The mayor stood at the open window. His shirt-frill was very fine, and so were his ruffles; he had a breast-pin stuck in his frill, and was uncommonly smooth-shaven—all his own work; certainly he had given himself a slight cut, but he had stuck a bit of newspaper on the place. “Hark ‘ee, youngster!” he cried.
The youngster in question was no other than the son of the poor washerwoman, who was just going past the house; and he pulled off his cap respectfully. The peak of the said cap was broken in the middle, for the cap was arranged so that it could be rolled up and crammed into his pocket. In his poor, but clean and well-mended attire, with heavy wooden shoes on his feet, the boy stood there, as humble and abashed as if he stood opposite the king himself.
“You’re a good boy,” said Mr. Mayor. “You’re a civil boy. I suppose your mother is rinsing clothes down yonder in the river? I suppose you are to carry that thing to your mother that you have in your pocket? That’s a bad affair with your mother. How much have you got in it?”
“Half a quartern,” stammered the boy, in a frightened voice.
“And this morning she had just as much,” the mayor continued.
“No,” replied the boy, “it was yesterday.”
“Two halves make a whole. She’s good for nothing! It’s a sad thing with that kind of people! Tell your mother that she ought to be ashamed of herself; and mind you don’t become a drunkard—but you will become one, though. Poor child—there, go!”
Accordingly the boy went on his way. He kept his cap in his hand, and the wind played with his yellow hair, so that great locks of it stood up straight. He turned down by the street corner, into the little lane that led to the river, where his mother stood by the washing bench, beating the heavy linen with the mallet. The water rolled quickly along, for the flood-gates at the mill had been drawn up, and the sheets were caught by the stream, and threatened to overturn the bench. The washerwoman was obliged to lean against the bench, to support it.
“I was very nearly sailing away,” she said. “It is a good thing that you are come, for I have need to recruit my strength a little. For six hours I’ve been standing in the water. Have you brought anything for me?”
The boy produced the bottle, and the mother put it to her mouth, and took a little.
“Ah, how that revives one!” she said: “how it warms! It is as good as a hot meal, and not so dear. And you, my boy! you look quite pale. You are shivering in your thin clothes—to be sure it is autumn. Ugh! how cold the water is! I hope I shall not be ill. But no, I shall not be that! Give me a little more, and you may have a sip too, but only a little sip, for you must not accustom yourself to it, my poor dear child!”
And she stepped up to the bridge on which the boy stood, and came ashore. The water dripped from the straw matting she had wound round her, and from her gown.
“I work and toil as much as ever I can,” she said, “but I do it willingly, if I can only manage to bring you up honestly and well, my boy.”
As she spoke, a somewhat older woman came towards them. She was poor enough to behold, lame of one leg, and with a large false curl hanging down over one of her eyes, which was a blind one. The curl was intended to cover the eye, but it only made the defect more striking. This was a friend of the laundress. She was called among the neighbours, “Lame Martha with the curl.”
“Oh, you poor thing! How you work, standing there in the water!” cried the visitor. “You really require something to warm you; and yet malicious folks cry out about the few drops you take!” And in a few minutes’ time the mayor’s late speech was reported to the laundress; for Martha had heard it all, and she had been angry that a man could speak as he had done to a woman’s own child, about the few drops the mother took: and she was the more angry, because the mayor on that very day was giving a great feast, at which wine was drunk by the bottle—good wine, strong wine. “A good many will take more than they need—but that’s not called drinking. They are good; but you are good for nothing!” cried Martha, indignantly.
“Ah, so he spoke to you, my child?” said the washerwoman; and her lips trembled as she spoke. “So he says you have a mother who is good for nothing? Well, perhaps he’s right, but he should not have said it to the child. Still, I have had much misfortune from that house.”
“You were in service there when the mayor’s parents were alive, and lived in that house. That is many years ago: many bushels of salt have been eaten since then, and we may well be thirsty;” and Martha smiled. “The mayor has a great dinner party to-day. The guests were to have been put off, but it was too late, and the dinner was already cooked. The footman told me about it. A letter came a little while ago, to say that the younger brother had died in Copenhagen.”
“Died!” repeated the laundress—and she became pale as death.
“Yes, certainly,” said Martha. “Do you take that so much to heart? Well, you must have known him years ago, when you were in service in the house.”
“Is he dead? He was such a good, worthy man! There are not many like him.” And the tears rolled down her cheeks. “Good heavens! everything is whirling around me—it was too much for me. I feel quite ill.” And she leaned against the plank.
“Good heavens, you are ill indeed!” exclaimed the other woman. “Come, come, it will pass over presently. But no, you really look seriously ill. The best thing will be for me to lead you home.”
“But my linen yonder—”
“I will take care of that. Come, give me your arm. The boy can stay here and take care of it, and I’ll come back and finish the washing; that’s only a trifle.”
The laundress’s limbs shook under her. “I have stood too long in the cold water,” she said faintly, “and I have eaten and drunk nothing since this morning. The fever is in my bones. O kind Heaven, help me to get home! My poor child!” and she burst into tears. The boy wept too, and soon he was sitting alone by the river, beside the damp linen. The two women could make only slow progress. The laundress dragged her weary limbs along, and tottered through the lane and round the corner into the street where stood the house of the mayor; and just in front of his mansion she sank down on the pavement. Many people assembled round her, and Lame Martha ran into the house to get help. The mayor and his guests came to the window.
“That’s the washerwoman!” he said. “She has taken a glass too much. She is good for nothing. It’s a pity for the pretty son she has. I really like the child very well; but the mother is good for nothing.”
Presently the laundress came to herself, and they led her into her poor dwelling, and put her to bed. Kind Martha heated a mug of beer for her, with butter and sugar, which she considered the best medicine; and then she hastened to the river, and rinsed the linen—badly enough, though her will was good. Strictly speaking, she drew it ashore, wet as it was, and laid it in a basket.
Towards evening she was sitting in the poor little room with the laundress. The mayor’s cook had given her some roasted potatoes and a fine fat piece of ham, for the sick woman, and Martha and the boy discussed these viands while the patient enjoyed the smell, which she pronounced very nourishing.
And presently the boy was put to bed, in the same bed in which his mother lay; but he slept at her feet, covered with an old quilt made up of blue and white patches.
Soon the patient felt a little better. The warm beer had strengthened her, and the fragrance of the provisions pleased her also. “Thanks, you kind soul,” she said to Martha. “I will tell you all when the boy is asleep. I think he has dropped off already. How gentle and good he looks, as he lies there with his eyes closed. He does not know what his mother has suffered, and Heaven grant he may never know it. I was in service at the councillor’s, the father of the mayor. It happened that the youngest of the sons, the student, came home. I was young then, a wild girl, but honest, that I may declare in the face of Heaven. The student was merry and kind, good and brave. Every drop of blood in him was good and honest. I have not seen a better man on this earth. He was the son of the house, and I was only a maid, but we formed an attachment to each other, honestly and honourably. And he told his mother of it, for she was in his eyes as a Deity on earth; and she was wise and gentle. He went away on a journey, but before he started he put his gold ring on my finger; and directly he was gone my mistress called me. With a firm yet gentle seriousness she spoke to me, and it seemed as if Wisdom itself were speaking. She showed me clearly, in spirit and in truth, the difference there was between him and me.
“‘Now he is charmed with your pretty appearance,’ she said, ‘but your good looks will leave you. You have not been educated as he has. You are not equals in mind, and there is the misfortune. I respect the poor,’ she continued; ‘in the sight of God they may occupy a higher place than many a rich man can fill; but here on earth we must beware of entering a false track as we go onward, or our carriage is upset, and we are thrown into the road. I know that a worthy man wishes to marry you—an artisan—I mean Erich the glovemaker. He is a widower without children, and is well to do. Think it over.’
“Every word she spoke cut into my heart like a knife, but I knew that my mistress was right, and that knowledge weighed heavily upon me. I kissed her hand, and wept bitter tears, and I wept still more when I went into my room and threw myself on my bed. It was a heavy night that I had to pass through. Heaven knows what I suffered and how I wrestled! The next Sunday I went to the Lord’s house, to pray for strength and guidance. It seemed like a Providence, that as I stepped out of church Erich came towards me. And now there was no longer a doubt in my mind. We were suited to each other in rank and in means, and he was even then a thriving man. Therefore I went up to him, took his hand, and said, ‘Are you still of the same mind towards me?’ ‘Yes, ever and always,’ he replied. ‘Will you marry a girl who honours and respects, but who does not love you—though that may come later?’ I asked again. ‘Yes, it will come!’ he answered; and upon this we joined hands. I went home to my mistress. I wore the gold ring that the son had given me at my heart. I could not put it on my finger in the daytime, but only in the evening when I went to bed. I kissed the ring again and again, till my lips almost bled, and then I gave it to my mistress, and told her the banns were to be put up next week for me and the glovemaker. Then my mistress put her arms round me and kissed me. She did not say that I was good for nothing; but perhaps I was better then than I am now, though the misfortunes of life had not yet found me out. In a few weeks we were married; and for the first year the world went well with us: we had a journeyman and an apprentice, and you, Martha, lived with us as our servant.”
“Oh, you were a dear, good mistress,” cried Martha. “Never shall I forget how kind you and your husband were!”
“Yes, those were our good years, when you were with us. We had not any children yet. The student I never saw again.—Yes, though, I saw him, but he did not see me. He was here at his mother’s funeral. I saw him stand by the grave. He was pale as death, and very downcast, but that was for his mother; afterwards, when his father died, he was away in a foreign land, and did not come back hither. I know that he never married; I believe he became a lawyer. He had forgotten me; and even if he had seen me again, he would not have known me, I look so ugly. And that is very fortunate.”
And then she spoke of her days of trial, and told how misfortune had come as it were swooping down upon them.
“We had five hundred dollars,” she said; “and as there was a house in the street to be bought for two hundred, and it would pay to pull it down and build a new one, it was bought. The builder and carpenter calculated the expense, and the new house was to cost ten hundred and twenty! Erich had credit, and borrowed the money in the chief town, but the captain who was to bring it was shipwrecked, and the money was lost with him.”
“Just at that time my dear sweet boy who is sleeping yonder was born. My husband was struck down by a long heavy illness: for three quarters of a year I was compelled to dress and undress him. We went back more and more, and fell into debt. All that we had was sold, and my husband died. I have worked, and toiled, and striven, for the sake of the child, and scrubbed staircases, washed linen, clean and coarse alike, but I was not to be better off, such was God’s good will. But He will take me to Himself in His own good time, and will not forsake my boy.” And she fell asleep.
Towards morning she felt much refreshed, and strong enough, as she thought, to go back to her work. She had just stepped again into the cold water, when a trembling and faintness seized her: she clutched at the air with her hand, took a step forward, and fell down. Her head rested on the bank, and her feet were still in the water: her wooden shoes, with a wisp of straw in each, which she had worn, floated down the stream, and thus Martha found her on coming to bring her some coffee.
In the meantime a messenger from the mayor’s house had been dispatched to her poor lodging to tell her “to come to the mayor immediately, for he had something to tell her.” It was too late! A barber-surgeon was brought to open a vein in her arm; but the poor woman was dead.
“She has drunk herself to death!” said the mayor.
In the letter that brought the news of his brother’s death, the contents of the will had been mentioned, and it was a legacy of six hundred dollars to the glovemaker’s widow, who had once been his mother’s maid. The money was to be paid, according to the mayor’s discretion, in larger or smaller sums, to her or to her child.
“There was some fuss between my brother and her,” said the mayor. “It’s a good thing that she is dead; for now the boy will have the whole, and I will get him into a house among respectable people. He may turn out a reputable working man.”
And Heaven gave its blessing to these words.
So the mayor sent for the boy, promised to take care of him, and added that it was a good thing the lad’s mother was dead, inasmuch as she had been good for nothing.
They bore her to the churchyard, to the cemetery of the poor, and Martha strewed sand upon her grave, and planted a rose tree upon it, and the boy stood beside her.
“My dear mother!” he cried, as the tears fell fast. “Is it true what they said: that she was good for nothing?” “No, she was good for much!” replied the old servant, and she looked up indignantly. “I knew it many a year ago, and more than all since last night. I tell you she was worth much, and the Lord in heaven knows it is true, let the world say as much as it chooses, ‘She was good for nothing.'”