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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Hosier

By Steen Steensen Blicher (1782–1848)

  • “The greatest sorrow of all down here,
  • Is to lose the one we hold most dear.”

  • SOMETIMES, when I have wandered far out on the wide heath, where I have had nothing but the brown heather around me and the blue sky above me; when I walked far away from mankind and the monuments of its busy doings here below,—which after all are only molehills to be leveled by time or by some restless Tamerlane;—when I drifted, light-hearted, free, and proud, like the Bedouin, whom no house, no narrowly bounded field chains to the spot, but who owns, possesses, all he sees,—who does not dwell, but who goes wherever he pleases; when my far-hovering eye caught a glimpse of a house in the horizon, and was thus disagreeably arrested in its airy flight, sometimes there came (God forgive me this passing thought, it was no more than that) the wish—would that this dwelling of man were not! there too is trouble and sorrow; there too they quarrel and fight about mine and thine!—Oh! the happy desert is mine, is thine, is everybody’s, is nobody’s.—It is said that a forester has proposed to disturb the settlements, to plant forests on the fields of the peasants and in place of their torn-down villages; the far more inhuman thought has taken possession of me at times—what if the heather-grown heath were still here the same as it was centuries ago, undisturbed, untouched by the hand of man! But as I have said, I did not mean it seriously. For when tired and weary, suffering from hunger and thirst, I thought longingly of the Arab’s tent and coffee-pot, I thanked God that a heather-thatched roof—be it even miles away—promised me shelter and refreshment.

    On a still, warm September day, several years ago, I found myself walking on this same heath, which, Arabically speaking, I call mine. No wind stirred the blushing heather; the air was heavy and misty with heat. The far-off hills that limited the horizon seemed to hover like clouds around the immense plain, and took many wonderful shapes: houses, towers, castles, men and animals; but all of dark uncertain outline, changing like dream pictures; now a cottage grew into a church, and that in turn into a pyramid; here a spire arose, there another sank; a man became a horse, and this in turn an elephant; here floated a boat, there a ship with all sails set.

    My eye found its pleasure for quite a while in watching these fantastic figures—a panorama which only the sailor and the desert-dweller have occasion to enjoy—when finally I began to look for a real house among the many false ones; I wanted right ardently to exchange all my beautiful fairy palaces for a single human cottage.

    Success was mine; I soon discovered a real farm without spires and towers, whose outlines became distincter and sharper the nearer I came to it, and which, flanked by peat-stacks, looked much larger than it really was. Its inmates were unknown to me. Their clothes were poor, their furniture simple, but I knew that the heath-dweller often hides noble rental in an unpainted box or in a miserable wardrobe, and a fat pocketbook inside a patched coat; when therefore my eyes fell on an alcove packed full of stockings, I concluded, and quite rightly, that I was in the house of a rich hosier. (In parenthesis it may be said that I do not know any poor ones.)

    A middle-aged, gray-haired, but still strong man rose from his slice and offered me his hand with these words: “Welcome!—with permission to ask, where does the good friend come from?”

    Do not jeer at so ill-mannered and straightforward a question! the heath peasant is quite as hospitable as the Scotch laird, and but a little more curious; after all, he cannot be blamed for wanting to know who his guest is.

    When I had told him who I was and whence I came, he called his wife, who immediately put all the delicacies of the house before me and begged me insistently, with good-hearted kindness, to eat and drink, although my hunger and thirst made all insistence unnecessary.

    I was in the midst of the repast and a political talk with my host, when a young and exceedingly beautiful peasant girl came in, whom I should undoubtedly have declared a lady who had fled from cruel parents and an unwished-for marriage, had not her red hands and unadulterated peasant dialect convinced me that no disguise had taken place. She nodded in a friendly way, cast a passing glance under the table, went out and came in soon again with a dish of milk and water, which she put down on the floor with the words, “Your dog may need something too.”

    I thanked her for her attention; but this was fully given to the big dog, whose greediness soon made the dish empty, and who now in his way thanked the giver by rubbing himself up against her; and when she raised her arms, a little intimidated, Chasseur misunderstood the movement, put himself on the alert, and forced the screaming girl backwards toward the alcove. I called the dog back and explained his good intentions.

    I would not have invited the reader’s attention to so trivial a matter, but to remark that everything is becoming to the beautiful; for indeed this peasant girl showed, in everything she said and did, a certain natural grace which could not be called coquetry unless you will so call an innate unconscious instinct.

    When she had left the room I asked the parents if this was their daughter. They answered in the affirmative, adding that she was an only child.

    “You won’t keep her very long,” I said.

    “Dear me, what do you mean by that?” asked the father; but a pleased smile showed that he understood my meaning.

    “I think,” I answered, “that she will hardly lack suitors.”

    “Hm!” grumbled he, “of suitors we can get a plenty; but if they are worth anything, that is the question. To go a-wooing with a watch and a silver-mounted pipe does not set the matter straight; it takes more to ride than to say ‘Get up!’ Sure as I live,” he went on, putting both clenched hands on the table and bending to look out of the low window, “if there is not one of them—a shepherd’s boy just out of the heather—oh yes, one of these customers who run about with a couple of dozen hose in a wallet—stupid dog! wooes our daughter with two oxen and two cows and a half—yes, I am on to him!—Beggar!”

    All this was not addressed to me, but to the new-comer, on whom he fastened his darkened eyes as the other came along the heather path toward the house. The lad was still far enough away to allow me time to ask my host about him, and I learned that he was the son of the nearest neighbor—who, by the way, lived at a distance of over two miles; that the father owned only a one-horse farm, and moreover owed the hosier two hundred dollars; that the son had peddled woolen wares for some years, and finally had dared to woo the fair Cecil, but had got a flat refusal.

    While I listened to this statement she had come in herself; and her troubled look, divided between her father and the wanderer outside, made me think that she did not share the old man’s view of the matter.

    As soon as the young peddler came in at one door she went out of the other, but not without giving him a quick, tender, and sad glance.

    My host turned toward him, took hold of the table with both hands as if he needed support, and answered the young man’s “God’s peace and good day!” with a dry “Welcome!”

    The latter stood still for a moment, let his eye wander around the room, and then drew a pipe out of his inside pocket and a tobacco-pouch out of his back pocket, knocked the pipe clean on the stove at his side and stuffed it anew.

    All this was done slowly, and as if in measured time, and my host stayed motionless in his chosen position.

    The stranger was a very handsome fellow, a true son of our Northern nature, which goes slowly, but strongly and lastingly: light-haired, blue-eyed, red-cheeked, whose finely downed chin the razor had not yet touched, although he must have been fully twenty years old. In the way of the peddlers, he was dressed finer than an ordinary peasant, or even than the rich hosier, in coat and wide trousers, red-striped waistcoat and blue-checked tie. He was no unworthy adorer of the fair Cecilia.

    He pleased me, moreover, by a mild, open countenance which spoke of patient perseverance—one of the chief traits of the Cimbric national character.

    It was a good while before either of them would break the silence. Finally the host opened his mouth and asked slowly, in a cold and indifferent tone, “Where lies your way to-day, Esben?”

    The man whom he addressed took his time about striking the fire for his pipe and lighting it with long draughts, and answered, “No farther to-day; but to-morrow I am going to Holstein.”

    There was another pause, during which Esben examined the chairs and chose one, on which he sat down. Meanwhile mother and daughter came in; the young peddler nodded to them with so unchanged and so perfectly quiet a look that I should have thought the fair Cecilia was entirely indifferent to him, had I not known that love in such a heart may be strong, however quiet it may seem; that it is not a flame which blazes and sparkles, but a glow of even and long heat.

    Cecilia sat down at the lower end of the table with a sigh, and began to knit industriously; her mother took her seat at the spinning wheel with a low “Welcome, Esben!”

    “That is to be on account of business?” spoke up the host.

    “As it may happen to come,” replied his guest: “one had better try what may be made out of the South. And my prayer is this, that you do not hasten too much to marry off Cecil before I get back and we see what my luck has been.”

    Cecil blushed, but continued to look down at her work.

    Her mother stopped the wheel with one hand, laid the other in her lap, and looked fixedly at the speaker; but the father said, turning to me, “‘While the grass grows the horse dies!’ How can you ask that Cecil shall wait for you? You may stay away a long while—may happen that you never come back.”

    “Then it will be your fault, Mikkel Krausen!” interrupted Esben; “but this I tell you, that if you force Cecil to take another you do a great sin to both her and me.”

    Then he rose, shook hands with both of the old people, and told them a short farewell. But to his sweetheart he said in a gentler and softer tone, “Farewell, Cecil! and thanks for all good! think the best of me, if you may be allowed to—God be with you! and with you all! Farewell!”

    He turned to the door, put away his pipe, pouch, and tinderbox, each in its own pocket; took his stick and walked away without turning a single time. The old man smiled as before; his wife said, “Oh, well!”—and set the wheel going again; but tear upon tear rolled down Cecilia’s cheeks.