Hans Christian Andersen (1868)
You have all heard of the Nis, but have you ever heard of the Dame,—the Gardener’s Dame? She had plenty of reading; knew verses by heart; aye, and could write them herself with ease; except that the rhymes, “clinchings,” as she called them, cost her a little trouble. She had gifts of writing, and gifts of speech; she could well have been priest, or, at all events, the priest’s wife.
“The earth is beauteous in her Sunday gown,” said she, and this thought she had set in regular form and “clinching;” set it up in a ditty, that was ever so fine and long.
The Under-schoolmaster, Mr. Kisserup (not that it matters about his name), was a cousin of hers, and on a visit at the Gardener’s; he heard the Dame’s poem, and it did him good, he said—a world of good. “You have soul, ma’am” said he.
“Fiddle-de-dee!” said the Gardener. “Don’t be putting such stuff in her head. Soul indeed! a wife should be a body, a plain, decent body, and watch the pot to see that the porridge is not burnt.”
“The burnt taste I can take out of the porridge with a little charcoal,” said the Dame, “and out of you with a little kiss. One might fancy you thought of nothing but greens and potatoes; and yet you love the flowers;” and so saying, she kissed him. “Flowers are all soul!” said she.
“Mind your porridge-pot,” said he, and went off into the garden. This was his porridge-pot, and this he minded.
But the Under-schoolmaster sat in the Dame’s parlor, and talked with the Dame. Her fine words, “Earth is beauteous,” he made the text of a whole sermon, after his own fashion.
“Earth is beauteous, make it subject unto you! was said, and we became the lords. Some rule it with the mind, others with the body. This man is sent into the world like an incorporate note of admiration! that man like a dash of hesitation: We pause, and ask, Why is he here? One of us becomes a bishop; another only a poor under-master; but all is for the best. Earth is beauteous, and always in her Sunday gown! That was a thought-stirring poem, ma’am full of feeling and cosmography!”
“You have soul, Mr. Kisserup,” said the Dame, “a great deal of soul, I assure you. One gains clearness of perception by talking with you.”
And so they went on in the same strain, as grand and, excellent as ever. But out in the kitchen there was somebody else talking; and that was the Nis, the little gray-jacketed Nis with his red cap—you know him. The Nis sat in the kitchen, playing the pot-watcher. He talked, but nobody heard him except the great black tom-cat,“Cream-thief,” as the Dame called him.
The Nis was snarling at her, because she did not believe in his existence, he found: true, she had never seen him; but still, with all her reading, she ought to have known he did exist, and have shown him some little attention. She never thought, on Christmas Eve, of setting so much as a spoonful of porridge for him; though all his forefathers had got this, and from dames, too, who had had no reading at all: their porridge used to be swimming with cream and butter. It made the cat’s mouth water to hear of it.
“She calls me an idea!” said the Nis: “that’s quite beyond the reach of my ideas. In fact, she denies me. I’ve caught her saying so before, and again just now, yonder, where she sits droning to that boy-whipper, that understrapper. I say with Daddy, ‘Mind your porridge-pot.’ That she doesn’t do: so now for making it boil over.”
And the Nis puffed at the fire till it burned and blazed. “Hubble—bubble—hish!” the pot boiled over.
“And now for picking holes in Daddy’s sock,” said the Nis. “I’ll unravel a long piece, from toe to heel; so there’ll be something to darn when she’s not too busy poetizing, Dame poetess, please darn Daddy’s stockings.”
The Cat sniggered and sneezed; he had caught cold somehow, though he always went in furs.
“I’ve unlatched the larder-door,” said the Nis. “There’s clotted cream there as thick as gruel. If you won’t have a lick, I will.”
“If I am to get all the blame and beating,” said the Cat, “I’ll have my share of the cream.”
“A sweet lick is worth a kick!” said the Nis. “But now I’ll be off to the Schoolmaster’s room, hang his braces on the looking-glass, put his socks in the water-jug, and make him believe that the punch has set his brain spinning. Last night: I sat on the woodstack by the kennel. I dearly love to bully the watch-dog; so I swung my legs about in front of him. His chain was so short he could not reach them, however high he sprang: he was furious, and went on bark-barking, and I went on dingle-dangling; that was rare sport! Schoolmaster awoke, and jumped up, and looked out three times; but he couldn’t see me, though he had got barnacles on; he sleeps in his barnacles.”
“Say mew, if Dame is coming,” said the Cat; “I am hard of bearing: I feel sick to-day.”
“You have the licking sickness,” said the Nis; “lick away; lick the sickness away. Only be sure to wipe your beard, that the cream mayn’t hang on it. Now I’ll go for a bit of eavesdropping.”
And the Nis stood behind the door, and the door stood ajar. There was no one in the parlor except the Dame and the Under-master. They were talking about things which—as the Schoolmaster finely observed—ought in every household to rank far above pots and pans—the Gifts of the Soul.
“Mr. Kisserup,” said the Dame, “I will now show you something in that line, which I have never yet shown to any living creature—least of all to a man—my smaller poems -some of which, however, are rather long. I have called them ‘clinchings by a Gentlewoman.’ I cling to those old designations.”
“And so one ought,” said the Schoolmaster; “one ought root the German out of our language.”
“I do my best toward it,” said the Dame. “You will never hear me speak of Butterdeig or Kleiner; no, I call them past-leaves and fatty-cakes.”
And she took out of her drawer a writing-book, in a bright green binding, with two blotches of ink on it.
“There is much in the book that is earnest,” said she: “my mind inclines toward the sorrowful. Here now is my ‘Midnight Sigh,’ my ‘Evening Red,’ and here ‘When I was wedded to Klemmensen’—my husband, you know; you may pass that over, though it has thought and feeling. ‘The Housewife’s Duties’ is the best piece—sorrowful, like all the rest; I am strongest in that style. Only one single piece is jocular: it contains some lively thoughts—one must indulge in them now and then—thoughts about—don’t laugh at me—about being a poetess! It has hitherto been all between me and my drawer; and now you make the third of us, Mr. Kisserup. Poetry is my ruling passion; it haunts and worries me—it reigns over me. This I have expressed in my title ‘The Little Nis.’ You know the old cottage tales about the Nis, who is always playing pranks in the house. I have depicted myself as the house, and my poetical feelings as the Nis, the spirit that possesses me. His power and strength I have sung in ‘The Little Nis;’ but you must pledge me with hands and mouth never to reveal my secret, either to my husband or any one else. Read it aloud, so that I may hear whether you understand the composition.”
And the Schoolmaster read, and the Dame listened, and so did the little Nis. He was eavesdropping, you know; and he came up just in time to hear the title of “The Little Nis.”
“Ho! ho!” said he; “that’s my name! what has she been writing about me? O, I’ll give her tit for tat; chip her eggs, nip her chickens, hunt the fat off her fatted calf: fie upon such a Dame!”
And he listened with pursed-up lips and pricked-up ears but as he heard of the Nis’s power and glory, and his lordship over the Dame (it was poetry, you know, she meant, but the Nis took the name literally), the little fellow began smiling more and more; his eyes glistened with pleasure; then came lines of dignity in the corners of his mouth; he drew up his heels, and stood on his toes an inch or two higher than usual; he was delighted with what was said about the little Nis.
“I have done her wrong! She is a Dame of soul and high breeding! She has put me into her ‘Clinchings,’ and they will be printed and read! No more cream for Master Cat: I shall let nobody touch it but myself. One drinks less than two, so that will be a saving: and that I shall carry out, and pay respect and honor to our Dame.”
“Ah, he’s a man all over, that Nis,” said the old Cat. “Only one soft mew from the Dame, a mew about himself, and he changes his mind in a jiffy! And that Dame of ours, isn’t she sly!”
But the Dame was not sly; it was all because the Nis was a man.
If you cannot understand this story, ask somebody to help you; but do not ask the Nis—no, nor yet the Dame.