. "What can I offer you?"
"Coffee, please, for me! But you ought to have a glass of beer, you are
Pelle wanted coffee too. "You're a funny one for a man!" she said,
laughing. "First you go pitching into a whole crowd of men, and then you
sit down here with an old wife like me and drink coffee! What a crowd of
people there are here; it's almost like a holiday!" She sat looking
about her with shining eyes and rosy cheeks, like a young girl at a
dance. "Take some more of the skin of the milk, Pelle; you haven't got
any. This really is cream!"
The leader came up to ask if he might make Pelle's acquaintance. "I've
heard of you from the president of your Union," he said, giving Pelle
his hand. "I am glad to make your acquaintance; you have done a pretty
piece of work."
"Oh, it wasn't so bad," said Pelle, blushing. "But it really would be
fine if we could really get to work!"
"I know your impatience only too well," retorted the old campaigner,
laughing. "It's always so with the young men. But those who really want
to do something must be able to see to the end of the road." He patted
Pelle on the shoulders and went.
Pelle felt that the people were standing about him and speaking of him.
God knows whether you haven't made yourself ridiculous, he thought.
Close by him two young men were standing, who kept on looking at him
sideways. Suddenly they came up to him.
"We should much like to shake hands with you," said one of them. "My
name is Otto Stolpe, and this is my brother Frederik. That was good,
what you said up there, we want to thank you for it!" They stood by for
some little while, chatting to Pelle. "It would please my father and
mother too, if they could make your acquaintance," said Otto Stolpe.
"Would you care to come home with us?"
"I can't very well this evening; I have some one with me," replied
"You go with them," said Madam Johnsen. "I see some folks from
Kristianshavn back there, I can go home with them."
"But we were meaning to go on the spree a bit now that we've at last
come out!" said Pelle, smiling.
"God forbid! No, we've been on the spree enough for one evening, my old
head is quite turned already. You just be off; that's a thing I haven't
said for thirty years! And many thanks for bringing me with you." She
The Stolpe family lived in Elm Street, on the second floor of one of the
new workmen's tenement houses. The stairs were roomy, and on the door
there was a porcelain plate with their name on it. In the entry an
elderly, well-dressed woman up to them.
"Here is a comrade, mother," said Otto.
"Welcome," she said, as she took Pelle's hand. She held it a moment in
her own as she looked at him.
In the living room sat Stolpe, a mason, reading _The Working Man_.
He was in shirt sleeves, and was resting his heavy arms on the table. He
read whispering to himself, he had not noticed that a guest was in the
"Here's some one who would like to say how-d'ye-do to father," said
Otto, laying his hand on his father's arm.
Stolpe raised his head and looked at Pelle. "Perhaps you would like to
join the Union?" he asked, rising with difficulty, with one hand pressed
on the table. He was tall, his hair was sprinkled with gray; his eyes
were mottled from the impact of splinters of limestone.
"You and your Union!" said Madam Stolpe. "Perhaps you think there's no
one in it but you!"
"No, mother; little by little a whole crowd of people have entered it,
but all the same I was the first."
"I'm already in the Union," said Pelle. "But not in yours. I'm a
shoemaker, you know."
"Shoemaker, ah, that's a poor trade for a journeyman; but all the same a
man can get to be a master; but to-day a mason can't do that--there's a
great difference there. And if one remains a journeyman all his life
long, he has more interest in modifying his position. Do you understand?
That's why the organization of the shoemakers has never been of more
than middling dimensions. Another reason is that they work in their own
rooms, and one can't get them together. But now there's a new man come,
who seems to be making things move."
"Yes, and this is he, father," said Otto, laughing.
"The deuce, and here I stand making a fool of myself! Then I'll say how-
d'ye-do over again! And here's good luck to your plans, young comrade."
He shook Pelle by the hand. "I think we might have a drop of beer,
Pelle and Stolpe were soon engaged in a lively conversation; Pelle was
in his element. Until now he had never found his way to the heart of the
movement. There was so much he wanted to ask about, and the old man
incontinently told him of the growth of the organization from year to
year, of their first beginning, when there was only one trades unionist
in Denmark, namely, himself, down to the present time. He knew all the
numbers of the various trades, and was precisely informed as to the
development of each individual union. The sons sat silent, thoughtfully
listening. When they had something to say, they always waited until the
old man nodded his head to show that he had finished. The younger,
Frederik, who was a mason's apprentice, never said "thou" to his father;
he addressed him in the third person, and his continual "father says,
father thinks," sounded curious to Pelle's ears.
While they were still talking Madam Stolpe opened the door leading into
an even prettier room, and invited them to go in and to drink their
coffee. The living-room had already produced an extremely pleasant
impression on Pelle, with its oak-grained dining-room suite and its
horse-hair sofa. But here was a red plush suite, an octagonal table of
walnut wood, with a black inlaid border and twisted wooden feet, and an
etagere full of knick-knacks and pieces of china; mostly droll, impudent
little things. On the walls hung pictures of trades unions and
assemblies and large photographs of workshops; one of a building during
construction, with the scaffolding full of the bricklayers and their
mortar-buckets beside them, each with a trowel or a beer-bottle can in
his hand. On the wall over the sofa hung a large half-length portrait of
a dark, handsome man in a riding-cloak. He looked half a dreamy
adventurer, half a soldier.
"That's the grand master," said Stolpe proudly, standing at Pelle's
side. "There was always a crowd of women at his heels. But they kept
themselves politely in the background, for a fire went out of him at
such times--do you understand? Then it was--Men to the front! And even
the laziest fellow pricked up his ears."
"Then he's dead now, is he?" asked Pelle, with interest.
Stolpe did not answer. "Well," he said briefly, "shall we have our
coffee now?" Otto winked at Pelle; here evidently was a matter that must
not be touched upon.
Stolpe sat staring into his cup, but suddenly he raised his head. "There
are things one doesn't understand," he cried earnestly. "But this is
certain, that but for the grand master here I and a whole host of other
men wouldn't perhaps be respectable fathers of families to-day. There
were many smart fellows among us young comrades, as is always the case;
but as a rule the gifted ones always went to the dogs. For when a man
has no opportunity to alter things, he naturally grows impatient, and
then one fine day he begins to pour spirit on the flames in order to
stop his mouth. I myself had that accursed feeling that I must do
something, and little by little I began to drink. But then I discovered
the movement, before it existed, I might venture to say; it was in the
air like, d'you see. It was as though something was coming, and one
sniffed about like a dog in order to catch a glimpse of it. Presently it
was, Here it is! There it is! But when one looked into it, there was
just a few hungry men bawling at one another about something or other,
but the devil himself didn't know what it was. But then the grand master
came forward, and that was like a flash of light for all of us. For he
could say to a nicety just where the shoe pinched, although he didn't
belong to our class at all. Since that time there's been no need to go
searching for the best people--they were always to be found in the
movement! Although there weren't very many of them, the best people were
always on the side of the movement."
"But now there's wind in the sails," said Pelle.
"Yes, now there's talk of it everywhere. But to whom is that due? God
knows, to us old veterans--and to him there!"
Stolpe began to talk of indifferent matters, but quite involuntarily the
conversation returned to the movement; man and wife lived and breathed
for nothing else. They were brave, honest people, who quite simply
divided mankind into two parts: those who were for and those who were
against the movement. Pelle seemed to breathe more freely and deeply in
this home, where the air was as though steeped in Socialism.
He noticed a heavy chest which stood against the wall on four twisted
legs. It was thickly ornamented with nail-heads and looked like an old
"Yes--that's the standard!" said Madam Stolpe, but she checked herself
in alarm. Mason Stolpe knitted his brows.
"Ah, well, you're a decent fellow, after all," he said. "One needn't
slink on tiptoe in front of you!" He took a key out of a secret
compartment in his writing-table. "Now the danger's a thing of the past,
but one still has to be careful. That's a vestige of the times when
things used to go hardly with us. The police used to be down on all our
badges of common unity. The grand master himself came to me one evening
with the flag under his cloak, and said to me, 'You must look out for
it, Stolpe, you are the most reliable of us all.'"
He and his wife unfolded the great piece of bunting. "See, that's the
banner of the International. It looks a little the worse for wear, for
it has undergone all sorts of treatment. At the communist meetings out
in the fields, when the troops were sent against us with ball cartridge,
it waved over the speaker's platform, and held us together. When it
flapped over our heads it was as though we were swearing an oath to it.
The police understood that, and they were mad to get it. They went for
the flag during a meeting, but nothing came of it, and since then
they've hunted for it so, it's had to be passed from man to man. In that
way it has more than once come to me."
"Yes, and once the police broke in here and took father away as we were
sitting at supper. They turned the whole place upside down, and dragged
him off to the cells without a word of explanation. The children were
little then, and you can imagine how miserable it seemed to me. I didn't
know when they would let him out again."
"Yes, but they didn't get the colors," said Stolpe, and he laughed
heartily. "I had already passed them on, they were never very long in
one place in those days. Now they lead a comparatively quiet life, and
mother and the rest of us too!"
The young men stood in silence, gazing at the standard that had seen so
many vicissitudes, and that was like the hot red blood of the movement.
Before Pelle a whole new world was unfolding itself; the hope that had
burned in the depths of his soul was after all not so extravagant. When
he was still running, wild at home, playing the games of childhood or
herding the cows, strong men had already been at work and had laid the
foundations of the cause.... A peculiar warmth spread through him and
rose to his head. If only it had been he who had waved the glowing
standard in the face of the oppressor--he, Pelle!
"And now it lies here in the chest and is forgotten!" he said
"It is only resting," said Stolpe. "Forgotten, yes; the police have no
idea that it still exists. But fix it on a staff, and you will see how
the comrades flock about it! Old and young alike. There's fire in that
bit of cloth! True fire, that never goes out!"
Carefully they folded the colors and laid them back in the chest. "It
won't do even now to speak aloud of the colors! You understand?" said
There was a knock, and Stolpe made haste to lock the chest and hide the
key, while Frederik went to the door. They looked at one another
uneasily and stood listening.
"It is only Ellen," said Frederik, and he returned, followed by a tall
dark girl with an earnest bearing. She had a veil over her face, and
before her mouth her breath showed like a pearly tissue.
"Ah, that's the lass!" cried Stolpe, laughing. "What folly--we were
quite nervous, just as nervous as in the old days. And you're abroad in
the streets at this hour of night! And in this weather?" He looked at
her affectionately; one could see that she was his darling. Outwardly
they were very unlike.
She greeted Pelle with the tiniest nod, but looked at him earnestly.
There was something still and gracious about her that fascinated him.
She wore dark clothes, without the slightest adornment, but they were of
good sound stuff.
"Won't you change?" asked the mother, unbuttoning her cloak. "You are
quite wet, child."
"No, I must go out again at once," Ellen replied. "I only wanted to peep
"But it's really very late," grumbled Stolpe. "Are you only off duty
"Yes, it's not my going-out day."
"Not to-day again? Yes, it's sheer slavery, till eleven at night!"
"That's the way things are, and it doesn't make it any better for you to
scold me," said Ellen courageously.
"No, but you needn't go out to service. There's no sense in our children
going out to service in the houses of the employers. Don't you agree
with me?" He turned to Pelle.
Ellen laughed brightly. "It's all the same--father works for the
employers as well."
"Yes, but that's a different thing. It's from one fixed hour to another,
and then it's over. But this other work is a home; she goes from one
home to another and undertakes all the dirty work."
"Father's not in a position to keep me at home."
"I know that very well, but all the same I can't bear it. Besides, you
could surely get some other kind of work."
"Yes, but I don't want to! I claim the right to dispose of myself!" she
The others sat silent, looking nervously at one another. The veins
swelled on Stolpe's forehead; he was purple, and terribly angry. But
Ellen looked at him with a little laugh. He got up and went grumbling
into the other room.
Her mother shook her head at Ellen. She was quite pale. "Oh, child,
child!" she whispered.
After a while Stolpe returned with some old newspapers, which he wanted
to show Pelle. Ellen stood behind his chair, looking down at them; she
rested her arm on his shoulders and idly ruffled his hair. The mother
pulled at her skirt. The papers were illustrated, and went back to the
The clock struck the half-hour; it was half-past eleven. Pelle rose in
consternation; he had quite forgotten the time.
"Take the lass with you," said Stolpe. "You go the same way, don't you,
Ellen? Then you'll have company. There's no danger going with her, for
she's a saint." It sounded as though he wanted to make up for his
scolding. "Come again soon; you will always be welcome here."
They did not speak much on the way home. Pelle was embarrassed, and he
had a feeling that she was considering him and thinking him over as they
walked, wondering what sort of a fellow he might be. When he ventured to
say something, she answered briefly and looked at him searchingly. And
yet he found it was an interesting walk. He would gladly have prolonged
"Many thanks for your company," he said, when they stood at her house-
door. "I should be very glad to see you again."
"You will if we meet," she said taciturnly; but she gave him her hand
for a moment.
"We are sure to meet again! Be sure of that!" cried Pelle jovially. "But
you are forgetting to reward me for my escort?" He bent over her.
She gazed at him in astonishment--with eyes that were turning him to
stone, he thought. Then she slowly turned and went indoors.
One day, after his working hours, Pelle was taking some freshly
completed work to the Court shoemaker's. The foreman took it and paid
for it, and proceeded to give out work to the others, leaving Pelle
standing. Pelle waited impatiently, but did no more than clear his
throat now and again. This was the way of these people; one had to put
up with it if one wanted work. "Have you forgotten me?" he said at last,
a little impatiently.
"You can go," said the foreman. "You've finished here."
"What does that mean?" asked Pelle, startled.
"It means what you hear. You've got the sack--if you understand that
Pelle understood that very well, but he wanted to establish the fact of
his persecution in the presence of his comrades. "Have you any fault to
find with my work?" he asked.
"You mix yourself up too much with things that don't concern you, my
good fellow, and then you can't do the work you ought to do."
"I should like very much to know what fault you have to find with my
work," said Pelle obstinately.
"Go to the devil! I've told you already!" roared the foreman.
The Court shoemaker came down through the door of the back room and
looked about him. When he saw Pelle, he went up to him.
"You get out of here, and that at once!" he cried, in a rage. "Do you
think we give bread to people that undermine us? Out, out of my place of
business, Mossoo Trades-Unionist!"
Pelle stood his ground, and looked his employer in the eyes; he would
have struck the man a blow in the face rather than allow himself to be
sent away. "Be cool, now; be cool!" he said to himself. He laughed, but
his features were quivering. The Court shoemaker kept a certain
distance, and continued to shout, "Out with him! Here, foreman, call the
police at once!"
"Now you can see, comrades, how they value one here," said Pelle,
turning his broad back on Meyer. "We are dogs; nothing more!"
They stood there, staring at the counter, deaf and dumb in their dread
of taking sides. Then Pelle went. He made his way northward. His heart
was full of violent emotion. Indignation raged within him like a
tempest, and by fits and starts found utterance on his lips. Meyer's
work was quite immaterial to him; it was badly paid, and he only did it
as a stop-gap. But it was disgusting to think they could buy his
convictions with badly-paid work! And there they stood not daring to
show their colors, as if it wasn't enough to support such a fellow with
their skill and energy! Meyer stood there like a wall, in the way of any
real progress, but he needn't think he could strike at Pelle, for he'd
get a blow in return if he did!
He went straight to Mason Stolpe, in order to talk the matter over with
him; the old trades unionist was a man of great experience.
"So he's one of those who go in for the open slave-trade!" said Stolpe.
"We've had a go at them before now. 'We've done with you, my good man;
we can make no use of agitators!' And if one steals a little march on
them 'Off you go; you're done with here!' I myself have been like a
hunted cur, and at home mother used to go about crying. I could see what
she was feeling, but when I put the matter before her she said, 'Hold
out, Stolpe, you shan't give in!' 'You're forgetting our daily bread,
mother,' I say. 'Oh, our daily bread. I can just go out washing!' That
was in those days--they sing another tune to us now! Now the master
politely raises his hat to old Stolpe! If he thinks he can allow himself
to hound a man down, an embargo must be put on him!"
Pelle had nothing to say against that. "If only it works," he said. "But
our organization looks weak enough as yet."
"Only try it; in any case, you can always damage him. He attacks your
livelihood in order to strike at your conscience, so you hit back at his
purse-that's where his conscience is! Even if it does no good, at least
it makes him realize that you're not a slave."
Pelle sat a while longer chatting. He had secretly hoped to meet Ellen
again, but he dared not ask whether that was her day for coming home.
Madam Stolpe invited him to stay and to have supper with them she was
only waiting for her sons. But Pelle had no time; he must be off to
think out instructions for the embargo. "Then come on Sunday," said the
mother; "Sunday is Ellen's birthday."
With rapid strides he went off to the president of the Union; the
invitation for the following Sunday had dissipated the remains of his
anger. The prospect of a tussle with Meyer had put him in the best of
tempers. He was certain of winning the president, Petersen, for his
purpose, if only he could find him out of bed; he himself had in his
time worked for wholesale shoemakers, and hated them like the plague. It
was said that Petersen had worked out a clever little invention--a
patent button for ladies' boots--which he had taken to Meyer, as he
himself did not know how to exploit it. But Meyer had, without more ado,
treated the invention as his own, inasmuch as it was produced by one of
his workmen. He took out a patent and made a lot of money by it,
trifling as the thing was. When Petersen demanded a share of the
profits, he was dismissed. He himself never spoke of the matter; he just
sat in his cellar brooding over the injustice, so that he never managed
to recover his position. Almost his whole time had been devoted to the
Union, so that he might revenge himself through it; but it never really
made much progress. He fired up passionately enough, but he was lacking
in persistence. And his lungs were weak.
He trembled with excitement when Pelle explained his plan. "Great God in
heaven, if only we could get at him!" he whispered hoarsely, clenching
his skinny fists which Death had already marked with its dusky shadows.
"I would willingly give my miserable life to see the scoundrel ruined!
Look at that!" He bent down, whispering, and showed Pelle a file ground
to a point, which was fastened into a heavy handle. "If I hadn't the
children, he would have got that between his ribs long before this!" His
gray, restless eyes, which reminded Pelle of Anker, the crazy
clockmaker, had a cold, piercing expression.
"Yes, yes," said Pelle, laying his hand soothingly on the other's; "but
it's no use to do anything stupid. We shall only do what we want to do
if we all stand together."
The day was well spent; on the very next evening the members of the
Union were summoned to a meeting. Petersen spoke first, and beginning
with a fiery speech. It was like the final efforts of a dying man. "You
organize the struggle," said Petersen. "I'm no good nowadays for that--
and I've no strength. But I'll sound the assault--ay, and so that they
wake up. Then you yourself must see to keeping the fire alight in them."
His eyes burned in their shadowy sockets; he stood there like a martyr
upholding the necessity of the conflict. The embargo was agreed upon
Then Pelle came forward and organized the necessary plan of campaign. It
was his turn now. There was no money in the chest, but every man had to
promise a certain contribution to be divided among those who were
refusing to work. Every man must do his share to deprive Meyer of all
access to the labor market. And there was to be no delirious enthusiasm
--which they would regret when they woke up next morning. It was
essential that every man should form beforehand a clear conception of
the difficulties, and must realize what he was pledging himself to. And
then--three cheers for a successful issue!
This business meant a lot of running about. But what of that! Pelle, who
had to sit such a lot, wouldn't suffer from getting out into the fresh
air! He employed the evenings in making up for lost time. He got work
from the small employers in Kristianshavn, who were very busy in view of
Christmas, which made up for that which he had lost through the Court
On the second day after his dismissal, the declaration of the embargo
appeared under the "Labor Items" in _The Working Man_. "Assistance
strictly prohibited!" It was like the day's orders, given by Pelle's own
word of mouth. He cut the notice out, and now and again, as he sat at
his work, he took it out and considered it. This was Pelle--although it
didn't say so--
Pelle and the big employer were having a bit of a tussle! Now they
should see which was the stronger!
Pelle went often to see Stolpe. Strangely enough, his visits always
coincided with Ellen's days off. Then he accompanied her homeward, and
they walked side by side talking of serious things. There was nothing
impetuous about them--they behaved as though a long life lay before
them. His vehemence cooled in the conflict with Meyer. He was sure of
Ellen's character, unapproachable though she was. Something in him told
him that she ought to be and would remain so. She was one of those
natures to whom it is difficult to come out of their shell, so as to
reveal the kernel within; but he felt that there was something that was
growing for him within that reserved nature, and he was not impatient.
One evening he had as usual accompanied her to the door, and they stood
there bidding one another good night. She gave him her hand in her shy,
awkward manner, which might even mean reluctance, and was then about to
"But are we going on like this all our lives?" said Pelle, holding her
fingers tightly. "I love you so!"
She stood there a while, with an impenetrable expression, then advanced
her face and kissed him mechanically, as a child kisses, with tightly
closed lips. She was already on her way to the house when she suddenly
started back, drew him to herself, and kissed him passionately and
unrestrainedly. There was something so violent, so wild and fanatical in
her demeanor, that he was quite bewildered. He scarcely recognized her,
and when he had come to himself she was already on her way up the
kitchen steps. He stood still, as though blinded by a rain of fire, and
heard her running as though pursued.
Since that day she had been another creature. Her love was like the
spring that comes in a single night. She could not be without him for a
day; when she went out to make purchases, she came running over to the
"Ark." Her nature had thrown off its restraint; there was tension in her
manner and her movements; and this tension now and again escaped from
within in little explosions. She did not say very much; when they were
together, she clung to him passionately as though to deaden some pain,
and hid her face; if he lifted it, she kept her eyes persistently
closed. Then she breathed deeply, and sat down smiling and humming to
herself when he spoke to her.
It was as though she was delving deep into his inmost being, and Pelle,
who felt the need to reach and to know that inner nature, drew
confidence from her society. No matter what confronted him, he had
always sought in his inner self for his natural support, anxiously
listening for that which came to the surface, and unconsciously doubting
and inquiring. And now, so surely as she leaned silently on his arm, she
confirmed something deep within him, and her steadfast gaze vibrated
within him like a proud vocation, and he felt himself infinitely rich.
She spoke to something deep within him when she gazed at him so
thoughtfully. But what she said he did not know--nor what answer she
received. When he recalled her from that gaze of hers, as of one
bewitched, she only sighed like one awaking, and kissed him.
Ellen was loyal and unselfish and greatly valued by her employers. There
was no real development to be perceived in her--she longed to become
his--and that was all. But the future was born on Pelle's own lips under
her dreamy gaze, as though it was she who inspired him with the
illuminating words. And then she listened with an absent smile--as to
something delightful; but she herself seemed to give no thought to the
future. She seemed full of a hidden devotion, that filled Pelle with an
inward warmth, so that he held up his head very high toward the light.
This constant devotion of Ellen's made the children "Family" teasingly
call her "the Saint."
It gave him much secret pleasure to be admitted to her home, where the
robust Copenhagen humor concealed conditions quite patriarchal in their
nature. Everything was founded on order and respect for the parents,
especially the father, who spoke the decisive word in every matter, and
had his own place, in which no one else ever sat. When he came home from
his work, the grown-up sons would always race to take him his slippers,
and the wife always had some extra snack for him. The younger son,
Frederik, who was just out of his apprenticeship, was as delighted as a
child to think of the day when he should become a journeyman and be able
to drink brotherhood with the old man.
They lived in a new, spacious, three-roomed tenement with a servant's
room thrown in; to Pelle, who was accustomed to find his comrades over
here living in one room with a kitchen, this was a new experience. The
sons boarded and lodged at home; they slept in the servant's room. The
household was founded on and supported by their common energies;
although the family submitted unconditionally to the master of the
house, they did not do so out of servility; they only did as all others
did. For Stolpe was the foremost man in his calling, an esteemed worker
and the veteran of the labor movement. His word was unchallenged.
Ellen was the only one who did not respect his supremacy, but
courageously opposed him, often without any further motive than that of
contradiction. She was the only girl of the family, and the favorite;
and she took advantage of her position. Sometimes it looked as though
Stolpe would be driven to extremities; as though he longed to pulverize
her in his wrath; but he always gave in to her.
He was greatly pleased with Pelle. And he secretly admired his daughter
more than ever. "You see, mother, there's something in that lass! She
understands how to pick a man for himself!" he would cry
"Yes; I've nothing against him, either," Madam Stolpe would reply. "A
bit countrified still, but of course he's growing out of it."
"Countrified? He? No, you take my word, he knows what he wants. She's
really found her master there!" said Stolpe triumphantly.
In the two brothers Pelle found a pair of loyal comrades, who could not
but look up to him.
With the embargo matters were going so-so. Meyer replied to it by
convoking the employers to a meeting with a view to establishing an
employers' union, which would refuse employment to the members of the
trade union. Then the matter would have been settled at one blow.
However, things did not go so far as that. The small employers were
afraid the journeymen would set up for themselves and compete against
them. And instinctively they feared the big employers more than the
journeymen, and were shy of entering the Union with them. The inner
tendency of the industrial movement was to concentrate everything in a
few hands, and to ruin the small business. The small employers had yet
another crow to pluck with Meyer, who had extended his business at the
expense of their own.
Through Master Beck, Pelle learned what was taking place among the
employers. Meyer had demanded that Beck should discharge Pelle, but Beck
would not submit to him.
"I can't really complain of you," he said. "Your trades-unionism I don't
like--you would do better to leave it alone. But with your work I am
very well satisfied. I have always endeavored to render justice to all
parties. But if you can knock Meyer's feet from under him, we small
employers will be very grateful to your Union, for he's freezing us
To knock his feet from under him-that wasn't an easy thing to do. On the
contrary, he was driving the weaker brethren out of the Union, and had
always enough workers--partly Swedes, with whom he had a written
contract, and whom he had to pay high wages. The system of home
employment made it impossible to get to grips with him. Pelle and the
president of the Union carefully picketed the warehouse about the time
when the work was delivered, in order to discover who was working for
him. And they succeeded in snatching a few workers away from him and in
bringing them to reason, or else their names were published in The
Working Man. But then the journeymen sent their wives or children with
the work--and there was really nothing that could be done. It cost Meyer
large sums of money to keep his business going, but the Union suffered
more. It had not as yet sufficient authority, and the large employers
stood by Meyer and would not employ members of the Union as long as the
embargo lasted. So it was finally raised.
That was a defeat; but Pelle had learned something, none the less! The
victory was to the strong, and their organization was not as yet
sufficient. They must talk and agitate, and hold meetings! The tendency
to embrace the new ideas certainly inclined the men to organize
themselves, but their sense of honor was as yet undeveloped. The
slightest mishap dispersed them.
Pelle did not lose heart; he must begin all over again, that was all.
On the morning after the defeat was an accomplished fact he was up
early. His resolution to go ahead with redoubled energies, he had, so to
speak, slept into him, so that it pervaded his body and put energy and
decision into his hammer-strokes.
He whistled as the work progressed rapidly under his hands. The window
stood open so that the night air might escape; hoar frost lay on the
roofs, and the stars twinkled overhead in the cold heavens. But Pelle
was not cold! He had just awakened the "Family" and could hear them
moving about in their room. People were beginning to tumble out into the
gangway, still drunken with sleep. Pelle was whistling a march. On the
previous evening he had sent off the last instalment of his debt to
Sort, and at the same time had written definitely to Father Lasse that
he was to come. And now the day was dawning!
Marie came and reached him his coffee through the door. "Good morning!"
she cried merrily, through the crack of the door. "We're going to have
fine weather to-day, Pelle!" She was not quite dressed yet and would not
let herself be seen. The boys nodded good morning as they ran out. Karl
had his coat and waistcoat under his arm. These articles of clothing he
always used to put on as he ran down the stairs.
When it was daylight Marie came in to set the room in order. She
conversed with him as she scrubbed.
"Look here, Marie!" cried Pelle suddenly. "Ellen came here yesterday and
asked you to bring me a message when I came home. You didn't do it."
Marie's face became set, but she did not reply.
"It was only by pure chance that I met her yesterday, otherwise we
should have missed one another."
"Then I must have forgotten it," said Marie morosely.
"Why, of course you forgot it. But that's the second time this week. You
must be in love!" he added, smiling.
Marie turned her back on him. "I've got nothing to do with her--I don't
owe her anything!" suddenly she cried defiantly. "And I'm not going to
clean your room any longer, either--let her do it--so there!" She seized
her pail and scrubbing-brush and ran into her own room. After a time he
heard her voice from within the room; at first he thought she was
singing a tune to herself, but then he heard sobs.
He hurried into the room; she was lying on the bed, weeping, biting the
pillow and striking at it angrily with her roughened hands. Her thin
body burned as if with fever.
"You are ill, Marie dear," said Pelle anxiously, laying his hand on her
forehead. "You ought to go to bed and take something to make you sweat.
I'll warm it up for you."
She was really ill; her eyes were dry and burning, and her hands were
cold and clammy. But she would agree to nothing. "Go away!" she said
angrily, "and attend to your own work! Leave me alone!" She had turned
her back on him and nudged him away defiantly with her shoulder. "You'd
best go in and cuddle Ellen!" she cried suddenly, with a malicious
"Why are you like this, Marie?" said Pelle, distressed. "You are quite
She buried her face in the bed and would neither look at him nor answer
him. So he went back to his work.
After a time she came into his room again and resumed her work of
cleaning. She banged the things about; pulling down some work of his
that he had set to dry by the stove, and giving him a malicious sidelong
look. Then a cup containing paste fell to the ground and was broken.
"She did that on purpose," he thought unhappily, and he put the paste
into an empty box. She stood watching him with a piercing, malicious
He turned to his work again, and made as though nothing had happened.
Suddenly he felt her thin arms about his neck. "Forgive me!" she said,
weeping, and she hid her face against his shoulder.
"Come, come, nothing very dreadful has happened! The silly old cup!" he
said consolingly, as he stroked her head. "You couldn't help it!"
But at that she broke down altogether, and it seemed as though her
crying would destroy her meager body. "Yes, I did it on purpose!" she
bellowed. "And I threw down the boots on purpose, and yesterday I didn't
give you the message on purpose. I would have liked to hurt you still
more, I'm so bad, bad, bad! Why doesn't some one give me a good beating?
If you'd only once be properly angry with me!"
She was quite beside herself and did not know what she was saying.
"Now listen to me at once--you've got to be sensible!" said Pelle
decidedly, "for this sort of thing is not amusing. I was pleased to
think I was going to be at home to-day, so as to work beside you, and
then you go and have an attack just like a fine lady!"
She overcame her weeping by a tremendous effort, and went back to her
room, gently sobbing. She returned at once with a cracked cup for the
paste and a small tin box with a slit in the lid. This was her money-
"Take it," she said, pushing the box onto his lap. "Then you can buy
yourself lasts and needn't go asking the small employers for work.
There's work enough here in the 'Ark.'"
"But, Marie--that's your rent!" said Pelle, aghast.
"What does that matter? I can easily get the money together again by the
Oh, she could easily do that! Pelle laughed, a bewildered laugh. How
cheerfully she threw her money about, the money that cost her thirty
days of painful thought and saving, in order to have it ready each
"What do you think Peter and Karl would say to your chucking your money
about like that? Put the box away again safely-and be quick about it!"
"Oh, take it!" she cried persistently, thrusting the box upon him.
again. "Yes--or I'll throw it out of the window!" She quickly opened one
of the sashes. Pelle stood up.
"It's true I still owe you for the last washing," he said, offering to
put a krone in the box.
"A good thing you reminded me." She stared at him with an impenetrable
expression and ran back to her room.
In there she moved about singing in her harsh voice. After a while she
went out to make some purchases clad in a gray shawl, with her house-
wife's basket on her arm. He could follow her individual step, which was
light as a child's, and yet sounded so old--right to the end of the
tunnel. Then he went into the children's room and pulled out the third
drawer in the chest of drawers. There she always hid her money-box,
wrapped up in her linen. He still possessed two kroner, which he
inserted in the box.
He used always to pay her in this way. When she counted out her money
and found there was too much, she believed the good God had put the
money in her box, and would come jubilantly into his room to tell him
about it. The child believed blindly in Fortune, and accepted the money
as a sign of election; and for her this money was something quite
different to that which she herself had saved.
About noon she came to invite him into her room. "There's fried herring,
Pelle, so you can't possibly say no," she said persuasively, "for no
Bornholmer could! Then you needn't go and buy that stuffy food from the
hawker, and throw away five and twenty ore." She had bought half a score
of the fish, and had kept back five for her brothers when they came
home. "And there's coffee after," she said. She had set out everything
delightfully, with a clean napkin at one end of the table.
The factory girl's little Paul came in and was given a mouthful of food.
Then he ran out into the gangway again and tumbled about there, for the
little fellow was never a moment still from the moment his mother let
him out in the morning; there was so much to make up for after his long
imprisonment. From the little idiot whom his mother had to tie to the
stove because he had water on the brain and wanted to throw himself out
of the window, he had become a regular vagabond. Every moment he would
thrust his head in at the door and look at Pelle; and he would often
come right in, put his hand on Pelle's knee, and say, "You's my father!"
Then he would rush off again. Marie helped him in all his infantile
necessities--he always appealed to her!
After she had washed up, she sat by Pelle with her mending, chattering
away concerning her household cares. "I shall soon have to get jackets
for the boys--it's awful what they need now they're grown up. I peep in
at the second-hand clothes shop every day. And you must have a new
blouse, too, Pelle; that one will soon be done for; and then you've none
to go to the wash. If you'll buy the stuff, I'll soon make it up for
you--I can sew! I made my best blouse myself--Hanne helped me with it!
Why, really, don't you go to see Hanne any longer?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"Hanne has grown so peculiar. She never comes down into the courtyard
now to dance with us. She used to. Then I used to watch out of the
window, and run down. It was so jolly, playing with her. We used to go
round and round her and sing! 'We all bow to Hanne, we curtsy all to
Hanne, we all turn round before her!' And then we bowed and curtsied and
suddenly we all turned round. I tell you, it was jolly! You ought to
have taken Hanne."
"But you didn't like it when I took Ellen. Why should I have taken
"Oh, I don't know ... Hanne...." Marie stopped, listened, and suddenly
wrenched the window open.
Down in the "Ark" a door slammed, and a long hooting sound rose up from
below, sounding just like a husky scream from the crazy Vinslev's flute
or like the wind in the long corridors. Like a strange, disconnected
snatch of melody, the sound floated about below, trickling up along the
wooden walls, and breaking out into the daylight with a note of ecstasy:
"Hanne's with child! The Fairy Princess is going to be confined!"
Marie went down the stairs like a flash. The half-grown girls were
shrieking and running together in the court below; the women on the
galleries were murmuring to others above and below. Not that this was in
itself anything novel; but in this case it was Hanne herself, the
immaculate, whom as yet no tongue had dared to besmirch. And even now
they dared hardly speak of it openly; it had come as such a shock. In a
certain sense they had all entered into her exaltation, and with her had
waited for the fairy-tale to come true; as quite a child she had been
elected to represent the incomprehensible; and now she was merely going
to have a child! It really was like a miracle just at first; it was such
a surprise to them all!
Marie came back with dragging steps and with an expression of horror and
astonishment. Down in the court the grimy-nosed little brats were
screeching, as they wheeled hand in hand round the sewer-grating--it was
splendid for dancing round--
Hanne's doin' to have a tid!"
They couldn't speak plainly yet.
And there was "Grete with the baby," the mad-woman, tearing her cellar-
window open, leaning out of it backward, with her doll on her arm, and
yelling up through the well, so that it echoed loud and shrill: "The
Fairy Princess has got a child, and Pelle's its father!"
Pelle bent over his work in silence. Fortunately he was not the king's
son in disguise in this case! But he wasn't going to wrangle with women.
Hanne's mother came storming out onto her gallery. "That's a shameless
lie!" she cried. "Pelle's name ain't going to be dragged into this--the
other may be who he likes!"
Overhead the hearse-driver came staggering out onto his gallery. "The
princess there has run a beam into her body," he rumbled, in his good-
natured bass. "What a pity I'm not a midwife! They've got hold of the
wrong end of it!"
"Clear off into your hole and hold your tongue, you body-snatcher!"
cried Madam Johnsen, spitting with rage. "You've got to stick your
brandy-nose into everything!"
He stood there, half drunk, leaning over the rail, babbling, teasing,
without returning Madam Johnsen's vituperation. But then little Marie
flung up a window and came to her assistance, and up from her platform
Ferdinand's mother emerged. "How many hams did you buy last month? Fetch
out your bear hams, then, and show us them! He kills a bear for every
corpse, the drunkard!" From all sides they fell upon him. He could do
nothing against them, and contented himself with opening his eyes and
his mouth and giving vent to a "Ba-a-a!" Then his red-haired wife came
out and hailed him in.
From the moment when the gray morning broke there was audible a peculiar
note in the buzzing of the "Ark," a hoarse excitement, which thrust all
care aside. Down the long corridors there was a sound of weeping and
scrubbing; while the galleries and the dark wooden stair-cases were
sluiced with water. "Look out there!" called somebody every moment from
somewhere, and then it was a question of escaping the downward-streaming
flood. During the whole morning the water poured from one gallery to
another, as over a mill-race.
But now the "Ark" stood freezing in its own cleanliness, with an
expression that seemed to say the old warren didn't know itself. Here
and there a curtain or a bit of furniture had disappeared from a window
--it had found its way to the pawn shop in honor of the day. What was
lacking in that way was made up for by the expectation and festive
delight on the faces of the inmates.
Little fir-trees peeped out of the cellar entries in the City Ward, and
in the market-place they stood like a whole forest along the wall of the
prison. In the windows of the basement-shops hung hearts and colored
candles, and the grocer at the corner had a great Christmas goblin in
his window--it was made of red and gray wool-work and had a whole cat's
skin for its beard.
On the stairs of the "Ark" the children lay about cleaning knives and
forks with sand sprinkled on the steps.
Pelle sat over his work and listened in secret. His appearance usually
had a quieting effect on these crazy outbursts of the "Ark," but he did
not want to mix himself up with this affair. And he had never even
dreamed that Hanne's mother could be like this! She was like a fury,
turning her head, quick as lightning, now to one side, now to the
other, and listening to every sound, ready to break out again!
Ah, she was protecting her child now that it was too late! She was like
a spitting cat.
"The youngest of all the lordlin's,"
sang the children down in the court. That was Hanne's song. Madam
Johnsen stood there as though she would like to swoop down on their
heads. Suddenly she flung her apron over her face and ran indoors,
"Ah!" they said, and they slapped their bellies every time an odor of
something cooking streamed out into the court. Every few minutes they
had to run out and buy five or ten ore worth of something or other;
there was no end to the things that were needed in preparation for
Christmas Eve. "We're having lovely red beetroot!" said one little
child, singing, making a song of it--"We're having lovely red beetroot,
aha, aha, aha!" And they swayed their little bodies to and fro as they
"Frederik!" a sharp voice cried from one of the corridors. "Run and get
a score of firewood and a white roll--a ten-ore one. But look out the
grocer counts the score properly and don't pick out the crumb!"
Madam Olsen with the warm wall was frying pork. She couldn't pull her
range out onto the gallery, but she did let the pork burn so that the
whole courtyard was filled with bluish smoke. "Madam Olsen! Your pork is
burning!" cried a dozen women at once.
"That's because the frying-pan's too small!" replied Frau Olsen,
thrusting her red head out through the balusters. "What's a poor devil
to do when her frying-pan's too small?" And Madam Olsen's frying-pan was
the biggest in the whole "Ark"!
Shortly before the twilight fell Pelle came home from the workshop. He
saw the streets and the people with strange eyes that diffused a
radiance over all things; it was the Christmas spirit in his heart. But
why? he asked himself involuntarily. Nothing in particular was in store
for him. To-day he would have to work longer than usual, and he would
not be able to spend the evening with Ellen, for she had to be busy in
her kitchen, making things jolly for others. Why, then, did this feeling
possess him? It was not a memory; so far as he could look back he had
never taken part in a genuine cheerful Christmas Eve, but had been
forced to content himself with the current reports of such festivities.
And all the other poor folks whom he met were in the same mood as he
himself. The hard questioning look had gone from their faces; they were
smiling to themselves as they went. To-day there was nothing of that
wan, heavy depression which commonly broods over the lower classes like
the foreboding of disaster; they could not have looked more cheerful had
all their hopes been fulfilled! A woman with a feather-bed in her arms
passed him and disappeared into the pawn-shop; and she looked extremely
well pleased. Were they really so cheerful just because they were going
to have a bit of a feast, while to do so they were making a succession
of lean days yet leaner? No, they were going to keep festival because
the Christmas spirit prevailed in their hearts, because they must keep
holiday, however dearly it might cost them!
It was on this night to be sure that Christ was born. Were the people so
kind and cheerful on that account?
Pelle still knew by heart most of the Bible texts of his school-days.
They had remained stowed away somewhere in his mind, without burdening
him or taking up any room, and now and again they reappeared and helped
to build up his knowledge of mankind. But of Christ Himself he had
formed his own private picture, from the day when as a boy he first
stumbled upon the command given to the rich: to sell all that they had
and to give to the starving. But they took precious good care not to do
so; they took the great friend of the poor man and hanged him on high!
He achieved no more than this, that He became a promise to the poor; but
perhaps it was this promise that, after two thousand years, they were
now so solemnly celebrating!
They had so long been silent, holding themselves in readiness, like the
wise virgins in the Bible, and now at last it was coming! Now at last
they were beginning to proclaim the great Gospel of the Poor--it was a
goodly motive for all this Christmas joy! Why did they not assemble the
multitudes on the night of Christ's birth and announce the Gospel to them?
Then they would all understand the Cause and would join it then and there!
There was a whirl of new living thoughts in Pelle's head. He had not
hitherto known that that in which he was participating was so great a
thing. He felt that he was serving the Highest.
He stood a while in the market-place, silently considering the
Christmas-trees--they led his thoughts back to the pasture on which he
had herded the cows, and the little wood of firs. It pleased him to buy
a tree, and to take the children by surprise; the previous evening they
had sat together cutting out Christmas-tree decorations, and Karl had
fastened four fir-tree boughs together to make a Christmas-tree.
At the grocer's he bought some sweets and Christmas candles. The grocer
was going about on tip-toe in honor of the day, and was serving the
dirty little urchins with ceremonious bows. He was "throwing things in,"
and had quite forgotten his customary, "Here, you, don't forget that you
still owe for two lots of tea and a quarter of coffee!" But he was
cheating with the scales as usual.
Marie was going about with rolled-up sleeves, and was very busy. But she
dropped her work and came running when she saw the tree. "It won't stand
here yet, Pelle," she cried, "it will have to be cut shorter. It will
have to be cut still shorter even now! Oh, how pretty it is! No, at the
end there--at the end! We had a Christmas-tree at home; father went out
himself and cut it down on the cliffs; and we children went with him.
But this one is much finer!" Then she ran out into the gangway, in order
to tell the news, but it suddenly occurred to her that the boys had not
come home yet, so she rushed in to Pelle once more.
Pelle sat down to his work. From time to time he lifted his head and
looked out. The seamstress, who had just moved into Pipman's old den,
and who was working away at her snoring machine, looked longingly at
him. Of course she must be lonely; perhaps there was nowhere where she
could spend the evening.
Old Madam Frandsen came out on her platform and shuffled down the steep
stairs in her cloth slippers. The rope slipped through her trembling
hands. She had a little basket on her arm and a purse in her hand--she
too looked so lonely, the poor old worm! She had now heard nothing of
her son for three months. Madam Olsen called out to her and invited her
in, but the old woman shook her head. On the way back she looked in on
"He's coming this evening," she whispered delightedly. "I've been buying
brandy and beefsteak for him, because he's coming this evening!"
"Well, don't be disappointed, Madam Frandsen," said Pelle, "but he
daren't venture here any more. Come over to us instead and keep
Christmas with us."
She nodded confidently. "He'll come tonight. On Christmas Eve he has
always slept in mother's bed, ever since he could crawl, and he can't do
without it, not if I know my Ferdinand!" She had already made up a bed
for herself on the chairs, so certain was she.
The police evidently thought as she did, for down in the court strange
footsteps were heard. It was just about twilight, when so many were
coming and going unremarked. But at these steps a female head popped
back over the balustrade, a sharp cry was heard, and at the same moment
every gallery was filled with women and children. They hung over the
rails and made an ear-splitting din, so that the whole deep, narrow
shaft was filled with an unendurable uproar. It sounded as though a
hurricane came raging down through the shaft, sweeping with it a
hailstorm of roofing-slates. The policeman leaped back into the tunnel-
entry, stupefied. He stood there a moment recovering himself before he
withdrew. Upstairs, in the galleries, they leaned on the rails and
recovered their breath, exhausted by the terrific eruption; and then
fell to chattering like a flock of small birds that have been chasing a
"Merry Christmas!" was now shouted from gallery to gallery. "Thanks, the
same to you!" And the children shouted to one another, "A jolly feast
and all the best!" "A dainty feast for man and beast!"
Christmas Eve was here! The men came shuffling home at a heavy trot, and
the factory-girls came rushing in. Here and there a feeble wail filtered
out of one of the long corridors, so that the milk-filled breast ached.
Children incessantly ran in and out, fetching the last ingredients of
the feast. Down by the exit into the street they had to push two tramps,
who stood there shuddering in the cold. They were suspicious-looking
people. "There are two men down there, but they aren't genuine," said
Karl. "They look as if they came out of a music-hall."
"Run over to old Madam Frandsen and tell her that," said Pelle. But her
only answer was, "God be thanked, then they haven't caught him yet!"
Over at Olsen's their daughter Elvira had come home. The blind was not
drawn, and she was standing at the window with her huge hat with flowers
in it, allowing herself to be admired. Marie came running in. "Have you
seen how fine she is, Pelle?" she said, quite stupefied. "And she gets
all that for nothing from the gentlemen, just because they think she's
so pretty. But at night she paints her naked back!"
The children were running about in the gangway, waiting until Pelle
should have finished. They would not keep Christmas without him. But now
he, too, had finished work; he pulled on a jacket, wrapped up his work,
and ran off.
Out on the platform he stood still for a moment. He could see the light
of the city glimmering in the deep, star-filled sky. The night was so
solemnly beautiful. Below him the galleries were forsaken; they were
creaking in the frost. All the doors were closed to keep the cold out
and the joy in. "Down, down from the green fir-trees!"--it sounded from
every corner. The light shone through the window and in all directions
through the woodwork. Suddenly there was a dull booming sound on the
stairs--it was the hearse-driver staggering home with a ham under either
arm. Then all grew quiet--quiet as it never was at other times in the
"Ark," where night or day some one was always complaining. A child came
out and lifted a pair of questioning eyes, in order to look at the Star
of Bethlehem! There was a light at Madam Frandsen's. She had hung a
white sheet over the window today, and had drawn it tight; the lamp
stood close to the window, so that any one moving within would cast no
shadow across it.
The poor old worm! thought Pelle, as he ran past; she might have spared
herself the trouble! When he had delivered his work he hurried over to
Holberg Street, in order to wish Ellen a happy Christmas. The table was
finely decked out in his room when he got home; there was pork chops,
rice boiled in milk, and Christmas beer. Marie was glowing with pride
over her performance; she sat helping the others, but she herself took
"You ought to cook a dinner as good as this every day, lass!" said Karl,
as he set to. "God knows, you might well get a situation in the King's
"Why don't you eat any of this nice food?" said Pelle.
"Oh, no, I can't," she replied, touching her cheeks; her eyes beamed
They laughed and chattered and clinked their glasses together. Karl came
out with the latest puns and the newest street-songs; so he had gained
something by his scouring of the city streets. Peter sat there looking
impenetrably now at one, now at another; he never laughed, but from time
to time he made a dry remark by which one knew that he was amusing
himself. Now and again they looked over at old Madam Frandsen's window--
it was a pity that she wouldn't be with them.
Five candles were now burning over there--they were apparently fixed on
a little Christmas tree which stood in a flowerpot. They twinkled like
distant stars through the white curtain, and Madam Frandsen's voice
sounded cracked and thin: "O thou joyful, O thou holy, mercy-bringing
Christmas-tide!" Pelle opened his window and listened; he wondered that
the old woman should be so cheerful.
Suddenly a warning voice sounded from below: "Madam Frandsen, there are
Doors and windows flew open on the galleries round about. People tumbled
out of doorways, their food in their hands, and leaned over the
railings. "Who dares to disturb our Christmas rejoicings?" cried a deep,
"The officers of the law!" the reply came out of the darkness. "Keep
quiet, all of you--in the name of the law!"
Over on Madam Frandsen's side two figures became visible, noiselessly
running up on all fours. Upstairs nothing was happening; apparently they
had lost their heads. "Ferdinand, Ferdinand!" shrieked a girl's voice
wildly; "they're coming now!"
At the same moment the door flew open, and with a leap Ferdinand stood
on the platform. He flung a chair down at his pursuers, and violently
swayed the hand-rope, in order to sweep them off the steps. Then he
seized the gutter and swung himself up onto the roof. "Good-bye,
mother!" he cried from above, and his leap resounded in the darkness.
"Good-bye, mother, and a merry Christmas!" A howl like that of a wounded
beast flung the alarm far out into the night, and they heard the
stumbling pursuit of the policemen over the roofs. And then all was
They returned unsuccessful. "Well, then you haven't got him!" cried
Olsen, leaning out of his window down below.
"No; d'you think we are going to break our necks for the like of him?"
retorted the policemen, as they scrambled down. "Any one going to stand
a glass of Christmas beer?" As no response followed, they departed.
Old Madam Frandsen went into her room and locked up; she was tired and
worried and wanted to go to bed. But after a time she came shuffling
down the long gangway. "Pelle," she whispered, "he's in bed in my room!
While they were scrambling about on the roofs he slipped quietly back
over the garrets and got into my bed! Good God, he hasn't slept in a bed
for four months! He's snoring already!" And she slipped out again.
Yes, that was an annoying interruption! No one felt inclined to begin
all over again excepting Karl, and Marie did not count him, as he was
always hungry. So she cleared away, gossiping as she went in and out;
she did not like to see Pelle so serious.
"But the secret!" she cried of a sudden, quite startled. The boys ran in
to her; then they came back, close together, with Marie behind them,
carrying something under her apron. The two boys flung themselves upon
Pelle and closed his eyes, while Marie inserted something in his mouth.
"Guess now!" she cried, "guess now!" It was a porcelain pipe with a
green silken tassel. On the bowl of the pipe, which was Ellen's
Christmas gift, was a representation of a ten-kroner note. The children
had inserted a screw of tobacco. "Now you'll be able to smoke properly,"
said Marie, pursing her lips together round the mouthpiece; "you are so
clever in everything else."
The children had invited guests for the Christmas-tree; the seamstress,
the old night-watchman from the courtyard, the factory-hand with her
little boy; all those who were sitting at home and keeping Christmas all
alone. They didn't know themselves, there were so many of them! Hanne
and her mother were invited too, but they had gone to bed early--they
were not inclined for sociability. One after another they were pulled
into the room, and they came with cheerful faces. Marie turned the lamp
out and went in to light up the Christmas tree.
They sat in silence and expectation. The light from the stove flickered
cheerfully to and fro in the room, lighting up a face with closed
eyelids and eager features, and dying away with a little crash. The
factory hand's little boy was the only one to chatter; he had sought a
refuge on Pelle's knee and felt quite safe in the darkness; his childish
voice sounded strangely bright in the firelight. "Paul must be quite
good and quiet," repeated the mother admonishingly.
"Mus'n't Paul 'peak?" asked the child, feeling for Pelle's face.
"Yes, to-night Paul can do just as he likes," replied Pelle. Then the
youngster chattered on and kicked out at the darkness with his little
"Now you can come!" cried Marie, and she opened the door leading to the
gangway. In the children's room everything had been cleared away. The
Christmas-tree stood in the middle, on the floor, and was blazing with
light. And how splendid it was--and how tall! Now they could have a
proper good look! The lights were reflected in their eyes, and in the
window-panes, and in the old mahogany-framed mirror, and the glass of
the cheap pictures, so that they seemed suddenly to be moving about in
the midst of myriads of stars, and forgot all their miseries. It was as
though they had escaped from all their griefs and cares, and had entered
straightway into glory, and all of a sudden a pure, clear voice arose,
tremulous with embarrassment, and the voice sang:
"O little angel, make us glad!
Down from high Heaven's halls
Through sunshine flown, in splendor clad,
Earth's shadow on thee falls!"
It sounded like a greeting from the clouds. They closed their eyes and
wandered, hand in hand, about the tree. Then the seamstress fell silent,
blushing. "You aren't singing with me!" she cried.
"We'll sing the Yule Song--we all know that," said Pelle.
"Down, down from the high green tree!"--It was Karl who struck up. And
they just did sing that! It fitted in so admirably--even the name of
Peter fitted in! And it was great fun, too, when all the presents
cropped up in the song; every single person was remembered! Only, the
lines about the purse, at the end, were all too true! There wasn't much
more to be said for that song! But suddenly the boys set the ring-dance
going; they stamped like a couple of soldiers, and then they all went
whirling round in frantic movement--a real witches' dance!
"Hey dicker dick,
My man fell smack;
It was on Christmas Eve!
I took a stick
And broke it on his back,
It was on Christmas Eve!"
How hot all the candles made it, and how it all went to one's head! They
had to open the door on to the gangway.
And there outside stood the inmates of the garrets, listening and
craning their necks. "Come inside," cried the boys. "There's room enough
if we make two rings!" So once again they moved round the tree, singing
Christmas carols. Every time there was a pause somebody struck up a new
carol, that had to be sung through. The doors opposite were open too,
the old rag-picker sat at the head of his table singing on his own
account. He had a loaf of black bread and a plate of bacon in front of
him, and after every carol he took a mouthful. In the other doorway sat
three coal-porters playing "sixty-six" for beer and brandy. They sat
facing toward the Christmas-tree, and they joined in the singing as they
played; but from time to time they broke off in the middle of a verse in
order to say something or to cry "Trumped!" Now they suddenly threw down
their cards and came into the room. "We don't want to sit here idle and
look on while others are working," they said, and they joined the
Finally they had all had enough of circling round the tree and singing.
So chairs and stools were brought in from the other rooms; they had to
squeeze close together, right under the sloping roof, and some sat up on
the window-sill. There was a clear circle left round the Christmas-tree.
And there they sat gossiping, crouching in all sorts of distorted
postures, as though that was the only way in which their bodies could
really find repose, their arms hanging loosely between their knees. But
their faces were still eager and excited; and the smoke from the candles
and the crackling fir-boughs of the tree veiled them in a bluish cloud,
through which they loomed as round as so many moons. The burning
turpentine gave the smoke a mysterious, alluring fragrance, and the
devout and attentive faces were like so many murmuring spirits, hovering
in the clouds, each above its outworn body.
Pelle sat there considering them till his heart bled for them--that was
his Christmas devotion. Poor storm-beaten birds, what was this splendid
experience which outweighed all their privations? Only a little light!
And they looked as though they could fall down before it and give up
their lives! He knew the life's story of each one of them better than
they knew. But their faces were still eager and excited; and they
themselves; when they approached the light they always burned themselves
in it, like the moths, they were so chilled!
"All the same, that's a queer invention, when one thinks about it," said
one of the dockers, nodding toward the Christmas-tree. "But it's fine.
God knows what it really is supposed to mean!"
"It means that now the year is returning toward the light again," said
the old night-watchman.
"No; it stands for the joy of the shepherds over the birth of Christ,"
said the rag-picker, stepping into the doorway.
"The shepherds were poor folks, like ourselves, who lived in the
darkness. That's why they rejoiced so over Him, because He came with the
"Well, it don't seem to me we've been granted such a terrible deal of
light! Oh, yes, the Christmas-tree here, that's splendid, Lord knows it
is, and we should all of us like to thank the children for it--but one
can't have trees like that to set light to every day; and as for the
sun--well, you see, the rich folks have got a monopoly of that!"
"Yes, you are right there, Jacob," said Pelle, who was moving about
round the tree, taking down the hearts and packages for the children,
who distributed the sweets. "You are all three of you right--curiously
enough. The Christmas-tree is to remind us of Christ's birth, and also
that the year is returning toward the sun--but that's all the same
thing. And then it's to remind us, too, that we too ought to have a
share in things; Christ was born especially to remind the poor of their
rights! Yes, that is so! For the Lord God isn't one to give long-winded
directions as to how one should go ahead; He sends the sun rolling round
the earth every day, and each of us must look out for himself, and see
how best he himself can get into the sunshine. It's just like the wife
of a public-house keeper I remember at home, who used to tell
travellers, 'What would you like to eat? You can have ducks or pork
chops or sweets--anything you've brought with you!'"
"That was a devilish funny statement!" said his hearers, laughing.
"Yes, it's easy enough to invite one to all sorts of fine things when
all the time one has to bring them along one's self! You ought to have
been a preacher."
"He'd far better be the Devil's advocate!" said the old rag-picker. "For
there's not much Christianity in what he says!"
"But you yourself said that Christ came bringing light for the poor,"
said Pelle; "and He Himself said as much, quite plainly; what He wanted
was to make the blind to see and the dead to walk, and to restore
consideration to the despised and rejected. Also, He wanted men to have
"The blind shall see, the lame shall walk, the leper shall be clean, the
deaf shall hear, and the dead shall arise, and the Word shall be preached
to the poor," said the rag-picker, correcting Pelle. "You are distorting
the Scriptures, Pelle."
"But I don't believe He meant only individual cripples--no, He meant all
of us in our misery, and all the temptations that lie in wait for us.
That's how Preacher Sort conceived it, and he was a godly, upright man.
He believed the millennium would come for the poor, and that Christ was
already on the earth making ready for its coming."
The women sat quite bemused, listening with open mouths; they dared
scarcely breathe. Paul was asleep on his mother's lap.
"Can He really have thought about us poor vermin, and so long
beforehand?" cried the men, looking from one to another. "Then why
haven't we long ago got a bit more forward than this?"
"Yes, I too don't understand that," said Pelle, hesitating. "Perhaps we
ourselves have got to work our way in the right direction--and that
"Yes, but--if He would only give us proper conditions of life. But if we
have to win them for ourselves we don't need any Christ for that!"
This was something that Pelle could not explain even to himself,
although he felt it within him as a living conviction, A man must win
what was due to him himself--that was clear as the day, and he couldn't
understand how they could be blind to the fact; but why he must do so he
couldn't--however he racked his brains--explain to another person. "But
I can tell you a story," he said.
"But a proper exciting story!" cried Earl, who was feeling bored. "Oh,
if only Vinslev were here--he has such droll ideas!"
"Be quiet, boy!" said Marie crossly. "Pelle makes proper speeches--
before whole meetings," she said, nodding solemnly to the others. "What
is the story called?"
"Oh, it's a story with Peter in it--then it's a fairy-tale! What is it
"You'll know that when you hear it, my child," said the old night-
"Yes, but then one can't enjoy it when it comes out right. Isn't it a
story about a boy who goes out into the world?"
"The story is about"--Pelle bethought himself a moment; "the story is
about the birth of Christ," he said quickly, and then blushed a deep red
at his own audacity. But the others looked disappointed, and settled
themselves decently and stared at the floor, as though they had been in
And then Pelle told them the story of Howling Peter; who was born and
grew up in poverty and grief, until he was big and strong, and every
man's cur to kick. For it was the greatest pity to see this finely-made
fellow, who was so full of fear and misery that if even a girl so much
as touched him he must flood himself with tears; and the only way out of
his misery was the rope. What a disgrace it was, that he should have
earned his daily bread and yet have been kept in the workhouse, as
though they did him a kindness in allowing him a hole to creep into
there, when with his capacity for work he could have got on anywhere!
And it became quite unendurable as he grew up and was still misused by
all the world, and treated like a dog. But then, all of a sudden, he
broke the magic spell, struck down his tormentors, and leaped out into
the daylight as the boldest of them all!
They drew a deep breath when he had finished. Marie clapped her hands.
"That was a real fairy-tale!" she cried. Karl threw himself upon Peter
and pummeled away at him, although that serious-minded lad was anything
but a tyrant!
They cheerfully talked the matter over. Everybody had something to say
about Howling Peter. "That was damned well done," said the men; "he
thrashed the whole crew from beginning to end; a fine fellow that! And a
strong one too! But why the devil did he take such a long time about it?
And put up with all that?"
"Yes, it isn't quite so easy for us to understand that--not for us, who
boast such a lot about our rights!" said Pelle, smiling.
"Well, you're a clever chap, and you've told it us properly!" cried the
cheerful Jacob. "But if ever you need a fist, there's mine!" He seized
and shook Pelle's hand.
The candles had long burned out, but they did not notice it.
Their eyes fastened on Pelle's as though seeking something, with a
peculiar expression in which a question plainly came and went. And
suddenly they overwhelmed him with questions. They wanted to know
enough, anyhow! He maintained that a whole world of splendors belonged
to them, and now they were in a hurry to get possession of them. Even
the old rag-picker let himself be carried away with the rest; it was too
alluring, the idea of giving way to a little intoxication, even if the
everyday world was to come after it.
Pelle stood among them all, strong and hearty, listening to all their
questions with a confident smile. He knew all that was to be theirs--
even if it couldn't come just at once. It was a matter of patience and
perseverance; but that they couldn't understand just now. When they had
at last entered into their glory they would know well enough how to
protect it. He had no doubts; he stood there among them like their
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