Ole the Tower-Keeper

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“In the world it’s always going up and down–and now I can’t go up any
higher!” So said Ole the tower-keeper. “Most people have to try both
the ups and the downs; and, rightly considered, we all get to be
watchmen at last, and look down upon life from a height.”

Such was the speech of Ole, my friend, the old tower-keeper, a strange
talkative old fellow, who seemed to speak out everything that came
into his head, and who for all that had many a serious thought deep in
his heart. Yes, he was the child of respectable people, and there were
even some who said that he was the son of a privy councillor, or that
he might have been; he had studied too, and had been assistant teacher
and deputy clerk; but of what service was all that to him? In those
days he lived in the clerk’s house, and was to have everything in the
house, to be at free quarters, as the saying is; but he was still, so
to speak, a fine young gentleman. He wanted to have his boots cleaned
with patent blacking, and the clerk could only afford ordinary grease;
and upon that point they split–one spoke of stinginess, the other of
vanity, and the blacking became the black cause of enmity between
them, and at last they parted.

This is what he demanded of the world in general–namely, patent
blacking–and he got nothing but grease. Accordingly he at last drew
back from all men, and became a hermit; but the church tower is the
only place in a great city where hermitage, office, and bread can be
found together. So he betook himself up thither, and smoked his pipe
as he made his solitary rounds. He looked upward and downward, and had
his own thoughts, and told in his way of what he read in books and in
himself. I often lent him books, good books; and you may know a man by
the company he keeps. He loved neither the English governess-novels,
nor the French ones, which he called a mixture of empty wind and
raisin-stalks: he wanted biographies and descriptions of the wonders
of the world. I visited him at least once a year, generally directly
after New Year’s-day, and then he always spoke of this and that which
the change of the year had put into his head.

I will tell the story of three of these visits, and will reproduce his
own words whenever I can remember them.


Among the books which I had lately lent Ole, was one which had greatly
rejoiced and occupied him. It was a geological book, containing an
account of the boulders.

“Yes, they’re rare old fellows, those boulders!” he said; “and to
think that we should pass them without noticing them! And over the
street pavement, the paving-stones, those fragments of the oldest
remains of antiquity, one walks without ever thinking about them. I
have done the very thing myself. But now I look respectfully at every
paving-stone. Many thanks for the book! It has filled me with thought,
and has made me long to read more on the subject. The romance of the
earth is, after all, the most wonderful of all romances. It’s a pity
one can’t read the first volumes of it, because they ‘re written in a
language that we don’t understand. One must read in the different
strata, in the pebble-stones, for each separate period. Yes, it is a
romance, a very wonderful romance, and we all have our place in it. We
grope and ferret about, and yet remain where we are, but the ball
keeps turning, without emptying the ocean over us; the clod on which
we move about, holds, and does not let us through. And then it’s a
story that has been acting for thousands upon thousands of years, and
is still going on. My best thanks for the book about the boulders.
Those are fellows indeed! they could tell us something worth hearing,
if they only knew how to talk. It’s really a pleasure, now and then to
become a mere nothing, especially when a man is as highly placed as I
am. And then to think that we all, even with patent lacquer, are
nothing more than insects of a moment on that ant-hill the earth,
though we may be insects with stars and garters, places and offices!
One feels quite a novice beside these venerable million-year-old
boulders. On New Year’s-eve I was reading the book, and had lost
myself in it so completely, that I forgot my usual New Year’s
diversion, namely, the wild hunt to Amack. Ah, you don’t know what
that is!

“The journey of the witches on broomsticks is well enough known–that
journey is taken on St. John’s-eve, to the Brocken; but we have a wild
journey also, which is national and modern, and that is the journey to
Amack on the night of the New Year. All indifferent poets and
poetesses, musicians, newspaper writers and artistic notabilities, I
mean those who are no good, ride in the New Year’s-night through the
air to Amack. They sit backwards on their painting brushes or quill
pens, for steel pens won’t bear them, they’re too stiff. As I told
you, I see that every New Year’s night, and could mention the
majority of the riders by name, but I should not like to draw their
enmity upon myself, for they don’t like people to talk about their
ride to Amack on quill pens. I’ve a kind of niece, who is a fishwife,
and who, as she tells me, supplies three respectable newspapers with
the terms of abuse and vituperation they use, and she has herself been
at Amack as an invited guest; but she was carried out thither, for she
does not own a quill pen, nor can she ride. She has told me all about
it. Half of what she said is not true, but the other half gives us
information enough. When she was out there, the festivities began with
a song: each of the guests had written his own song, and each one sung
his own song, for he thought that the best, and it was all one, all
the same melody. Then those came marching up, in little bands, who are
only busy with their mouths. There were ringing bells that sang
alternately; and then came the little drummers that beat their tattoo
in the family circle; and acquaintance was made with those who write
without putting their names, which here means as much as using grease
instead of patent blacking; and then there was the beadle with his
boy, and the boy was the worst off, for in general he gets no notice
taken of him; then too there was the good street-sweeper with his
cart, who turns over the dust-bin, and calls it “good, very good,
remarkably good.” And in the midst of the pleasure that was afforded
by the mere meeting of these folks, there shot up out of the great
dirt-heap at Amack a stem, a tree, an immense flower, a great
mushroom, a perfect roof, which formed a sort of warehouse for the
worthy company, for in it hung everything they had given to the world
during the Old Year. Out of the tree poured sparks like flames of
fire; these were the ideas and thoughts, borrowed from others, which
they had used, and which now got free and rushed away like so many
fireworks. They played at ‘the stick burns,’ and the young poets
played at ‘heart-burns,’ and the witlings played off their jests, and
the jests rolled away with a thundering sound, as if empty pots were
being shattered against doors. ‘It was very amusing!’ my niece said;
in fact, she said many things that were very malicious but very
amusing, but I won’t mention them, for a man must be good-natured and
not a carping critic. But you will easily perceive that when a man
once knows the rights of the journey to Amack, as I know them, it’s
quite natural that on the New Year’s-night one should look out to see
the wild chase go by. If in the New Year I miss certain persons who
used to be there, I am sure to notice others who are new arrivals: but
this year I omitted taking my look at the guests. I bowled away on the
boulders, rolled back through millions of years, and saw the stones
break loose high up in the North, saw them drifting about on icebergs,
long before Noah’s ark was constructed, saw them sink down to the
bottom of the sea, and reappear with a sand-bank, with that one that
peered forth from the flood and said, ‘This shall be Zealand!’ I saw
them become the dwelling-place of birds that are unknown to us, and
then become the seat of wild chiefs of whom we know nothing, until
with their axes they cut their Runic signs into a few of these stones,
which then came into the calendar of time. But as for me, I had gone
quite beyond all lapse of time, and had become a cipher and a nothing.
Then three or four beautiful falling stars came down, which cleared
the air, and gave my thoughts another direction. You know what a
falling star is, do you not? The learned men are not at all clear
about it. I have my own ideas about shooting stars, as the common
people in many parts call them, and my idea is this: How often are
silent thanksgivings offered up for one who has done a good and noble
action! the thanks are often speechless, but they are not lost for all
that. I think these thanks are caught up, and the sunbeams bring the
silent, hidden thankfulness over the head of the benefactor; and if it
be a whole people that has been expressing its gratitude through a
long lapse of time, the thankfulness appears as a nosegay of flowers,
and at length falls in the form of a shooting star upon the good man’s
grave. I am always very much pleased when I see a shooting star,
especially in the New Year’s-night, and then find out for whom the
gift of gratitude was intended. Lately a gleaming star fell in the
south-west, as a tribute of thanksgiving to many, many! ‘For whom was
that star intended?’ thought I. It fell, no doubt, on the hill by the
Bay of Flensberg, where the Danebrog waves over the graves of
Schleppegrell, Läslöes, and their comrades. One star also fell in the
midst of the land, fell upon Sorö, a flower on the grave of Holberg,
the thanks of the year from a great many–thanks for his charming

“It is a great and pleasant thought to know that a shooting star falls
upon our graves; on mine certainly none will fall–no sunbeam brings
thanks to me, for here there is nothing worthy of thanks. I shall not
get the patent lacquer,” said Ole; “for my fate on earth is only
grease, after all.”


It was New Year’s-day, and I went up on the tower. Ole spoke of the
toasts that were drunk on the transition from the old year into the
new, from one grave into the other, as he said. And he told me a story
about the glasses, and this story had a very deep meaning. It was

“When on the New Year’s-night the clock strikes twelve, the people at
the table rise up, with full glasses in their hands, and drain these
glasses, and drink success to the New Year. They begin the year with
the glass in their hands; that is a good beginning for topers. They
begin the New Year by going to bed, and that’s a good beginning for
drones. Sleep is sure to play a great part in the New Year, and the
glass likewise. Do you know what dwells in the glass?” asked Ole. “I
will tell you–there dwell in the glass, first, health, and then
pleasure, then the most complete sensual delight: and misfortune and
the bitterest woe dwell in the glass also. Now suppose we count the
glasses–of course I count the different degrees in the glasses for
different people.

“You see, the _first glass_, that’s the glass of health, and in that
the herb of health is found growing; put it up on the beam in the
ceiling, and at the end of the year you may be sitting in the arbour
of health.

“If you take the _second glass_–from this a little bird soars
upwards, twittering in guileless cheerfulness, so that a man may
listen to his song and perhaps join in ‘Fair is life! no downcast
looks! Take courage and march onward!’

“Out of the _third glass_ rises a little winged urchin, who cannot
certainly be called an angel-child, for there is goblin blood in his
veins, and he has the spirit of a goblin; not wishing to hurt or harm
you, indeed, but very ready to play off tricks upon you. He’ll sit at
your ear and whisper merry thoughts to you; he’ll creep into your
heart and warm you, so that you grow very merry and become a wit, so
far as the wits of the others can judge.

“In the _fourth glass_ is neither herb, bird, nor urchin: in that
glass is the pause drawn by reason, and one may never go beyond that

“Take the _fifth glass_, and you will weep at yourself, you will feel
such a deep emotion; or it will affect you in a different way. Out of
the glass there will spring with a bang Prince Carnival, nine times
and extravagantly merry: he’ll draw you away with him, you’ll forget
your dignity, if you have any, and you’ll forget more than you should
or ought to forget. All is dance, song, and sound; the masks will
carry you away with them, and the daughters of vanity, clad in silk
and satin, will come with loose hair and alluring charms: but tear
yourself away if you can!

“The _sixth glass_! Yes, in that glass sits a demon, in the form of a
little, well-dressed, attractive and very fascinating man, who
thoroughly understands you, agrees with you in everything, and becomes
quite a second self to you. He has a lantern with him, to give you
light as he accompanies you home. There is an old legend about a saint
who was allowed to choose one of the seven deadly sins, and who
accordingly chose drunkenness, which appeared to him the least, but
which led him to commit all the other six. The man’s blood is mingled
with that of the demon–it is the sixth glass, and with that the germ
of all evil shoots up within us; and each one grows up with a strength
like that of the grains of mustard seed, and shoots up into a tree,
and spreads over the whole world; and most people have no choice but
to go into the oven, to be re-cast in a new form.

“That’s the history of the glasses,” said the tower-keeper Ole, “and
it can be told with lacquer or only with grease; but I give it you
with both!”


On this occasion I chose the general “moving-day” for my visit to Ole,
for on that day it is anything but agreeable down in the streets in
the town; for they are full of sweepings, shreds, and remnants of all
sorts, to say nothing of the cast-off bed straw in which one has to
wade about. But this time I happened to see two children playing in
this wilderness of sweepings. They were playing at “going to bed,” for
the occasion seemed especially favourable for this sport: they crept
under the straw, and drew an old bit of ragged curtain over themselves
by way of coverlet. “It was splendid!” they said; but it was a little
too strong for me, and besides, I was obliged to mount up on my visit.

“It’s moving-day to-day,” he said; “streets and houses are like a
dust-bin, a large dust-bin; but I’m content with a cartload. I may get
something good out of that, and I really did get something good out of
it, once. Shortly after Christmas I was going up the street; it was
rough weather, wet and dirty; the right kind of weather to catch cold
in. The dustman was there with his cart, which was full, and looked
like a sample of streets on moving-day. At the back of the cart stood
a fir tree, quite green still, and with tinsel on its twigs: it had
been used on Christmas-eve, and now it was thrown out into the street,
and the dustman had stood it up at the back of his cart. It was droll
to look at, or you may say it was mournful–all depends on what you
think of when you see it; and I thought about it, and thought this and
that of many things that were in the cart: or I might have done so,
and that comes to the same thing. There was an old lady’s glove too: I
wonder what that was thinking of? Shall I tell you? The glove was
lying there, pointing with its little finger at the tree. ‘I’m sorry
for the tree,’ it thought; ‘and I was also at the feast, where the
chandeliers glittered. My life was, so to speak, a ball-night: a
pressure of the hand, and I burst! My memory keeps dwelling upon that,
and I have really nothing else to live for!’ This is what the glove
thought, or what it might have thought. ‘That’s a stupid affair with
yonder fir tree,’ said the potsherds. You see, potsherds think
everything is stupid. ‘When one is in the dust-cart,’ they said, ‘one
ought not to give one’s self airs and wear tinsel. I know that I have
been useful in the world, far more useful than such a green stick.’
That was a view that might be taken, and I don’t think it quite a
peculiar one; but for all that the fir tree looked very well: it was
like a little poetry in the dust-heap; and truly there is dust enough
in the streets on moving-day. The way is difficult and troublesome
then, and I feel obliged to run away out of the confusion; or if I am
on the tower, I stay there and look down, and it is amusing enough.

“There are the good people below, playing at ‘changing houses.’ They
toil and tug away with their goods and chattels, and the household
goblin sits in an old tub and moves with them; all the little griefs
of the lodging and the family, and the real cares and sorrows, move
with them out of the old dwelling into the new; and what gain is there
for them or for us in the whole affair? Yes, there was written long
ago the good old maxim: ‘Think on the great moving-day of death!’
That is a serious thought; I hope it is not disagreeable to you that
I should have touched upon it? Death is the most certain messenger
after all, in spite of his various occupations. Yes, Death is the
omnibus conductor, and he is the passport writer, and he countersigns
our service-book, and he is director of the savings bank of life. Do
you understand me? All the deeds of our life, the great and the little
alike, we put into this savings bank; and when Death calls with his
omnibus, and we have to step in, and drive with him into the land of
eternity, then on the frontier he gives us our service-book as a pass.
As a provision for the journey he takes this or that good deed we have
done, and lets it accompany us; and this may be very pleasant or very
terrific. Nobody has ever escaped this omnibus journey: there is
certainly a talk about one who was not allowed to go–they call him
the Wandering Jew: he has to ride behind the omnibus. If he had been
allowed to get in, he would have escaped the clutches of the poets.

“Just cast your mind’s eye into that great omnibus. The society is
mixed, for king and beggar, genius and idiot, sit side by side: they
must go without their property and money; they have only the
service-book and the gift out of the saving’s bank with them. But
which of our deeds is selected and given to us? Perhaps quite a little
one, one that we have forgotten, but which has been recorded–small as
a pea, but the pea can send out a blooming shoot. The poor bumpkin,
who sat on a low stool in the corner, and was jeered at and flouted,
will perhaps have his worn-out stool given him as a provision; and the
stool may become a litter in the land of eternity, and rise up then as
a throne, gleaming like gold, and blooming as an arbour. He who always
lounged about, and drank the spiced draught of pleasure, that he might
forget the wild things he had done here, will have his barrel given to
him on the journey, and will have to drink from it as they go on; and
the drink is bright and clear, so that the thoughts remain pure, and
all good and noble feelings are awakened, and he sees and feels what
in life he could not or would not see; and then he has within him the
punishment, the _gnawing worm_, which will not die through time
incalculable. If on the glasses there stood written ‘_oblivion_,’ on
the barrel ‘_remembrance_’ is inscribed.

“When I read a good book, an historical work, I always think at last
of the poetry of what I am reading, and of the omnibus of death, and
wonder which of the hero’s deeds Death took out of the savings bank
for him, and what provisions he got on the journey into eternity.
There was once a French king–I have forgotten his name, for the names
of good people are sometimes forgotten, even by me, but it will come
back some day; there was a king who, during a famine, became the
benefactor of his people; and the people raised to his memory a
monument of snow, with the inscription, ‘Quicker than this melts didst
thou bring help!’ I fancy that Death, looking back upon the monument,
gave him a single snow-flake as provision, a snow-flake that never
melts, and this flake floated over his royal head, like a white
butterfly, into the land of eternity. Thus too, there was a Louis
XI.–I have remembered his name, for one remembers what is bad–a
trait of him often comes into my thoughts, and I wish one could say
the story is not true. He had his lord high constable executed, and he
could execute him, right or wrong; but he had the innocent children of
the constable, one seven and the other eight years old, placed under
the scaffold so that the warm blood of their father spurted over them,
and then he had them sent to the Bastille, and shut up in iron cages,
where not even a coverlet was given them to protect them from the
cold. And King Louis sent the executioner to them every week, and had
a tooth pulled out of the head of each, that they might not be too
comfortable; and the elder of the boys said, ‘My mother would die of
grief if she knew that my younger brother had to suffer so cruelly;
therefore pull out two of my teeth, and spare him.’ The tears came
into the hangman’s eyes, but the king’s will was stronger than the
tears; and every week two little teeth were brought to him on a silver
plate; he had demanded them, and he had them. I fancy that Death took,
these two teeth out of the savings bank of life, and gave them to
Louis XI., to carry with him on the great journey into the land of
immortality: they fly before him like two flames of fire; they shine
and burn, and they bite him, the innocent children’s teeth.

“Yes, that’s a serious journey, the omnibus ride on the great
moving-day! And when is it to be undertaken? That’s just the serious
part of it. Any day, any how, any minute, the omnibus may draw up.
Which of our deeds will Death take out of the savings bank, and give
to us as provision? Let us think of the moving-day that is not marked
in the calendar.”

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