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The Old Street Lamp

from Hans Andersens Fairy Tales





DID you ever hear the story of the old street lamp? It is not remarkably
interesting, but for once you may as well listen to it.

It was a most respectable old lamp, which had seen many, many years of
service and now was to retire with a pension. It was this very evening
at its post for the last time, giving light to the street. Its feelings
were something like those of an old dancer at the theater who is dancing
for the last time and knows that on the morrow she will be in her
garret, alone and forgotten.

The lamp had very great anxiety about the next day, for it knew that it
had to appear for the first time at the town hall to be inspected by the
mayor and the council, who were to decide whether it was fit for
further service; whether it was good enough to be used to light the
inhabitants of one of the suburbs, or in the country, at some factory.
If the lamp could not be used for one of these purposes, it would be
sent at once to an iron foundry to be melted down. In this latter case
it might be turned into anything, and it wondered very much whether it
would then be able to remember that it had once been a street lamp. This
troubled it exceedingly.

Whatever might happen, it seemed certain that the lamp would be
separated from the watchman and his wife, whose family it looked upon as
its own. The lamp had first been hung up on the very evening that the
watchman, then a robust young man, had entered upon the duties of his
office. Ah, well! it was a very long time since one became a lamp and
the other a watchman. His wife had some little pride in those days; she
condescended to glance at the lamp only when she passed by in the
evening--never in the daytime. But in later years, when all of them--the
watchman, the wife, and the lamp--had grown old, she had attended to it,
cleaning it and keeping it supplied with oil. The old people were
thoroughly honest; they had never cheated the lamp of a single drop of
the oil provided for it.

This was the lamp's last night in the street, and to-morrow it must go
to the town hall--two very dark things to think of. No wonder it did not
burn brightly. How many persons it had lighted on their way, and how
much it had seen! As much, very likely, as the mayor and corporation
themselves! None of these thoughts were uttered aloud, however, for the
lamp was good and honorable and would not willingly do harm to any one,
especially to those in authority. As one thing after another was
recalled to its mind, the light would flash up with sudden brightness.
At such moments the lamp had a conviction that it would be remembered.

"There was a handsome young man, once," thought the lamp; "it is
certainly a long while ago, but I remember that he had a little note,
written on pink paper with a gold edge. The writing was elegant,
evidently a lady's. Twice he read it through, and kissed it, and then
looked up at me with eyes that said quite plainly, 'I am the happiest
of men!' Only he and I know what was written on this, his first letter
from his lady-love. Ah, yes, and there was another pair of eyes that I
remember; it is really wonderful how the thoughts jump from one thing to
another! A funeral passed through the street. A young and beautiful
woman lay on a bier decked with garlands of flowers, and attended by
torches which quite overpowered my light. All along the street stood the
people from the houses, in crowds, ready to join the procession. But
when the torches had passed from before me and I could look around, I
saw one person standing alone, leaning against my post and weeping.
Never shall I forget the sorrowful eyes that looked up at me."

These and similar reflections occupied the old street lamp on this the
last time that its light would shine. The sentry, when he is relieved
from his post, knows, at least, who will be his successor, and may
whisper a few words to him. But the lamp did not know its successor, or
it might have given him a few hints respecting rain or mist and might
have informed him how far the moon's rays would reach, and from which
side the wind generally blew, and so on.

On the bridge over the canal stood three persons who wished to recommend
themselves to the lamp, for they thought it could give the office to
whomsoever it chose. The first was a herring's head, which could emit
light in the darkness. He remarked that it would be a great saving of
oil if they placed him on the lamp-post. Number two was a piece of
rotten wood, which also shines in the dark. He considered himself
descended from an old stem, once the pride of the forest. The third was
a glowworm, and how he found his way there the lamp could not imagine;
yet there he was, and could really give light as well as the others. But
the rotten wood and the herring's head declared most solemnly, by all
they held sacred, that the glowworm only gave light at certain times and
must not be allowed to compete with them. The old lamp assured them that
not one of them could give sufficient light to fill the position of a
street lamp, but they would believe nothing that it said. When they
discovered that it had not the power of naming its successor, they said
they were very glad to hear it, for the lamp was too old and worn out to
make a proper choice.

At this moment the wind came rushing round the corner of the street and
through the air-holes of the old lamp. "What is this I hear?" it asked.
"Are you going away to-morrow? Is this evening the last time we shall
meet? Then I must present you with a farewell gift. I will blow into
your brain, so that in future not only shall you be able to remember all
that you have seen or heard in the past, but your light within shall be
so bright that you will be able to understand all that is said or done
in your presence."

"Oh, that is really a very, very great gift," said the old lamp. "I
thank you most heartily. I only hope I shall not be melted down."

"That is not likely to happen yet," said the wind. "I will also blow a
memory into you, so that, should you receive other similar presents,
your old age will pass very pleasantly."

"That is, if I am not melted down," said the lamp. "But should I, in
that case, still retain my memory?"

"Do be reasonable, old lamp," said the wind, puffing away.

At this moment the moon burst forth from the clouds. "What will you give
the old lamp?" asked the wind.

"I can give nothing," she replied. "I am on the wane, and no lamps have
ever given me light, while I have frequently shone upon them." With
these words the moon hid herself again behind the clouds, that she might
be saved from further importunities. Just then a drop fell upon the lamp
from the roof of the house, but the drop explained that it was a gift
from those gray clouds and perhaps the best of all gifts. "I shall
penetrate you so thoroughly," it said, "that you will have the power of
becoming rusty, and, if you wish it, can crumble into dust in one
night."

But this seemed to the lamp a very shabby present, and the wind thought
so, too. "Does no one give any more? Will no one give any more?" shouted
the breath of the wind, as loud as it could. Then a bright, falling star
came down, leaving a broad, luminous streak behind it.

"What was that?" cried the herring's head. "Did not a star fall? I
really believe it went into the lamp. Certainly, when such high-born
personages try for the office we may as well go home."

And so they did, all three, while the old lamp threw a wonderfully
strong light all around.

"This is a glorious gift," it said. "The bright stars have always been a
joy to me and have always shone more brilliantly than I ever could
shine, though I have tried with my whole might. Now they have noticed
me, a poor old lamp, and have sent me a gift that will enable me to see
clearly everything that I remember, as if it still stood before me, and
to let it be seen by all those who love me. And herein lies the truest
happiness, for pleasures which we cannot share with others are only half
enjoyed."

"That sentiment does you honor," said the wind; "but for this purpose
wax lights will be necessary. If these are not lighted in you, your
peculiar faculties will not benefit others in the least. The stars have
not thought of this. They suppose that you and every other light must be
a wax taper. But I must go down now." So it laid itself to rest.

"Wax tapers, indeed!" said the lamp; "I have never yet had these, nor is
it likely I ever shall. If I could only be sure of not being melted
down!"

The next day--well, perhaps we had better pass over the next day. The
evening had come, and the lamp was resting in a grandfather's chair; and
guess where! Why, at the old watchman's house. He had begged as a favor
that the mayor and corporation would allow him to keep the street lamp
in consideration of his long and faithful service, as he had himself
hung it up and lighted it on the day he first commenced his duties, four
and twenty years ago. He looked upon it almost as his own child. He had
no children, so the lamp was given to him.

There lay the lamp in the great armchair near the warm stove. It seemed
almost to have grown larger, for it appeared quite to fill the chair.
The old people sat at their supper, casting friendly glances at it, and
would willingly have admitted it to a place at the table. It is quite
true that they dwelt in a cellar two yards below ground, and had to
cross a stone passage to get to their room. But within, it was warm and
comfortable, and strips of list had been nailed round the door. The bed
and the little window had curtains, and everything looked clean and
neat. On the window seat stood two curious flowerpots, which a sailor
named Christian had brought from the East or West Indies. They were of
clay, and in the form of two elephants with open backs; they were filled
with earth, and through the open space flowers bloomed. In one grew some
very fine chives or leeks; this was the kitchen garden. The other, which
contained a beautiful geranium, they called their flower garden. On the
wall hung a large colored print, representing the Congress of Vienna and
all the kings and emperors. A clock with heavy weights hung on the wall
and went "tick, tick," steadily enough; yet it was always rather too
fast, which, however, the old people said was better than being too
slow. They were now eating their supper, while the old street lamp, as
we have heard, lay in the grandfather's armchair near the stove.

It seemed to the lamp as if the whole world had turned round. But after
a while the old watchman looked at the lamp and spoke of what they had
both gone through together--in rain and in fog, during the short, bright
nights of summer or in the long winter nights, through the drifting
snowstorms when he longed to be at home in the cellar. Then the lamp
felt that all was well again. It saw everything that had happened quite
clearly, as if the events were passing before it. Surely the wind had
given it an excellent gift!

The old people were very active and industrious; they were never idle
for even a single hour. On Sunday afternoons they would bring out some
books, generally a book of travels which they greatly liked. The old man
would read aloud about Africa, with its great forests and the wild
elephants, while his wife would listen attentively, stealing a glance
now and then at the clay elephants which served as flowerpots. "I can
almost imagine I am seeing it all," she said.

Ah! how the lamp wished for a wax taper to be lighted in it, for then
the old woman would have seen the smallest detail as clearly as it did
itself; the lofty trees, with their thickly entwined branches, the
naked negroes on horseback, and whole herds of elephants treading down
bamboo thickets with their broad, heavy feet.

"What is the use of all my capabilities," sighed the old lamp, "when I
cannot obtain any wax lights? They have only oil and tallow here, and
these will not do." One day a great heap of wax-candle ends found their
way into the cellar. The larger pieces were burned, and the smaller ones
the old woman kept for waxing her thread. So there were now candles
enough, but it never occurred to any one to put a little piece in the
lamp.

"Here I am now, with my rare powers," thought the lamp. "I have
faculties within me, but I cannot share them. They do not know that I
could cover these white walls with beautiful tapestry, or change them
into noble forests or, indeed, to anything else they might wish."

The lamp, however, was always kept clean and shining in a corner, where
it attracted all eyes. Strangers looked upon it as lumber, but the old
people did not care for that; they loved it. One day--it was the
watchman's birthday--the old woman approached the lamp, smiling to
herself, and said, "I will have an illumination to-day, in honor of my
old man." The lamp rattled in its metal frame, for it thought, "Now at
last I shall have a light within me." But, after all, no wax light was
placed in the lamp--only oil, as usual.

The lamp burned through the whole evening and began to perceive too
clearly that the gift of the stars would remain a hidden treasure all
its life. Then it had a dream; for to one with its faculties, dreaming
was not difficult. It dreamed that the old people were dead and that it
had been taken to the iron foundry to be melted down. This caused the
lamp quite as much anxiety as on the day when it had been called upon to
appear before the mayor and the council at the town hall. But though it
had been endowed with the power of falling into decay from rust when it
pleased, it did not make use of this power. It was therefore put into
the melting furnace and changed into as elegant an iron candlestick as
you could wish to see--one intended to hold a wax taper. The candlestick
was in the form of an angel holding a nosegay, in the center of which
the wax taper was to be placed. It was to stand on a green writing table
in a very pleasant room, where there were many books scattered about and
splendid paintings on the walls.

The owner of the room was a poet and a man of intellect. Everything he
thought or wrote was pictured around him. Nature showed herself to him
sometimes in the dark forests, sometimes in cheerful meadows where the
storks were strutting about, or on the deck of a ship sailing across the
foaming sea, with the clear, blue sky above, or at night in the
glittering stars.

"What powers I possess!" said the lamp, awaking from its dream. "I could
almost wish to be melted down; but no, that must not be while the old
people live. They love me for myself alone; they keep me bright and
supply me with oil. I am as well off as the picture of the Congress, in
which they take so much pleasure." And from that time it felt at rest in
itself, and not more so than such an honorable old lamp really deserved
to be.





Next: The Shepherdess And The Chimney Sweep

Previous: What The Goodman Does Is Always Right



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