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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.


Elizabeth tells her Story

HOW well I remember the days of which my husband has written—our childhood in the old Danish town where to this day, in spite of my love for America, the air seems fresher, the meadows greener, the sea more blue, and where above it all the skylark sings his song clearer, softer, and sweeter than anywhere else in the world! I—it is too bad that we cannot tell our own stories without all the time talking about ourselves, but it is so, and there is no help for it. Well, then, I was a happy little girl in those days. Though my own father, a county lawyer, had died early and left my dear mother without any means of support for herself and three children except what she earned by teaching school and music, it did not make life harder for me, for I had been since I was three years old with mother’s youngest and loveliest sister and her husband. They were rich and prosperous. They brought me up as their own, and never had a child a kinder father and mother or a more beautiful home than I had with my uncle and aunt. Besides, I was naturally a happy child. Life seemed full of sunshine, and every day dawned with promise of joy and pleasure. I remember often saying to my aunt, whom, by the way, I called mother, “I am so happy I don’t know what to do!”

Elizabeth’s Mother.

So I skipped and danced about among the lumber in the sight of Jacob Riis, till, in sheer amazement, he cut his finger off. He says admiration, not amazement, but I have my own ideas about that. I see him yet with his arm in a sling and a defiant look, making his way across the hall at dancing-school to engage me as his partner. I did not appreciate the compliment in the least, for I would a good deal rather have had Charles, who danced well and was a much nicer looking boy. Besides, Charles’s sister Valgerda had told me in confidence how Jacob had said to Charles that he would marry me when I was a woman, or die. And was there ever such assurance? From the day I learned of this, I treated Jacob with all the coolness and contempt of which my naturally kindly disposition was capable. When he spoke to me I answered him hardly a word, and took pains to show my preference for Charles or some other boy. But it seemed to make no difference to him.

I was just seventeen when I received my first love-letter from Jacob. Like the dutiful fellow he was, he sent it through his mother, to my mother, who read it before giving it to me. She handed it to me with the words: “I need not tell you that neither father nor I would ever give our consent to an engagement between you two till Jacob had some good position.” Way down in my heart there was a small voice whispering: “Well, if I loved him I wouldn’t ask anybody.” But the letter was a beautiful one, and after these many years I know that every word in it was prompted by true, unselfish love. I cried over it and answered it as best I could, and then after a while forgot about it and was happy as ever with my studies, my music, and plenty of dances and parties to break the routine. Jacob had gone away to America.

Before I was twenty years old I met one who was to have a great influence on my life. He was a dashing cavalry officer, much older than I, and a frequent visitor at our home. And here I must tell that my own dear mother had died when I was fifteen years old, and my brother and sister had come to live with us in Ribe. There was house-room and heart-room for us all there. They were very good to us, my uncle and aunt, and I loved them as if they were indeed my parents. They spared no expense in our bringing up. Nothing they gave their only son was too good for us. Our home was a very beautiful and happy one.

Elizabeth’s Home—“The Castle.”

It was in the summer of 1872 that I met Raymond. That is not a Danish name, but it was his. He came to our little town as next in command of a company of gendarmes—mounted frontier police. In the army he had served with my mother’s brother, and naturally father and mother, whose hospitable home welcomed every distinguished stranger, did everything to make his existence, in what must to a man of the world have been a dull little town, less lonely than it would otherwise have been. He had a good record, had been brave in the war, was the finest horseman in all the country, could skate and dance and talk, and, best of all, was known to be a good and loving son to his widowed mother, and greatly beloved by his comrades. So he came into my life and singled me out before the other girls at the balls and parties where we frequently met. Strange as it may seem, for I was not a pretty girl, I had many admirers among the young men in our town. Perhaps there wasn’t really any admiration about it; perhaps it was just because we knew each other as boys and girls and were brought up together. Most of the young men in our town were college students who had gone to school in Ribe and came back at vacation time to renew old friendships and have a good time with old neighbors. I danced well, played the piano well, and was full of life, and they all liked to come in our house, where there were plenty of good things of all kinds. So I really ought not to say that I, who frequently cried over the length of my nose, had admirers. I should rather say good friends, who saw to it in their kindness that I never was a wall-flower at a ball, or lacked favors at a cotillon.

But he was so different. The others were young like myself. He had experience. He was a man, handsome and good, just such a man as would be likely to take the fancy of a girl of my age. And he, who had seen so many girls prettier and better than I, singled me out of them all; and I—well, I was proud of the distinction, and I loved him.

How well I remember the clear winter day when he and I skated and talked, and talked and skated, till the moon was high in the heavens, and my brother was sent out to look for me! I went home that evening the happiest girl in the world, so I thought; for he had called me “a beautiful child,” and told me that he loved me. And father and mother had given their consent to our engagement. Never did the sun shine so brightly, never did the bells ring out so clearly and appealingly in the old Cathedral, and surely never was the world so beautiful as on the Sunday morning after our engagement when I awoke early in my dear little room. Oh, how I loved the whole world and every one in it! how good God was, how kind and loving my father and mother and brother and sisters! How I would love to be good to every one around me, and thus in a measure show my gratitude for all the happiness that was mine!

So passed the winter and spring, with many preparations for our new home and much planning for our future life. In a town like ours, where everybody knew all about everybody else from the day they were born till the day they died, it was only reasonable to suppose that somebody had told my betrothed about Jacob Riis’s love for me. I had hoped that Jacob would learn to look at me in a different light, but from little messages which came to me off and on from the New World, I knew that he was just as faithful as ever to his idea that we were meant for one another, and that “I might say him No time and time again, the day would come when I would change my mind.” But in the first happy days of our engagement I confess that I did not think very much about him, except for mentioning him once or twice to my friend as a good fellow, but such a queer and obstinate one, who some day would see plainly that I was not half as good as he thought, and learn to love some other girl who was much better.

But one day there came a letter from America, and so far was Jacob from my thoughts at that moment that, when my lieutenant asked me from whom did I think that American letter came, I answered in perfect good faith that I could not imagine, unless it were from a former servant of ours who lived over there.

“No servant ever wrote that address,” said Raymond, dryly. It was from Jacob, and filled with good wishes for us both. He listened to it in silence. I said how glad I was to find that at last he looked upon me merely as a friend. “You little know how to read between the lines,” was his sober comment. He was very serious, almost sad, it seemed to me.

In the early summer came the first cloud on my sunlit sky. One evening, when we were invited to a party of young people at our doctor’s house, word was sent from Raymond that he was sick and could not come, but that I must on no account stay home. But I did. For me there was no pleasure without him, no, not anywhere in the world. He recovered soon, however; but after that, short spells of illness, mostly heavy colds, were the rule. He was a strong man and had taken pride in being able to do things which few other men could do without harm coming to them; for instance to chop a hole in the ice and go swimming in midwinter. But exposure to the chill, damp air of that North Sea country and the heavy fogs that drifted in from the ocean at night, when he rode alone, often many miles over the moor on his tours of inspection, had undermined his splendid constitution, and before the summer was over the doctors pronounced my dear one a sufferer from bronchial consumption, and told us that his only chance lay in his seeking a milder climate. I grieved at the thought of separation for a whole winter, perhaps longer, and at his suffering; but I felt sure that he would come back to me from Switzerland a well man.

So we parted. That winter we lived in our letters. The fine climate in Montreux seemed to do him good, and his messages were full of hope that all would be well. Not so with my parents. They had been told by physicians who had treated Raymond that his case was hopeless; that he might live years, perhaps, in Switzerland, but that in all probability to return to Denmark would be fatal to him. They told me so, and I could not, would not, believe them. It seemed impossible that God would take him away from me. They also told me that on no condition must I think of marrying him, because either I should be a widow soon after marriage, or else I should be a sick-nurse for several years. So they wished me to break the engagement while he was absent.

This and much more was said to me. And I, who had always been an obedient daughter and never crossed their will in any way, for the first time in my life opposed them and told them that never should anybody separate me from the one I loved until God himself parted us. Mother reminded me of my happy childhood, and of how much she and my foster-father had done for me, and that now they had only my happiness in view—a fact which I might not understand till I was older, she said, but must now take on trust. Beside which, Raymond would be made to feel as if a load were taken off his mind if of my free will I broke our engagement and left him free from any responsibility toward me. But all the time his letters told me that he loved me better than ever, and I lived only in the hope of his home-coming. So I refused to listen to them. They wrote to him; told him what the doctor said and appealed to him to set me free. And he, loyal and good as he was, gave me back my promise. He believed he would get well. But he knew he could not return to Ribe. He had resigned his command and gone back to the rank and pay of a plain lieutenant. He could not offer me now such a home as I was used to these many years; and as he was so much older than I, he thought it his duty to tell me all this. And all the time he knew, oh, so well! that I would never leave him, come what might, sickness, poverty, or death itself. I was bound to stand by him to the last.

That was a hard winter. Father and mother, who could not look into my heart and see that I still loved them as dearly as ever—I know so well they meant it all for the best—called me ungrateful and told me that I was blind and would not see what made for my good, and that therefore they must take their own measures for my happiness. So they offered me the choice between giving up the one I loved or leaving the home that had been mine so long. I chose the last, for I could not do otherwise. I packed my clothes and said good-by to my friends, of whom many treated me with coldness, since they, too, thought I must be ungrateful to those who had done so much for me. Homeless and alone I went to Raymond’s brother, who had a little country home near the city of Copenhagen. With him and his young wife I stayed until one day my Raymond returned, much better apparently, yet not the same as before. Suffering, bodily and mental, had left its traces upon his face and frame, but his love for me was greater than ever, and he tried hard to make up to me all I lost; as if I had really lost anything in choosing him before all the world.

We were very happy at first in the joy of being together. But soon he suffered a relapse, and decided to go to the hospital for treatment. He never left it again, except once or twice for a walk with me. All the long, beautiful summer days he spent in his room, the last few months in bed. Many friends came to see him, and as for me, I spent all my days with him, reading softly to him or talking with him. And I never gave up hope of his getting better some day. He probably knew that his time was short, but I think that he did not have the heart to tell me. Sometimes he would say, “I wonder whether your people would take you back to your home if I died.” Or, “If I should die, and some other man who loved you, and who you knew was good and faithful, should ask you to marry him, you ought to accept him, even if you did not love him.” I never could bear to hear it or to think of it then.

One raw, dark November morning I started on the long walk from his mother’s house, where I had stayed since he took to his bed, to go and spend the day with him as usual. By this time I was well acquainted with every one in the hospital. The nurses were good to me. They took off my shoes and dried and warmed them for me, and some brought me afternoon coffee, which otherwise was contraband in the sick-rooms. But this morning the nurse in charge of Raymond’s ward turned her back upon me and pretended not to hear me when I bid her good-morning. When I entered his room, it was to find the lifeless body of him who only a few hours before had bidden me a loving and even cheerful good-night.

Oh! the utter loneliness of those days; the longing for mother and home! But no word came from Ribe then. My dear one was laid to rest, with the sweet, resigned smile on his brave face, and I stayed for a while with his people, not being quite able to look into the future. My father had meanwhile made provision for me at Copenhagen. When I was able to think clearly, I went to the school in which my education had been “finished” in the happy, careless days, and through its managers secured a position in Baron von D—’s house, not far from my old home, but in the province that was taken from Denmark by Germany the winter I played in the lumber-yard. My employers were kind to me, and my three girl pupils soon were the firm friends of the quiet little governess with the sad face. We worked hard together, to forget if I could. But each day I turned my face to the west toward Ribe, and my heart cried out for my happy childhood.

Elizabeth as I found her again.

At last mother sent for me to come to them in the summer vacation. Oh, how good it was to go home again! How nice they all were, and what quiet content I felt, though I knew I should never forget! The six weeks went by like a dream. On the last day, as I was leaving, mother gave me a letter from Jacob Riis, of whom I had not thought for a long while. It was a letter of proposal, and I was angry. I answered it, however, as nicely as I could, and sent the letter to his mother. Then I returned to my three pupils in their pleasant country home, and soon we were busy with our studies and our walks. But I felt lonelier than ever, longed more than ever for the days that had been and would never return. I could not sleep, and grew pale and thin. And ever Raymond’s words about a friend, good and faithful, who loved me truly, came back to me. Did he mean Jacob, who had surely proved constant, and like me, had suffered much? He was lonely and I was lonely, oh! so lonely! What if I were to accept his offer, and when he came home go back with him to his strange new country to share his busy life, and in trying to make him happy, perhaps find happiness myself? Unless I asked him to come, he would probably never return. The thought of how glad it would make his parents if they could see him again, now that they had buried two fine sons, almost tempted me.

Yet again, it was too soon, too soon. I banished the thought with angry impatience. But in the still night watches it came and knocked again. Jacob need not come home just now. We might write and get acquainted, and get used to the idea of each other, and his old people could look forward to the joy of having him return in a year or two.

At last, one night, I got up at two o’clock, sat down at my desk, and wrote to him in perfect sincerity all that was in my mind concerning him, and that if he still would have me, I was willing to go with him to America if he would come for me some time. Strange to say, Jacob’s mother had never sent the letter in which I refused him a second time. Perhaps she thought his constancy and great love would at last touch my heart, longing as it was for somebody to cling to. So that he got my last letter first. But instead of waiting several years, he came in a few weeks. He was always that way.

And now, after twenty-five happy years—ELISABETH.

I cut the rest of it off, because I am the editor and want to begin again here myself, and what is the use of being an editor unless you can cut “copy”? Also, it is not good for woman to allow her to say too much. She has already said too much about that letter. I have got it in my pocket, and I guess I ought to know. “Your own Elisabeth”—was not that enough? For him, with his poor, saddened life, peace be to its memory! He loved her. That covers all. How could he help it?

If they did not think I had lost my senses before, they assuredly did when that telegram reached Ribe. Talk about the privacy of the mails (the telegraph is part of the post-office machinery there), official propriety, and all that—why, I don’t suppose that telegraph operator could get his coat on quick enough to go out and tell the amazing news. It would not have been human nature, certainly not Ribe human nature. Before sundown it was all over town that Jacob Riis was coming home, and coming for Elisabeth. Poor girl! It was in the Christmas holidays, and she was visiting there. She had been debating in her own mind whether to tell her mother, and how; but they left her precious little time for debate. In a neighborhood gathering that night one stern, uncompromising dowager transfixed her with avenging eye.

“They say Jacob Riis is coming home,” she observed. Elisabeth knitted away furiously, her cheeks turning pink for all she made believe she did not hear.

“They say he is coming back to propose to a certain young lady again,” continued the dowager, pitilessly, her voice rising. There was the stillness of death in the room. Elisabeth dropped a stitch, tried to pick it up, failed, and fled. Her mother from her seat observed with never-failing dignity that it blew like to bring on a flood. You could almost hear the big cathedral bell singing in the tower. And the subject was changed.

But I will warrant that Ribe got no wink of sleep that night, the while I fumed in a wayside Holstein inn. In my wild rush to get home I had taken the wrong train from Hamburg, or forgot to change, or something. I don’t to this day know what. I know that night coming on found me stranded in a little town I had never heard of, on a spur of the road I didn’t know existed, and there I had to stay, raging at the railroad, at the inn, at everything. In the middle of the night, while I was tossing sleepless on the big four-poster bed, a drunken man who had gone wrong fell into my room with the door and a candle. That man was my friend. I got up and kicked him out, called the landlord and blew him up, and felt much better. The sun had not risen when I was posting back to the junction, counting the mile-posts as we sped, watch in hand.

If mother thought we had all gone mad together, there was certainly something to excuse her. Here she had only a few weeks before forwarded with a heavy heart to her son in America Elisabeth’s flat refusal to hear him, and when she expected gloom and despair, all at once his letters overflowed with a hysterical happiness that could only hail from a disordered mind. To cap it all, Christmas Eve brought her the shock of her life. Elisabeth, sitting near her in the old church and remorsefully watching her weep for her buried boys, could not resist the impulse to steal up behind, as they were going out, and whisper into her ear, as she gave her a little vicarious hug: “I have had news from Jacob. He is very happy.” The look of measureless astonishment on my mother’s face, as she turned, recalled to her that she could not know, and she hurried away, while mother stood and looked after her, for the first time in her life, I verily believe, thinking hard things of a fellow-being—and of her! Oh, mother! could you but have known that that hug was for your boy!

Counting hours no longer, but minutes, till I should claim it myself, I sat straining my eyes in the dark for the first glimmer of lights in the old town, when my train pulled up at a station a dozen miles from home. The guard ran along and threw open the doors of the compartments. I heard voices and the cry:—

“This way, Herr Doctor! There is room in here,” and upon the step loomed the tall form of our old family physician. As I started up with a cry of recognition, he settled into a seat with a contented—

“Here, Overlaerer, is one for you,” and I was face to face with my father, grown very old and white. My heart smote me at the sight of his venerable head.

“I was face to face with my father.”

“Father!” I cried, and reached out for him. I think he thought he saw a ghost. He stood quite still, steadying himself against the door, and his face grew very pale. It was the doctor, ever the most jovial of men, who first recovered himself.

“Bless my soul!” he cried, “bless my soul if here is not Jacob, come back from the wilds as large as life! Welcome home, boy!” and we laughed and shook hands. They had been out to see a friend in the country and had happened upon my train.

At the door of our house, father, who had picked up two of my brothers at the depot, halted and thought.

“Better let me go in first,” he said, and, being a small man, put the door of the dining-room between me and mother, so that she could not see me right away.

“What do you think—” he began, but his voice shook so that mother rose to her feet at once. How do mothers know?

“Jacob!” she cried, and, pushing past him, had me in her embrace.

That was a happy tea-table. If mother’s tears fell as she told of my brothers, the sting was taken out of her grief. Perhaps it was never there. To her there is no death of her dear ones, but rejoicing in the midst of human sorrow that they have gone home where she shall find them again. If ever a doubt had arisen in my mind of that home, how could it linger? How could I betray my mother’s faith, or question it?

Perfectly happy were we; but when the tea-things were removed and I began to look restlessly at my watch and talk of an errand I must go, a shadow of anxiety came into my father’s eyes. Mother looked at me with mute appeal. They were still as far from the truth as ever. A wild notion that I had come for some other man’s daughter had entered their minds, or else, God help me, that I had lost mine. I kissed mother and quieted her fears.

“I will tell you when I come back;” and when she would have sent my brothers with me: “No! this walk I must take alone. Thank God for it.”

So I went over the river, over the Long Bridge where I first met Her, and from the arch of which I hailed the light in her window, the beacon that had beckoned me all the years while two oceans surged between us; under the wild-rose hedge where I had dreamed of her as a boy, and presently I stood upon the broad stone steps of her father’s house, and rang the bell.

An old servant opened the door, and, with a grave nod of recognition, showed me into the room to the left,—the very one where I had taken leave of her six years before,—then went unasked to call “Miss Elisabeth.” It was New Year’s Eve, and they were having a card party in the parlor.

“Oh, it isn’t—?” said she, with her heart in her mouth, pausing on the threshold and looking appealingly at the maid. It was the same who years before had told her how I kept vigil under her window.

“Yes! it is!” she said, mercilessly, “it’s him,” and she pushed her in.

I think it was I who spoke first.

“Do you remember when the ice broke on the big ditch and I had you in my arms, so, lifting you over?”

“Was I heavy?” she asked, irrelevantly, and we both laughed.

Father’s reading-lamp shone upon the open Bible when I returned. He wiped his spectacles and looked up with a patiently questioning “Well, my boy?” Mother laid her hand upon mine.

“I came home,” I said unsteadily, “to give you Elisabeth for a daughter. She has promised to be my wife.”

Mother clung to me and wept. Father turned the leaves of the book with hands that trembled in spite of himself, and read:—

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory for thy mercy—”

His voice faltered and broke.

The old town turned out, to the last man and woman, and crowded the Domkirke on that March day, twenty-five years ago when I bore Her home my bride. From earliest morning the street that led to “the Castle” had seen a strange procession of poor and aged women pass, carrying flowers grown in window-gardens in the scant sunlight of the long Northern winter—“loved up,” they say in Danish for “grown”; in no other way could it be done. They were pensioners on her mother’s bounty, bringing their gifts to the friend who was going away. And it was their flowers she wore when I led her down the church aisle my wife, my own.

“Out into the open country, into the wide world,—our life’s journey had begun.”

The Castle opened its doors hospitably at last to the carpenter’s lad. When they fell to behind us, with father, mother, and friends waving tearful good-bys from the steps, and the wheels of the mailcoach rattled over the cobblestones of the silent streets where old neighbors had set lights in their windows to cheer us on the way,—out into the open country, into the wide world,—our life’s journey had begun. Looking steadfastly ahead, over the bleak moor into the unknown beyond, I knew in my soul that I should conquer. For her head was leaning trustfully on my shoulder and her hand was in mine; and all was well.