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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875)

A Night in a Stage-Coach

From “Travels in Spain”

THE LAST railway-station is at Perpignan, but it is only a few hours’ journey from that place into Spain. The said journey had been described to me as very terrible. The stage-coaches were represented as vehicles specially designed for torture—great, heavy omnibuses, with only one door at the side, so that there was no way of getting out if there was an upset, which occurred with fatal regularity. Protestants were despised in this part of the country, and persecuted as if they were ungodly heathens, so I was told; travelers were constantly being attacked and robbed by armed brigands; and, as for the food, none of it was eatable. I had heard and read all this, and now I was to experience it.

The stage-coach was to leave Perpignan at three o’clock in the morning. To start at three means getting up at two; and if you are to rise as early as that, you might as well not go to bed at all. I lay down, nevertheless, and managed to obtain a few scattered winks, in the intervals between which I looked at my watch or stared at the sky. Finally, at half past two, I waked up the man who was to have called me, and having consumed a glass of cold water—the only breakfast available at that hour—I made my way to the starting-place. A lantern on a barrel disclosed six stage-coaches jammed closely together. There was not much room for the numbers who intended to go. The travelers appeared one by one. Not a soul knew another; not a word was spoken. One sat down on an empty wooden box, another on a trunk, another stumbled about among the harness, and a good many were lost to view in dark corners. The coaches were loaded with luggage and human freight, while twelve horses with jingling bells were fastened to each. I secured a place in the inner compartment, with a Spanish lady and her daughter, both of them wearing enormous crinolines. If they had gone to Skagen, the mother alone would have covered the whole of the northern part of that promontory. I felt as if I were sitting beside a balloon that was being inflated.

The postilions cracked their whips, and off we went, swinging from side to side in the narrow streets. We passed over the drawbridge and through the fortifications—the sort of scenery you would expect in a melodrama of the Middle Ages. After a time we got out upon the open highroad. The señora was asleep. She was probably dreaming of her beautiful Spain, where she once had loved and been loved—seeing that she had a daughter. I, too, dreamed of Spain—with my eyes wide open, wondering what was in store for me there. The daughter neither slept nor dreamed. All her attention seemed to be centered upon a knitted bag which she held in her lap, and which she was perpetually lifting up and putting down again.

The bag began to worry me (I had got used to the crinoline), and I found myself speculating on its possible contents. I imagined that the thing in it prized most highly was neither gold nor silver money, nor jewelry, nor any fine Parisian frills to be smuggled across the frontier. No; my poetical eye penetrated the secret of the bag, and I saw there a man, a handsome man, on a photograph, all spick and span, from his frizzled curls to the tips of his shining boots, though in his proper person he was no doubt still more beautiful. I interfered with him, being so close to his lady-love, and he interfered with me in his case—that ponderous bag, which now bumped against my stomach and now against my chest, as the Spanish damsel, clinging to her treasure, assumed various plastic attitudes. Mama meanwhile was sleeping soundly, and executing nasal runs and trills such as sleepers give forth when it is inconvenient to put any restraint on their breathing.

A star in the west, out over the sea, shone so wonderfully clearly, and looked so large, that I was uncertain whether I saw a star or a lighthouse. I had long been wishing to begin a conversation with the young Spaniard, hoping that my stock of Spanish, which consisted in some of the commonest expressions, would come out in the right order, and relying upon my talent for that sort of enterprise. But what a lighthouse might be in Spanish I had no idea, and so I commenced with what I did know—“Estrella.” The word took like a spark, and kindled the fire of eloquence in the Spanish girl. She talked and she talked. Words flowed from her lips like the waters spouting from a fountain. But not a thing did I understand. Presently day dawned, and I beheld the sea. I then exclaimed, “El mar!” Thereupon ensued another attempt at conversation. “Inglés?” she asked. “Danés!” I replied, and we began to chat—that is to say, I would give a cue, and she would spin out the thread of the discourse. I said, “La poesia de la España—Cervantes, Calderon, Moreto!” All I did was to mention names, and as each name was uttered her animation increased, so that her mama was at length awakened, when her daughter informed her that I had been talking in the most interesting manner about Spanish literature. But it was herself who had done the talking; I did not know how.