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The Court Cards

Hans Christian Andersen (1869)

How many beautiful things may be cut out of and pasted on paper! Thus a castle was cut out and pasted, so large that it filled a whole table, and it was painted as if it were built of red stones. It had a shining copper roof, it had towers and a draw-bridge, water in the canals just like plate glass, for it was plate-glass, and in the highest tower stood a wooden watchman. He had a trumpet, but he did not blow it.

The whole belonged to a little boy, whose name was William. He raised the draw-bridge himself and let it down again, made his tin soldiers march over it, opened the castle gate and looked into the large and elegant drawing-room, where all the court cards of a pack—Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades—hung in frames on the walls, like pictures in real drawing rooms. The kings held each a scepter, and wore crowns; the queens wore veils flowing down over their shoulders, and in their hands they held a flower or a fan; the knaves had halberds and nodding plumes.

One evening the little boy peeped through the open castle gate, to catch a glimpse of the court cards in the drawing room, and it seemed to him that the kings saluted him with their scepters, that the Queen of Spades swung the golden tulip which she held in her hand, that the Queen of Hearts lifted her fan, and that all four queens graciously recognized him. He drew a little nearer, in order to see better, and that made him hit his head against the castle so that it shook. Then all the four knaves of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades, raised their halberds, to warn him that he must not try to get in that way.

The little boy understood the hint, and gave a friendly nod; he nodded again, and then said: “Say something!” but the knaves did not say a word. However, the third time be nodded, the Knave of Hearts sprang out of the card, and placed himself in the middle of the floor.

“What is your name?” the knave asked the little boy. “You have clear eyes and good teeth, but your hands are dirty: you do not wash them often enough!”

Now this was rather coarse language, but, of course, not much politeness can be expected from a knave. He is only a common fellow.

“My name is William,” said the little boy, “and the castle is mine, and you are my Knave of Hearts!”

“No, I am not. I am my king’s and my queen’s knave, not yours!” said the Knave of Hearts. “I am not obliged to stay here. I can get down off the card, and out of the frame too, and so can my gracious king and queen, even more easily than I. We can go out into the wide world, but that is such a wearisome march; we have grown tired of it; it is more convenient, more easy, more agreeable, to be sitting in the cards, and just to be ourselves!”

“Have all of you really been human beings once?” asked little William.

“Human beings!” repeated the Knave of Hearts. “Yes, we have; but not so good as we ought to have been! Please now light a little wax candle (I like a red one best, for that is the color of my king and queen); then I will tell the lord of the castle—I think you said you were the lord of the castle, did you not?—our whole history; but for goodness’ sake, don’t interrupt me, for if I speak, it must be done without any interruption whatever. I am in a great hurry! Do you see my king, I mean the King of Hearts ? He is the oldest of the four kings there, for he was born first,—born with a golden crown and a golden apple. He began to rule at once. His queen was born with a golden fan; that she still has. They both were very agreeably situated, even from infancy. They did not have to go to school, they could play the whole day, build castles, and knock them down, marshal tin soldiers for battle, and play with dolls. When they asked for buttered bread, then there was butter on both sides of the bread, and powdered brown sugar, too, nicely spread over it. It was the good old time, and was called the Golden Age; but they grew tired of it, and so did I. Then the King of Diamonds took the reins of government!”

The knave said nothing more. Little William waited to hear something further, but not a syllable was uttered; so presently he asked,—“Well, and then ?”

The Knave of Hearts did not answer; he stood up straight, silent, bold, and stiff, his eyes fixed upon the burning wax candle. Little William nodded; he nodded again, but no reply. Then he turned to the Knave of Diamonds; and when he had nodded to him three times, up he sprang out of the card, in the middle of the floor, and uttered only one single word,—

“Wax candle!”

Little William understood what he meant, and immediately lighted a red candle, and placed it before him. Then the Knave of Diamonds presented arms, for that is a token of respect, and said:—“Then the King of Diamonds succeeded to the throne! He was a king with a pane of glass on his breast; also the queen had a pane of glass on her breast, so that people could look right into her. For the rest, they were formed like other human beings, and were so agreeable and so handsome, that a monument was erected in honor of them, which stood for seven years without falling. Properly speaking, it should have stood forever, for so it was intended; but from some unknown reasons, it fell.” Then the Knave of Diamonds presented arms, Out of respect for his king, and he looked fixedly on his red wax candle.

But now at once, without any nod or invitation from little William, the Knave of Clubs stepped out, grave and proud, like the stork that struts with such a dignified air over the green meadow. The black clover-leaf in the corner of the card flew like a bird beyond the knave, and then flew back again, and stuck itself where it had been sticking before.

And without waiting for his wax candle, the Knave of Clubs spoke:—

“Not all get butter on both sides of the bread, and brown powdered sugar on that. My king and queen did not get it. They had to go to school, and learn what they had not learnt before. They also had a pane of glass on their breasts, but nobody looked through it, except to see if there was not some. thing wrong with their works inside, in order to find, if possible, some reason for giving them a scolding! I know it; I have served my king and queen all my life-time; I know everything about them, and obey their commands. They bid me say nothing more to-night. 1 keep silent, therefore, and present arms!”

But little William was a kind-hearted boy, so he lighted a candle for this knave also, a shining white one, white like snow. No sooner was the candle lighted, than the Knave of Spades appeared in the middle of the drawing-room. He came hurriedly; yet he limped, as if he had a sore leg. Indeed, it had once been broken, and he had had, moreover, many ups and down in his life. He spoke as follows:—

“My brother knaves have each got a candle, and I shall also get one; I know that. But if we poor knaves have so much honor, our kings and queens must have thrice as much. Now, it is proper that my King of Spades and my Queen of Spades should have four candles to gladden them. An additional honor ought to be conferred upon them. Their history and trials are so doleful, that they have very good reason to wear mourning, and to have a grave-digger’s spade on their coat of arms. My own fate, poor knave that I am, is deplorable enough. In one game at cards, I have got the nickname of ‘Black Peter!’ But alas! I have got a still uglier name, which, indeed, it is hardly the thing to mention aloud,” and then he whispered,—“In another game, I have been nicknamed ‘Dirty Mads!’ I, who was once the King of Spades’ Lord Chamberlain! Is not this a bitter fate? The history of my royal master and queen I will not relate; they don’t wish me to do so! Little lord of the castle, as he calls himself, may guess it himself if he chooses, but it is very lamentable,—O, no doubt about that! Their circumstances have become very much reduced, and are not likely to change for the better, until we are all riding on the red horse higher than the skies, where there are no haps and mishaps!”

Little William now lighted, as the Knave of Spades had said was proper, three candles for each of the kings, and three for each of the queens; but for the King and Queen of Spades he lighted four candles apiece, and the whole drawing-room became as light and transparent as the palace of the richest emperor, and the illustrious kings and queens bowed to each other serenely and graciously. The Queen of Hearts made her golden fan bow; and the Queen of Spades swung her golden tulip in such a way, that a stream of fire issued from it. The royal couples alighted from the cards and frames, and moved in a slow and graceful minuet up and down the floor. They were dancing in the very midst of flames, and the knaves were dancing too.

But alas! the whole drawing-room was soon in a blaze; the devouring element roared up through the roof, and all was one crackling and hissing sheet of fire; and in a moment little William’s castle itself was enveloped in flames and smoke. The boy became frightened, and ran off, crying to his father and mother,—“Fire, fire, fire! my castle is on fire!“ He grew pale as ashes, and his little hands trembled like the aspen-leaf The fire continued sparkling and blazing, but in the midst of this destructive scene, the following words were uttered in a singing tone:—

“Now we are riding on the red horse, higher than the skies! This is the way for kings and queens to go, and this is the way for their knaves to go after them!“

Yes I that was the end of William’s castle, and of the court cards. William did not perish in the flames; he is still alive, and he washed his small bands, and said: “I am innocent of the destruction of the castle.“ And, indeed, it was not his fault that the castle was burnt down.