Once there was a little boy who went out and got his
feet wet and caught cold. Nobody could understand
how it had happened, because the weather was very dry.
His mother undressed him, put him to bed, and had the
tea urn brought in to make him a good cup of elder tea,
for that keeps one warm.
At the same time there came in the door the funny
old man who lived all alone on the top floor of the house.
He had no wife or children of his own, but he was very fond
of all children, and knew so many wonderful stories
and tales that it was fun to listen to him.
"Now drink your tea," said the little boy's mother,
"and then perhaps there'll be a story for you."
"Yes," nodded the old man kindly, "if I could only
think of a new one! But tell me, how did the young
man get his feet wet?" he asked.
"Yes, where did he?" said the mother.
"Nobody can imagine how."
"Will you tell me a fairy tale?" the little boy asked.
"Yes, but I must know something first. Can you tell me
as nearly as possible how deep the gutter is in
the little street where you go to school?"
"Just halfway up to my top boots," answered the little boy.
"That is," he added, "if I stand in the deep hole."
"That's how we got our feet wet," said the old man.
"Now, I certainly ought to tell you a story,
but I don't know any more."
"You can make one up right away," the little boy said.
"Mother says that everything you look at can be turned into a story, and that you can make a tale of everything you touch."
"Yes, but those stories and tales aren't worth anything.
No, the real ones come all by themselves.
They come knocking at my forehead and say, 'Here I am!' "
"Will there be a knock soon?" the little boy asked.
His mother laughed as she put the elder tea in
the pot and poured hot water over it.
"Tell me a story! Tell me a story!"
And the little boy looked toward the teapot. He saw the lid slowly raise itself and fresh white elder flowers come forth from it.
They shot long branches even out of the spout and spread them abroad in all directions, and they grew bigger and bigger until there was the most glorious elderbush - really a big tree! The branches even stretched to the little boy's bed and thrust the curtains aside - how fragrant its blossoms were!
And right in the middle of the tree there sat a sweet-looking old woman in a very strange dress. It was green, as green as the leaves of the elder tree, and it was trimmed with big white elder blossoms; at first one couldn't tell if this dress was cloth or the living green and flowers of the tree.
"What is this woman's name?" asked the little boy.
"Well, the Romans and the Greeks," said the old man,
"used to call her a 'Dryad,' but we don't understand that word.
Out in New Town, where the sailors live,
they have a better name for her.
There she is called 'Elder Tree Mother,' and you
must pay attention to her; listen to her,
and look at that glorious elder tree!"
"A great blooming tree just exactly like that stands in
New Town. It grows in the corner of a poor little yard;
and under that tree two old people sat one afternoon
in the bright sunshine. It was an old sailor and his very
old wife; they had great-grandchildren and were soon
going to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary,
but they weren't quite sure of the date. The Elder Tree Mother
sat in the tree and looked pleased, just as she does here.
'I know perfectly well when the golden wedding day is,'
she said, but they didn't hear it - they were talking
of olden times.
" 'Yes, do you remember,' said the old sailor, 'when we
were very little, how we ran about and played together?
It was in this very same yard where we are now, and
we put little twigs in the earth and made a garden.'
" 'Yes,' replied the old woman. 'That I remember well;
one of those twigs was an elder, and when we watered them
it took root and shot out other green twigs, and now it has become this great tree under which we old people are sitting.'
" 'That's right,' said he. 'And there used to be a tub of water
over in the corner, where I sailed the little boat I had
made myself. How it could sail! But pretty soon
I had to sail in a different way myself.'
" 'Yes, but first we went to school and learned something,'
said she, 'and then we were confirmed. Remember how
we both cried? But in the afternoon we went together to
the Round Tower, and looked out at the wide world over Copenhagen and across the water. And then we went to Frederiksborg, where the King and Queen were sailing
on the canal in their beautiful boat!'
" 'But I had to sail in a different way myself,' said the
old man. 'And for many years, far away on long voyages.'
" 'I often cried over you,' she said. 'I thought you were dead
and gone, and lying down in the deep ocean,
with the waves rocking you. Many a night I got up
to see if the weathercock was turning.
Yes, it turned all right, but still you didn't come.
" 'I remember so clearly how the rain poured
down one day. The garbage man came to the place
where I worked. I took the dustbin down to him and
stood in the doorway. What dreadful weather it was!
And while I was standing there, the postman came up
and gave me a letter - a letter from you! My, how that
letter had traveled about! I tore it open quickly and read it,
and I was so happy that I laughed and cried at the same time.
You had written me that you were in the warm countries
where the coffee beans grow.
What a wonderful country that must be!
You wrote me all about it, and I read it there by the
dustbin with the rain streaming down. Then somebody
came and clasped me around the waist!'
" 'And you gave him a good smack on the ear,' he said.
'One that could be heard!'
" 'Yes, but I didn't know it was you! You had come just
as quickly as your letter. And you were so handsome -
but you still are, of course!
I remember you had a long yellow silk handkerchief
in your pocket, and a shiny hat on your head.
You looked so well!
But what awful weather it was and how the street looked!'
" 'Then we were married, remember?' said he.
'And then out first little boy came, and then Marie,
and Niels, and Peter, and Hans Christian?'
" 'Yes, indeed,' she nodded. 'And how they've grown
up to be useful people. Everyone likes them.'
" 'And their children have had little ones in their turn,'
said the old sailor. 'Yes, they are our great-grandchildren;
they're fine children.
If I'm not mistaken, it was at this very time of the
year that we were married.'
" 'Yes. This is the very day of your golden wedding anniversary!' said the Elder Tree Mother, stretching her head down
between the two old people. They thought it was the
neighbor woman nodding to them, and they looked at
each other and took hold of each other's hands.
"Then the children and the grandchildren came; they
knew very well that this was the old people's golden
wedding day - they had already brought their
congratulations that morning. But the old people had
forgotten that, although they remembered everything
that had happened years and years ago.
"And the elder tree smelled so fragrant, and the setting
sun shone right in the faces of the old people so that
their cheeks looked quite red and young; and the littlest
of the grandchildren danced around them, and cried
out happily that there was to be a grand feast that
evening with hot potatoes! And the Elder Mother nodded
in the tree and called out 'Hurrah!' with all the others."
"But that wasn't a fairy tale," said the little boy,
who had been listening to the story.
"Yes, it was, if you could understand it," said the old man.
"But let's ask the Elder Mother about it."
"No," the Elder Mother said, "that wasn't a story.
But now the story is coming. For the strangest fairy tales
come from real life; otherwise my beautiful elderbush
couldn't have sprouted out of the teapot."
Then she took the little boy out of his bed and laid him
against her breast, and the blossoming elder branches
wound close around them so that it was as if they were
sitting in a thick arbor, and this arbor flew with them
through the air! How very wonderful it was!
Elder Mother all at once changed into a pretty young girl,
but the dress was still green with the white blossoms
trimming it, such as the Elder Tree Mother had worn.
In her bosom she had a real elder blossom, and a wreath
of the flowers was about her yellow, curly hair.
Her eyes were so large and so blue, and, oh, she was
so beautiful to look at! She and the little boy were of
the same age now, and they kissed each
other and were happy together.
Hand in hand they went out of the arbor, and now
they were standing in the beautiful flower garden at home.
Near the green lawn the walking stick of the little boy's
father was tied to a post, and for the little children there
was magical life in that stick. When they seated themselves
upon it, the polished head turned into the head of a noble neighing horse with a long, black flowing mane.
Four slender, strong legs shot out; the animal was strong
and spirited; and they galloped around the grass plot!
"Now we'll ride for miles!" said the boy. "We'll ride to that nobleman's estate, where we went last year!"
So they rode round and round the grass plot, and
the little girl, who you must remember was the Elder Mother,
kept crying, "Now we're in the country! See the farmhouse,
with the big baking oven standing out of the wall like an
enormous egg beside the road! The elder tree is spreading its branches over the house, and the cock is walking around, scratching for his hens. Look at him strut!
Now we're near the church; it's high up on the hill, among the great oak trees. See how one of them is half dead!
Now we're at the forge; the fire is burning, and the half-clad
men are beating with the hammers.
Look at the sparks flying all around!
We're off! We're off to the nobleman's beautiful estate!"
They were only riding around and around the grass plot,
yet the little boy seemed to see everything that the
little maiden mentioned as she sat behind him on the
magic stick. Then they played on the sidewalk, and marked
out a little garden in the earth; and she took the elder flower
out of her hair and planted it, and it grew just like the ones
that the old people had planted in New Town,
when they were little, as I have already told you.
They walked hand in hand, the same way the old people
did in their childhood, but they didn't go to the
Round Tower or the Frederiksborg Garden.
No, the little girl took the little boy around the waist,
and they flew through the country of Denmark.
And it was spring and it became summer, and it was autumn
and it became winter, and there were thousands of pictures
in the boy's mind and heart, as the little girl sang to him,
"You will never forget this."
And throughout their whole journey the elder tree
smelled sweet and fragrant. He noticed the roses and
fresh beech trees, but the elder tree smelled the sweetest, for its flowers hung over the little girl's heart, and he often
leaned his head against them as they flew onward.
"How beautiful it is here in the spring!" said the little girl.
Then they were standing in the new-leaved beech wood,
where the fragrant green woodruff lay spread at their feet,
and the pale pink anemones looked glorious
against the vivid green.
"Oh, if it could only always be spring in the fragrant
beech woods of Denmark!"
"How beautiful it is here in the summer!" she said.
Then they were passing by knightly castles of olden times,
where the red walls and pointed gables were mirrored in the canals, and where swans swam about and peered down the shady old avenues. In the fields the corn waved, as if it were a sea;
in the ditches were yellow and red flowers, and wild hops
and blooming convolvulus were growing in the hedges.
In the evening the moon rose round and full,
and the haystacks in the meadows smelled fragrant.
"One can never forget it.
How beautiful it is here in the autumn!" said the little girl.
And the sky seemed twice as high and twice as blue
as ever before, and the forest was brilliant with gorgeous
tints of red and yellow and green.
The hunting dog raced across the meadows; long lines
of wild ducks flew shrieking above the ancient grave
mounds, on which the bramble twined over the old stones.
The ocean was a dark blue, dotted with white-sailed ships.
In the barns old women and girls and children picked hops
into a large tub, while the young people sang ballads,
and the older ones told fairy tales of elves and goblins.
It could not be finer anywhere.
"How beautiful it is here in the winter!" said the little girl.
Then all the trees were covered with hoarfrost, until
they looked like trees of white coral. The snow crackled
crisply underfoot, as if you were always walking in new boots,
and one shooting star after another fell from the sky.
In the room the Christmas tree was lighted, and there
were presents and happiness. In the farmer's cottage
the violin sounded and games were played for apple
dumplings, and even the poorest child cried,
"It's beautiful in winter!"
Yes, it was beautiful, and the little girl showed
the boy everything.
The blossoming elder tree always smelled fragrant,
and the red flag with the white cross always waved,
the same flag under which the old seaman in
New Town had sailed away.
And the boy became a young man, and he too had
to sail far away to warmer countries, where the coffee grows.
But when they departed, the little girl took and elder
blossom from her breast and gave it to him as a keepsake.
He laid it away in his hymnal, and whenever he took out
the book in foreign countries it always came open by
itself at the spot where lay the flower of memory.
And the more he looked at the flower the fresher and
sweeter it became, so that he seemed to be breathing the
air of the Danish forests, and he could plainly see the little girl looking up at him with her clear blue eyes from between
the petals of the flower, and could hear her whispering,
"How beautiful it is here in spring, summer, autumn, and winter!" And hundreds of pictures drifted through his thoughts.
Many years passed by, and now he was an old man,
sitting with his old wife under a blossoming tree; they were holding hands, just as Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother out in New Town had done before.
And like them they talked of olden times and of
their golden wedding anniversary.
Now the little maiden with the blue eyes and the elder
blossoms in her hair sat up in the tree and nodded to
them both and said, "Today is your golden wedding anniversary!" Then from her hair she took two flowers, and kissed them
so that they gleamed, first like silver, and then like gold.
And when she laid them on the heads of the old couple,
each became a golden crown. There they both sat, a king
and a queen, under the fragrant tree that looked just
exactly like an elder bush, and he told his old wife the
story of the Elder Tree Mother, just as it had been
told to him when he was a little boy. They both thought
that much of the story resembled their own,
and that part they liked best.
"Yes, that's the way it is," said the little girl in the tree.
"Some people call me Elder Tree Mother, and some call
me the Dryad, but my real name is Memory.
It is I who sit up in the tree that grows on and on,
and I can remember and I can tell stories.
Let me see if you still have your flower."
Then the old man opened his hymnal, and there
lay the elder blossom, as fresh as if it had just been
placed there. Then Memory nodded, and the two old
people with the golden crowns sat in the red twilight,
and they closed their eyes gently and - and -
and that was the end of the story....
The little boy was lying in his bed and he didn't know
whether he had been dreaming or had heard a story.
The teapot was standing beside him on the table, but
there was no elderbush growing out of it now, and the
old man was just going out of the door, which he did.
"That was so beautiful!" said the little boy.
"Mother, I have been in the warm countries!"
"Yes, I believe you have," said his mother.
"If one drinks two full cups of hot elder tea, one usually
gets into the warm countries!" Then she tucked the bedclothes carefully around him so that he wouldn't take cold.
"You've had a nice nap while I was arguing with him
as to whether that was a story or a fairy tale."
"And where is the Elder Tree Mother?" asked the boy.
"She's in the teapot," said the mother. "And there she can remain!"
By Hans Christian Anderson