What Old Johanna Told
By Hans Christian Andersen
The wind moans in the old willow tree !
It is as if one heard a song ; the wind
sings it, the tree tells it. If you don't
understand it, then 1 ask Johanna in the
almshouse ; she knows, she was born here in
Years ago, when the highway still lay here,
the tree was already big and remarkable. It
stood where it yet stands, outside the
tailor's whitened framework house, close to
the pool, which at that time was so big that
the cattle were watered there, and there in
the warm summer the little
children ran about naked and splashed about
in the water. Close up under the tree was a
milestone ; it has fallen down now, and
bramble branches grow over it.
On the other side of the rich squire's farm
the new high road was made, the old road
became the field road, the pool a puddle,
overgrown with duck-weed ; when a frog
jumped down, the green was separated and one
saw the black water ; round about it grew,
and still grow, the buckbean and gold irises.
The tailor's house became old and crooked,
the roof a hot-bed for moss and house-leek ;
the dove-cote fell in and the starlings
built there, the swallows hung nest after
nest on the gable of the house and under the
roof, just as if it was a lucky
dwelling-place. That was here at one time ;
now it has become lonely and silent. Alone
and weak-willed, ' Poor Rasmus ', as they
called him, lived here ; he had been born
here, he had played here, he had sprung over
the fields and the hedges, splashed as a
little child in the open pool, clambered up
in the old tree.
It lifted its great branches with pomp and
beauty, as it lifts them still, but the
storm had already twisted the trunk a little,
and time had given it a crack ; now wind and
weather have laid earth in the crack, where
grass and green things grow, yes, even a
little rowan tree has planted itself
When the swallows came in the spring, they
flew about the tree and the roof, they
plastered and mended their old nests, but
poor Rasmus let his nest stand and fall as
it liked ; he neither mended nor propped it.
' What is the use ! ' was his adage, and it
was also his father's.
He remained in his home, the swallows flew
away from it, but they came again, the
faithful creatures. The starling flew away,
but it came again and whistled its song ;
once Rasmus knew how to whistle in
competition with it ; now he neither
whistled nor sang.
The wind moaned in the old willow tree it
still moans, it is as if one heard a song ;
the wind sings it, the tree tells it ; if
you do not understand it, then ask old
Johanna in the almshouse ; she knows, she is
wise in old affairs, she is like a chronicle
book, with legends and old memories.
When the house was new and good, the village
tailor Ivar Olse moved into it with his wife
Maren ; respectable, industrious people,
both of them. Old Johanna was at that time a
child, she was the daughter of the maker of
wooden shoes, one of the poorest in the
neighbourhood. Many a
nice piece of bread and butter she got from
Maren, who had no lack of food . Maren stood
well with the squire 's wife ; she was
always laughing and glad, she never allowed
herself to be
disheartened, she used her tongue, but also
her hands ; she wielded her needle as well
as her tongue, and looked after her house
and her children ; there were eleven of them.
Poor people have always a nest full of young
ones ! ' grumbled the squire ; ' if one
could drown them like kittens, and only keep
one or two of the strongest, there would be
less misfortune ! '
' God bless me ! ' said the tailor's wife, '
children are a blessing of God ; they are a
joy in the house, each child is another
Lord's Prayer ! if things are straitened,
and one has many mouths to feed, then one
strives all the harder, finds ways and means
in all respectability. Our Father does
not let go, if we do not let go ! '
The squire's lady gave her her countenance,
bowed in a friendly way, and patted Maren on
the cheek : she had done that many times,
even kissed her, but that was when she was
little, and Maren her nurse -maid. They had
thought much of each other, and still did
Every year at Christmas, came winter
supplies from the big house to the tailor's
house ; a barrel of meal, a pig, two geese,
a stone of butter, cheese and apples. It was
a help to the larder. Ivar Olse looked quite
contented then, but soon came his old adage,
' What is the use ! ' Everything was clean
and neat in the house, curtains at the
windows, and flowers, both carnations and
balsams. A sampler hung in a picture frame,
and close beside it a composition in rhyme :
Maren Olse herself had composed it ; she
knew how rhymes ought to go. She was almost
a little proud of the family name ' Olse '.
It was the only word in the Danish language
that rhymed with Poise '
(sausage). ' That is always something in
which one is superior to other people,' she
said, and laughed. She always kept her good
humour, and never said like her husband, 'What
is the use!' Her adage was, 'Hold to
yourself and our Father ! ' She did that,
and it kept everything together. The
children throve, grew too big for the nest,
went far, and behaved themselves well.
was the youngest ; he was such a lovely
child, and one of the great artists in the
town borrowed him for a model, and that as
naked as when he came into this world. The
picture hung now in the king's palace, where
the squire's lady had seen it and recognized
little Rasmus, although he had no clothes on.
But now bad times came. The tailor had pains,
got rheumatism in both hands, great knots
came into them, and no doctor could help him,
not even the wise Stine who ' doctored '.
' One must not be disheartened ! ' said
Maren. ' It is no use to hang the head ! now
that we no longer have father's two hands to
help, I must see about using mine the
quicker. Little Rasmus also can use the
He already sat on the board, whistling and
singing ; he was a happy boy.
The mother said that he must not sit there
all day ; it was a sin against the child ;
he must also run about and play.
The shoemaker's little Johanna was his best
playmate ; she belonged to still poorer
people than Rasmus. She was not beautiful ;
she was barelegged ; her clothes hung in
tatters, she had no one to look after them,
and it never occurred to her to do it
herself ; she was a child, and as glad as a
bird in our Lord's sunshine.
Rasmus and Johanna played beside the
milestone and the big willow tree.
He had high thoughts ; he meant to be a fine
tailor some day and live in the town, where
there were masters who had ten men on the
board ; he had heard that from his father ;
there he would be a man, and there he would
be a master, and then Johanna could come and
visit him, and if she knew how to cook, she
could make the food for them all and have
her own big room.
Johanna dared not really believe this, but
Rasmus believed that it really would happen.
So they sat under the old tree and the wind
moaned in the leaves and the branches : it
was as if the wind sang and the tree spoke.
In the autumn every single leaf fell and the
rain dripped from the bare branches.
' They will grow green again !said Mother
' What is the use ! ' said the man. ' New
year, new care for a living ! '
' The larder is full ! ' said the wife. ' We
have to thank our good lady for that. I am
healthy and have good strength. It is sinful
of us to complain ! '
The squire's family were at their country
home for Christmas, but the week after the
New Year they went to town, where they spent
the winter in enjoying themselves : they
went to balls and festivals with the king
The lady had got two expensive dresses from
France ; they were of such stuff, and such
cut and sewing that the tailor's Maren had
never seen the like before. She asked the
lady if she might come up to the house and
bring her husband also, to see the dresses.
Such things had never
been seen by a country tailor.
He saw them and had never a word to say,
before he came home, and what he said, was
only what he always said, ' What is the use
! ' and this time his word was true.
The family went to town ; balls and parties
had begun there, but in the midst of the
enjoyment the squire died, and the lady
could not wear the lovely dresses. She was
so sorrowful, and dressed from head to foot
in black mourning clothes ; not so much as a
white strip was to be seen ; all the
servants were in black, even the state coach
was draped with fine black cloth.
It was a bitter, frosty night, the snow
glittered and the stars shone. The heavy
gun-carriage came from the town with the
body to the private chapel, where it was to
be placed in the family vault. The steward
and the parish beadle sat on horseback with
torches before the churchyard gate. The
church was lighted up, and the priest stood
in the open church door to receive the body!
The coffin was carried up into the choir,
and all the people followed it. The priest
made a speech and a psalm was sung. The lady
was in the church, she had driven there in
state carriage ; it was black inside and
out, and the like had never been seen in the
They talked the whole winter about the
' One saw there what this man signified ! '
said the country people. v He was nobly born
and he was nobly buried ! '
' What is the use of that ! ' said the
tailor. Now he has neither life nor property.
We have still one of these ! '
' Don't say such things ! ' said Maren, ' he
has everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom
' Who has told you that, Maren ? ' said the
tailor. ' Dead men are good manure ! but
this man was too superior to make profit to
the earth, he must lie in a chapel vault ! '
' Don't talk so unChristian-like ! ' said
Maren. ' I tell you again, he has
everlasting life ! '
' Who has told you that, Maren ? ' repeated
the tailor. And Maren threw her apron over
little Rasmus so that he might not hear the
conversation. She carried him over to the
turf -house and wept.
' The talk you heard over there, little
Rasmus, was not your father's ; it was the
wicked one who went through the room, and
took your father's voice ! Say " Our Father
". We will both say it ! ' She folded the
' Now I am glad again ! ' she said ; ' hold
fast by yourself and our Father ! '
The year of mourning was ended, the widow
was dressed in half -mourning, and she was
quite light-hearted. There were rumours that
she had a wooer and already thought of a
second marriage. Maren knew something of it.
and the priest knew a little more.
On Palm Sunday, after the service, the banns
were published for the marriage of the widow
and her betrothed. He was a sculptor, the
name of his occupation was not well known ;
at that time Thorwaldsen and his art were
not yet in the mouths of the people. The new
squire was not of noble birth, but yet a
very splendid man ; he was one who was
something no one understood, they said ; he
carved statues, was clever in his work,
young and goodlooking.
' What use is that ! ' said the tailor Olse.
On Palm Sunday the banns were published from
the pulpit, and then followed psalm-singing
and communion. The tailor, his wife, and
little Rasmus were in the church ; the
parents went to the communion, Rasmus sat in
the pew he was not confirmed yet. There had
been a lack of clothes
lately in the tailor's house. The old ones
they had, had been turned again and again,
sewed and patched ; now all three were in
new clothes, but black, as if for a funeral
; they were dressed in the covering from the
mourningcoach. The man had got a coat and
trousers from it, Maren a high-necked dress,
and Rasmus a whole suit to grow in till his
confirmation. Both the inside and outside
covering of the mourning-coach had been used.
No one need know what it had been used for
before, but people got to know it very
quickly ; the wise woman Stine, and others
just as wise, who did not live by their
wisdom, said that the clothes would bring
sickness into the house. ' One dares not
dress oneself in the trappings of a hearse
except to drive to the grave.'
The shoemaker's Johanna wept when she heard
that talk ; and when it happened that the
tailor grew worse from day to day, it would
assuredly appear who was to be the victim.
And it showed itself.
The first Sunday after Trinity, tailor Olse
died, and now Maren was alone to keep the
whole thing together ; she held to that, to
herself, and to our Father.
The following year Rasmus was confirmed ;
then he went to town as apprentice to a big
tailor, not with twelve men on the board,
but with one : little Rasmus could be
counted as a half : he was glad and looked
contented, but little Johanna wept ; she
thought more of him than she
herself knew. The tailor's wife remained in
the old house and carried on the business.
It was just at that time that the new high
road was opened ; the old one, past the
willow tree and the tailor's house, became
the field way, the ponql became overgrown,
duck-weed covered the little pool of water
that remained, the milestone fell down it
had nothing to stand up for, but the tree
held itself up, strong and beautiful ; the
wind whistled in the leaves and branches.
The swallows flew away, the starlings flew
away, but they came again in the spring, and
when they came back for the fourth time,
Rasmus came back to his home. He had
finished his apprenticeship, was a
good-looking but slender young fellow ; now
he would tie up his knapsack and go to see
foreign lands ; his mind was bent on that.
But his mother hung on to him ; home was
best ! all the other children were scattered,
he was the youngest, the house should be
his. He could get plenty of work if he would
stay in the district and be a travelling
tailor, sew fourteen days at one farm, and
fourteen days at another. That was also
travelling. And Rasmus followed his mother's
advice. So he slept again under the roof of
his birthplace, and sat again under the old
willow tree, and heard it moan.
He was good-looking, and could whistle like
a bird, and sing both new and old songs. He
was in favour at all the big farms,
particularly at Klaus Hansen's, who was the
second richest farmer in the district.
His daughter Elsie was like the loveliest
flower, and she was always laughing ; there
were people who were so ill-natured as to
say that she only laughed to show her pretty
She was ready to laugh, and always in the
humour to play pranks.
They fell in love with each other, but
neither of them said it in so many words.
So he went about and became heavy-hearted ;
he had more of his father's than his
mother's disposition. The humour only came
when Elsie came, then they both laughed,
joked, and played tricks, but although there
was good opportunity, he said never a word
of his love. ' What is the use ! ' was his
thought. ' Her parents look for riches for
her, and that I have not got ; it were
wisest to go away from here ! ' But he could
not go away from the farm ; it was as if
Elsie had bound him with a thread : he was
like a trained bird for her, he sang and
whistled for her pleasure and after her will.
Johanna, the shoemaker's daughter, was
servant on the farm there, engaged in menial
work ; she drove the milk- cart out to the
field, where she, with the other girls,
milked the cows ; she had even to drive the
manure when that was wanted. She never went
up to the big room, and so did
not see much of Rasmus or Elsie, but she
heard that they were as good as engaged.
'Rasmus comes into prosperity,' said she, 'I
cannot grudge him that ! ' And her eyes
became wet, although there was nothing to
It was market day in town. Klaus Hansen
drove into it and Rasmus was with him ; he
sat by the side of Elsie both going and
coming. He was overwhelmed with love, but
said never a word about it.
' He might say something to me about the
thing ! ' thought the girl, and she was
right. ' If he will not speak, then I will
give him a fright ! '
And soon people were saying on the farm that
the richest farmer in the neighbourhood had
made love to Elsie, and so he had, but no
one knew what answer she had given him.
Thoughts buzzed about in Rasmus's head.
One evening Elsie put a gold ring on her
finger and asked Rasmus what it meant.
' Engagement,' said he.
' And with whom, do you think ? ' asked she.
' With the rich farmer,' said he.
' You have hit it ! ' said she, nodded, and
But he also slipped away, came home to his
mother's house like a madman, and packed his
knapsack. Out into the wide world would he
go ; his mother wept, but it was of no use.
He cut himself a stick from the old willow,
he whistled as if he were in a good humour,
he was going out
to see the grandeur of the world.
' It is a great trial for me ! ' said the
mother. But for you it is, no doubt, the
best thing to go away, and so I must just
submit to it. Hold to yourself and our Lord,
and so I will get you home glad and
contented again ! '
He went by the new high road, and there he
saw Johanna driving a load of manure. She
had not noticed him, and he did not want her
to see him, so he sat himself behind the
hedge, and hid there and Johanna drove past.
Out into the world he went, and .no one knew
where ; his mother thought he would come
home again before the year was finished : '
He has now something new to see and to think
about, but he will get back into the old
folds again, which cannot be ironed out with
any pressing-iron. He
has a little too much of his father's
disposition. I would rather he had mine, the
poor child ! but he will come home, he
cannot give the old house and me the slip.'
The mother would wait a year and a day ;
Elsie waited only a month, then she went
secretly to the wise woman Stine, who could
' doctor ', read fortunes in cards and
coffee, and knew more than her Lord's Prayer.
She knew also where Rasmus was. She could
read that in the coffee-
grounds. He was in a foreign town, but she
could not read the name of it. There were in
that town soldiers and pretty girls. He
thought either of taking a musket or one of
Elsie could not bear to hear that. She would
willingly give her savings to buy him off,
but no one must know that she had done it.
And old Stine promised that he would come
back ; she knew an art, a dangerous art for
the person concerned, but it was the last
resource. She would set the pot on to boil
for him, and then he must come away from the
place where he happened to be ; he must come
the pot boiled and his dearest one waited :
months might pass before he came, but come
he must, if there was life in him.
Without resting, night and day he must
travel, over lake and mountain, be the
weather mild or hard, however tired he was.
He should come home, he must come home.
The moon was in the first quarter ; it must
be so for the exercise of that art, said old
Stine. It was stormy weather, the old willow
tree cracked : Stine cut off a twig, and
tied it into a knot, it would help to draw
Rasmus home to his mother's house. Moss and
house -leek were taken from the
roof of the house, put into the pot, which
was set on the fire. Elsie must now tear a
leaf out of a psalm-book ; she accidentally
tore out the last one, the one with the list
of misprints. c It will do quite as well ! '
said Stine, and threw it in the pot.
Many kinds of things must go into the gruel,
which must boil and constantly boil until
Rasmus came home. The black cock in Stine 's
room must lose its red comb, it was put in
the pot. Elsie's thick gold ring must also
go in, and she would never get it again,
Stine told her beforehand.
Stine was so wise. Many things which we do
not know the names of went into the pot ; it
stood constantly on the fire, or on glowing
embers, or hot ashes. Only she and Elsie
knew about it.
The moon waxed and waned ; and always Elsie
came and asked, Do you not see him coming ?
' Much I know,' said Stine, ' and much I see,
but the length of the way for him I cannot
see. Now he is over the first mountain ! now
he is on the sea in bad weather ! The way is
long through the great woods, he has
blisters on his feet, he has fever in his
body, but he must go on ! '
' No ! no ! ' said Elsie, ' I am sorry for
him ! '
' He cannot be stopped now ! for if we do
that he will drop dead on the highway ! '
A year and a day had gone. The moon shone
round and big, the wind moaned in the old
tree, a rainbow in the moonshine was seen in
'That is the sign of confirmation!' said
Stine. 'Now Rasmus is coming.'
But he came not.
' The waiting-time is long ! ' said Stine.
' Now I am tired of it ! ' said Elsie. She
came less often to Stine and brought her no
new gifts. Her heart became lighter, and one
fine morning everybody in the neighbourhood
knew that Elsie had said 'Yes ' to the
She went to look at the farm and the fields,
the cattle and the furniture. Everything was
in good order, there was nothing to delay
the wedding for.
It was held with great festivity for three
days. There was dancing to flute and violin.
Every one in the neighbourhood was invited.
Mother Olse was there also ; and when the
gaiety was at an end, and the guests had
said ' Thanks ', and the musicians had gone,
she went home with the remnants of the feast.
She had only fastened the door with a pin ;
that was taken off, the door stood open,
and. there stood Rasmus. He had come home,
come at this hour. Lord, how he looked !
skin and bone only, pale and yellow was he !
Rasmus ! ' said the mother, ' is it you, I
see ? How poorly you look ! but I am glad in
my heart that I have you ! '
And she gave him of the good food she had
brought home from the feast a piece of
steak, and a wedding tart.
He had, in these last days, he said, thought
often of his mother, his homestead, and the
old willow tree. It was wonderful how often
in his dreams he had seen the tree and the
barelegged Johanna. Elsie he did not even
name. He was ill and must go to bed ; but we
do not believe that the pot was the cause of
this, or that it had exercised any power
over him ; only old Stine and Elsie believed
that, but they spoke to no one about it.
Rasmus lay in a fever ; it was infectious,
so no one sought the tailor's house except
Johanna, the shoemaker's daughter. She wept
to see how miserable Rasmus was.
The doctor wrote out a prescription for him
; he would not take the medicine, ' What is
the use ? ' said he.
' Yes, then you will be yourself again,'
said the mother. ' Hold fast to yourself and
our Lord ! If I could only see you put on
flesh again, hear you whistle and sing, I
would willingly lay down my life.'
And Rasmus got better of his illness, but
his mother took it ; our Lord called her and
It was lonely in the house, and it grew
poorer. ' He is worn out,' said the
neighbours. ' Poor Rasmus' A wild life had
he led on his travels, that, and not the
black pot which boiled, had sapped his
strength and given him unrest in his body.
His hair became thin and grey ; he did not
care to do anything properly.
' What good can that do ? ' said he. He
sought the public-house rather than the
One autumn evening, in wind and rain, he
struggled along the dirty road from the
public-house to his home : his mother had
long ago been laid in her grave. The
swallows and the starling had also gone, the
faithful creatures ; Johanna the shoemaker's
daughter had not gone ; she overtook him on
the way and accompanied him a little bit.
yourself together, Rasmus ! '
What good can that do ? ' said he.
' That is a bad motto you have ! ' said she.
' Remember our mother's words : " Hold to
yourself and our Lord ! " ou don't do that,
Rasmus ! that one ought, and that one shall.
Never say " What good can that do ? " for
then you pull up the root of all your
She accompanied him to the door of his
house, and there she left him. He did not
stay inside, but went and sat himself on
part of the fallen milestone.
The wind moaned in the branches of the tree,
it was like a song, it was like a talk.
Rasmus answered it ; he talked aloud, but no
one heard it, except the tree and the
' I am getting cold ! It is time to go to
bed. Sleep ! sleep ! '
And he went, not towards the house but to
the pool, where he stumbled and fell. The
rain poured down, the wind was icy cold, but
he did not notice it : but when the sun
rose, and the crows flew over the pool, he
wakened, half -dead. If he had laid his head
where his feet lay, he
would never have got up again, the green
duck-weed would have been his shroud.
Later in the day Johanna came to the
tailor's house ; she was his help ; she got
him taken to the hospital.
' We have known each other from childhood,'
said she ; ' your mother has given me both
meat and drink, I can never repay her for it
! You will get your health again, you will
be able to live yet.'
And our Lord willed it that he should live,
but it was up and down with the health and
the mind. The swallows and the starlings
came and went and came again ; Rasmus became
old before his time. Lonely he sat in the
house, which became more and more
dilapidated. He was poor,
poorer now than Johanna.
' You have no faith,' said she, ' and if we
have not our Lord, what have we ? You should
go to communion ! you have not been there
since your confirmation.'
Well, what good can that do ? ' said he.
If you say that and believe it, so let it be
! Unwilling guests the Lord will not see at
His Table. Think, however, of your mother
and your childhood's days ! You were at that
time a good, God-fearing boy. May I read a
psalm for you ? '
' What good can that do ? ' said he.
' It always comforts me,' said she.
' Johanna, you have become one of the holy
ones ! ' and he looked at her with heavy,
tired eyes. And Johanna read the psalm, but
not from the book she did not have one, she
knew it by heart.
' Those were beautiful words,' said he, '
but I could not quite follow. It is so heavy
in my head ! '
Rasmus had become an old man, but Elsie was
no longer young either, if we are to mention
her ; Rasmus never did. She was a
grandmother ; a little flippant girl was her
grandchild, the little one played with the
other children in the village. Rasmus came,
leaning on his stick ; he stood still,
looked at the children's play, smiled to
them, old times shone into his thoughts.
pointed at him. ' Poor Rasmus ! ' she
shouted ; the other children followed her
example and shouted ' Poor Rasmus ! ' and
followed the old man with shrieks.
It was a grey, heavy day, and several like
it followed, but after grey and heavy days
there comes a sunshiny one.
It was a lovely Whitsuntide, the church was
decorated with green birch branches, there
was the smell of the woods, and the sun
shone over the church pews. The big altar
candles were lighted, it was communion ;
Johanna was amongst those kneeling there,
but Rasmus was not amongst
them. Just that morning our Lord had called
him. With God are compassion and mercy.
Many years have passed since then ; the
tailor's house stands there still, but no
one lives there, it may fall with the first
storm. The pool is covered with reeds and
buckbean. The wind moans in the old tree, it
is as if one heard a song ; the wind sings
it, the tree tells it ; if you don't
understand it, then ask old Johanna in the
She lives there, she sings her psalm, the
one she sang for Rasmus ; she thinks of him,
prays to our Lord for him, the faithful soul
that she is. She can tell about the past
times, the memories, which moan in the old
When he found the old A-B-C Book had fallen
open on the floor, he flapped his wings,
flew out, and perched himself on a corner of
the bookcase. There he preened himself with
his beak and crowed loudly and long. Every
single book in the case, all of which would
stand day and night, as if in a trance when
nobody was reading them, was roused by his
trumpet call. Then the Cock spoke out loudly
and clearly about the way the worthy old
A-B-C Book had been insulted.
"Everything has to be new and different
nowadays," he said. "Everything has to be
advanced. Children are so wise that they can
read before they have even learned the
alphabet. 'They should have something new!'
said the man who wrote those new verses
sprawling there on the floor. I know them
all by heart; he admires them so much that I
have heard him read them aloud more than ten
times over. No, I prefer my own, the good
old rhymes with Xanthus for X, and with the
pictures that belong to them! I'll fight for
them and crow for them! Every book in the
case here knows them very well. Now I'll
read aloud these new rhymes. I'll try to
read them patiently, and I know we'll all
agree they're worthless.