By the high-road in the forest lay a lonely peasant’s hut; the road went right through the farmyard. The sun shone down, and all the windows were open. In the house was bustle and movement; but in the garden, in an arbour of blossoming elder, stood an open coffin. A dead man had been carried out here, and he was to be buried this morning. Nobody stood by the coffin and looked sorrowfully at the dead man; no one shed a tear for him: his face was covered with a white cloth, and under his head lay a great thick book, whose leaves consisted of whole sheets of blotting paper, and on each leaf lay a faded flower. It was a complete herbanum, gathered by him in various places; it was to be buried with him, for so he had wished it. With each flower a chapter in his life was associated.
“Who is the dead man?” we asked; and the answer was:
“The Old Student. They say he was once a brisk lad, and studied the old languages, and sang, and even wrote poems. Then something happened to him that made him turn his thoughts to brandy, and take to it; and when at last he had ruined his health, he came out here into the country, where somebody paid for his board and lodging. He was as gentle as a child, except when the dark mood came upon him; but when it came he became like a giant, and then ran about in the woods like a hunted stag; but when we once got him home again, and prevailed with him so far that he opened the book with the dried plants, he often sat whole days, and looked sometimes at one plant and sometimes at another, and at times the tears rolled over his cheeks: Heaven knows what he was thinking of. But he begged us to put the book into the coffin, and now he lies there, and in a little while the lid will be nailed down, and he will have his quiet rest in the grave.”
The face-cloth was raised, and there was peace upon the features of the dead man, and a sunbeam played upon it; a swallow shot with arrowy flight into the arbour, and turned rapidly, and twittered over the dead man’s head.
What a strange feeling it is—and we have doubtless all experienced it—that of turning over old letters of the days of our youth! a new life seems to come up with them, with all its hopes and sorrows. How many persons with whom we were intimate in those days, are as it were dead to us! and yet they are alive, but for a long time we have not thought of them—of them whom we then thought to hold fast for ages, and with whom we were to share sorrow and joy.
Here the withered oak-leaf in the book reminded the owner of the friend, the school-fellow, who was to be a friend for life: he fastened the green leaf in the student’s cap in the green wood, when the bond was made “for life:” where does he live now? The leaf is preserved, but the friendship has perished! And here is a foreign hothouse plant, too delicate for the gardens of the North; the leaves almost seem to keep their fragrance still. She gave it to him, the young lady in the nobleman’s garden. Here is the water rose, which he plucked himself, and moistened with salt tears—the roses of the sweet waters. And here is a nettle—what tale may its leaves have to tell? What were his thoughts when he plucked it and kept it? Here is a lily of the valley, from the solitudes of the forest. Here’s an evergreen from the flower-pot of the tavern; and here’s a naked sharp blade of grass.
The blooming elder waves its fresh fragrant blossoms over the dead man’s head, and the swallow flies past again. “Pee-wit! pee-wit!” And now the men come with nails and hammers, and the lid is laid over the dead man, that his head may rest upon the dumb book—vanished and scattered!