Ib and little Christina


Ib y Cristinita

In the forest that extends from the banks of the Gudenau, in North Jutland, a long way into the country, and not far from the clear stream, rises a great ridge of land, which stretches through the wood like a wall. Westward of this ridge, and not far from the river, stands a farmhouse, surrounded by such poor land that the sandy soil shows itself between the scanty ears of rye and wheat which grow in it. Some years have passed since the people who lived here cultivated these fields; they kept three sheep, a pig, and two oxen; in fact they maintained themselves very well, they had quite enough to live upon, as people generally have who are content with their lot. They even could have afforded to keep two horses, but it was a saying among the farmers in those parts, "The horse eats himself up;" that is to say, he eats as much as he earns. Jeppe Jans cultivated his fields in summer, and in the winter he made wooden shoes. He also had an assistant, a lad who understood as well as he himself did how to make wooden shoes strong, but light, and in the fashion. They carved shoes and spoons, which paid well; therefore no one could justly call Jeppe Jans and his family poor people.

Little Ib, a boy of seven years old and the only child, would sit by, watching the workmen, or cutting a stick, and sometimes his finger instead of the stick. But one day Ib succeeded so well in his carving that he made two pieces of wood look really like two little wooden shoes, and he determined to give them as a present to Little Christina. "And who was Little Christina?" She was the boatman's daughter, graceful and delicate as the child of a gentleman; had she been dressed differently, no one would have believed that she lived in a hut on the neighboring heath with her father. He was a widower, and earned his living by carrying firewood in his large boat from the forest to the eel-pond and eel-weir, on the estate of Silkborg, and sometimes even to the distant town of Randers. There was no one under whose care he could leave Little Christina; so she was almost always with him in his boat, or playing in the wood among the blossoming heath, or picking the ripe wild berries. Sometimes, when her father had to go as far as the town, he would take Little Christina, who was a year younger than Ib, across the heath to the cottage of Jeppe Jans, and leave her there.

Ib and Christina agreed together in everything; they divided their bread and berries when they were hungry; they were partners in digging their little gardens; they ran, and crept, and played about everywhere. Once they wandered a long way into the forest, and even ventured together to climb the high ridge. Another time they found a few snipes' eggs in the wood, which was a great event.

Ib had never been on the heath where Christina's father lived, nor on the river; but at last came an opportunity. Christina's father invited him to go for a sail in his boat; and the evening before, he accompanied the boatman across the heath to his house.

The next morning early, the two children were placed on the top of a high pile of firewood in the boat, and sat eating bread and wild strawberries, while Christina's father and his man drove the boat forward with poles. They floated on swiftly, for the tide was in their favor, passing over lakes, formed by the stream in its course; sometimes they seemed quite enclosed by reeds and water-plants, yet there was always room for them to pass out, although the old trees overhung the water and the old oaks stretched out their bare branches, as if they had turned up their sleeves and wished to show their knotty, naked arms. Old alder-trees, whose roots were loosened from the banks, clung with their fibres to the bottom of the stream, and the tops of the branches above the water looked like little woody islands. The water-lilies waved themselves to and fro on the river, everything made the excursion beautiful, and at last they came to the great eel-weir, where the water rushed through the flood-gates; and the children thought this a beautiful sight.

In those days there was no factory nor any town house, nothing but the great farm, with its scanty-bearing fields, in which could be seen a few herd of cattle, and one or two farm laborers. The rushing of the water through the sluices, and the scream of the wild ducks, were almost the only signs of active life at Silkborg. After the firewood had been unloaded, Christina's father bought a whole bundle of eels and a sucking-pig, which were all placed in a basket in the stern of the boat. Then they returned again up the stream; and as the wind was favorable, two sails were hoisted, which carried the boat on as well as if two horses had been harnessed to it.

As they sailed on, they came by chance to the place where the boatman's assistant lived, at a little distance from the bank of the river. The boat was moored; and the two men, after desiring the children to sit still, both went on shore. They obeyed this order for a very short time, and then forgot it altogether. First they peeped into the basket containing the eels and the sucking-pig; then they must needs pull out the pig and take it in their hands, and feel it, and touch it; and as they both wanted to hold it at the same time, the consequence was that they let it fall into the water, and the pig sailed away with the stream. Here was a terrible disaster.

Ib jumped ashore, and ran a little distance from the boat.

"Oh, take me with you," cried Christina; and she sprang after him. In a few minutes they found themselves deep in a thicket, and could no longer see the boat or the shore. They ran on a little farther, and then Christina fell down, and began to cry.

Ib helped her up, and said, "Never mind; follow me. Yonder is the house." But the house was not yonder; and they wandered still farther, over the dry rustling leaves of the last year, and treading on fallen branches that crackled under their little feet; then they heard a loud, piercing cry, and they stood still to listen. Presently the scream of an eagle sounded through the wood; it was an ugly cry, and it frightened the children; but before them, in the thickest part of the forest, grew the most beautiful blackberries, in wonderful quantities. They looked so inviting that the children could not help stopping; and they remained there so long eating, that their mouths and cheeks became quite black with the juice.

Presently they heard the frightful scream again, and Christina said, "We shall get into trouble about that pig."

"Oh, never mind," said Ib; "we will go home to my father's house. It is here in the wood." So they went on, but the road led them out of the way; no house could be seen, it grew dark, and the children were afraid. The solemn stillness that reigned around them was now and then broken by the shrill cries of the great horned owl and other birds that they knew nothing of. At last they both lost themselves in the thicket; Christina began to cry, and then Ib cried too; and, after weeping and lamenting for some time, they stretched themselves down on the dry leaves and fell asleep.

The sun was high in the heavens when the two children woke. They felt cold; but not far from their resting-place, on a hill, the sun was shining through the trees. They thought if they went there they should be warm, and Ib fancied he should be able to see his father's house from such a high spot. But they were far away from home now, in quite another part of the forest. They clambered to the top of the rising ground, and found themselves on the edge of a declivity, which sloped down to a clear transparent lake. Great quantities of fish could be seen through the clear water, sparkling in the sun's rays; they were quite surprised when they came so suddenly upon such an unexpected sight. Close to where they stood grew a hazel-bush, covered with beautiful nuts. They soon gathered some, cracked them, and ate the fine young kernels, which were only just ripe. But there was another surprise and fright in store for them. Out of the thicket stepped a tall old woman, her face quite brown, and her hair of a deep shining black; the whites of her eyes glittered like a Moor's; on her back she carried a bundle, and in her hand a knotted stick. She was a gypsy. The children did not at first understand what she said. She drew out of her pocket three large nuts, in which she told them were hidden the most beautiful and lovely things in the world, for they were wishing nuts.

Ib looked at her, and as she spoke so kindly, he took courage, and asked her if she would give him the nuts; and the woman gave them to him, and then gathered some more from the bushes for herself, quite a pocket full.

Ib and Christina looked at the wishing nuts with wide open eyes.

"Is there in this nut a carriage, with a pair of horses?" asked Ib.

"Yes, there is a golden carriage, with two golden horses," replied the woman.

"Then give me that nut," said Christina; so Ib gave it to her, and the strange woman tied up the nut for her in her handkerchief.

Ib held up another nut. "Is there, in this nut, a pretty little neckerchief like the one Christina has on her neck?" asked Ib.

"There are ten neckerchiefs in it," she replied, "as well as beautiful dresses, stockings, and a hat and veil."

"Then I will have that one also," said Christina; "and it is a pretty one too." And then Ib gave her the second nut. The third was a little black thing.

"You may keep that one," said Christina; "it is quite as pretty."

"What is in it?" asked Ib.

"The best of all things for you," replied the gypsy.

So Ib held the nut very tight. Then the woman promised to lead the children to the right path, that they might find their way home: and they went forward certainly in quite another direction to the one they meant to take; therefore no one ought to speak against the woman, and say that she wanted to steal the children.

In the wild wood-path they met a forester who knew Ib, and, by his help, Ib and Christina reached home, where they found every one had been very anxious about them. They were pardoned and forgiven, although they really had both done wrong, and deserved to get into trouble; first, because they had let the sucking-pig fall into the water; and, secondly, because they had run away.

Christina was taken back to her father's house on the heath, and Ib remained in the farm-house on the borders of the wood, near the great land ridge. The first thing Ib did that evening was to take out of his pocket the little black nut, in which the best thing of all was said to be enclosed. He laid it carefully between the door and the door-post, and then shut the door so that the nut cracked directly. But there was not much kernel to be seen; it was what we should call hollow or worm-eaten, and looked as if it had been filled with tobacco or rich black earth.

"It is just what I expected!" exclaimed Ib. "How should there be room in a little nut like this for the best thing of all? Christina will find her two nuts just the same; there will be neither fine clothes or a golden carriage in them."

Winter came; and the new year

many years passed away; until Ib was old enough to be confirmed, and, therefore, he went during a whole winter to the clergyman of the nearest village to be prepared. One day, about this time, the boatman paid a visit to Ib's parents, and told them that Christina was going to service, and that she had been remarkably fortunate in obtaining a good place, with most respectable people. "Only think," he said, "She is going to the rich innkeeper's, at the hotel in Herning, many miles west from here. She is to assist the landlady in the housekeeping; and, if afterwards she behaves well and remains to be confirmed, the people will treat her as their own daughter."

So Ib and Christina took leave of each other. People already called them "the betrothed," and at parting the girl showed Ib the two nuts, which she had taken care of ever since the time that they lost themselves in the wood; and she told him also that the little wooden shoes he once carved for her when he was a boy, and gave her as a present, had been carefully kept in a drawer ever since. And so they parted.

After Ib's confirmation, he remained at home with his mother, for he had become a clever shoemaker, and in summer managed the farm for her quite alone. His father had been dead some time, and his mother kept no farm servants.

Sometimes, but very seldom, he heard of Christina, through a postillion or eel-seller who was passing. But she was well off with the rich innkeeper; and after being confirmed she wrote a letter to her father, in which was a kind message to Ib and his mother. In this letter, she mentioned that her master and mistress had made her a present of a beautiful new dress, and some nice under-clothes. This was, of course, pleasant news.

One day, in the following spring, there came a knock at the door of the house where Ib's old mother lived; and when they opened it, lo and behold, in stepped the boatman and Christina. She had come to pay them a visit, and to spend the day. A carriage had to come from the Herning hotel to the next village, and she had taken the opportunity to see her friends once more. She looked as elegant as a real lady, and wore a pretty dress, beautifully made on purpose for her. There she stood, in full dress, while Ib wore only his working clothes. He could not utter a word; he could only seize her hand and hold it fast in his own, but he felt too happy and glad to open his lips. Christina, however, was quite at her ease; she talked and talked, and kissed him in the most friendly manner.

Even afterwards, when they were left alone, and she asked, "Did you know me again, Ib?" he still stood holding her hand, and said at last, "You are become quite a grand lady, Christina, and I am only a rough working man; but I have often thought of you and of old times."

Then they wandered up the great ridge, and looked across the stream to the heath, where the little hills were covered with the flowering broom. Ib said nothing; but before the time came for them to part, it became quite clear to him that Christina must be his wife: had they not even in childhood been called the betrothed? To him it seemed as if they were really engaged to each other, although not a word had been spoken on the subject.

They had only a few more hours to remain together, for Christina was obliged to return that evening to the neighboring village, to be ready for the carriage which was to start the next morning early for Herning. Ib and her father accompanied her to the village. It was a fine moonlight evening; and when they arrived, Ib stood holding Christina's hand in his, as if he could not let her go. His eyes brightened, and the words he uttered came with hesitation from his lips, but from the deepest recesses of his heart: "Christina, if you have not become too grand, and if you can be contented to live in my mother's house as my wife, we will be married some day. But we can wait for a while."

"Oh yes," she replied; "Let us wait a little longer, Ib. I can trust you, for I believe that I do love you. But let me think it over." Then he kissed her lips; and so they parted.

On the way home, Ib told the boatman that he and Christina were as good as engaged to each other; and the boatman found out that he had always expected it would be so, and went home with Ib that evening, and remained the night in the farmhouse; but nothing further was said of the engagement.

During the next year, two letters passed between Ib and Christina. They were signed, "Faithful till death;" but at the end of that time, one day the boatman came over to see Ib, with a kind greeting from Christina. He had something else to say, which made him hesitate in a strange manner. At last it came out that Christina, who had grown a very pretty girl, was more lucky than ever. She was courted and admired by every one; but her master's son, who had been home on a visit, was so much pleased with Christina that he wished to marry her. He had a very good situation in an office at Copenhagen, and as she had also taken a liking for him, his parents were not unwilling to consent. But Christina, in her heart, often thought of Ib, and knew how much he thought of her; so she felt inclined to refuse this good fortune, added the boatman.

At first Ib said not a word, but he became as white as the wall, and shook his head gently, and then he spoke,– "Christina must not refuse this good fortune."

"Then will you write a few words to her?" said the boatman.

Ib sat down to write, but he could not get on at all. The words were not what he wished to say, so he tore up the page. The following morning, however, a letter lay ready to be sent to Christina, and the following is what he wrote:–

"The letter written by you to your father I have read, and see from it that you are prosperous in everything, and that still better fortune is in store for you. Ask your own heart, Christina, and think over carefully what awaits you if you take me for your husband, for I possess very little in the world. Do not think of me or of my position; think only of your own welfare. You are bound to me by no promises; and if in your heart you have given me one, I release you from it. May every blessing and happiness be poured out upon you, Christina. Heaven will give me the heart's consolation.

Ever your sincere friend,

This letter was sent, and Christina received it in due time.

In the course of the following November, her banns were published in the church on the heath, and also in Copenhagen, where the bridegroom lived. She was taken to Copenhagen under the protection of her future mother-in-law, because the bridegroom could not spare time from his numerous occupations for a journey so far into Jutland. On the journey, Christina met her father at one of the villages through which they passed, and here he took leave of her. Very little was said about the matter to Ib, and he did not refer to it; his mother, however, noticed that he had grown very silent and pensive. Thinking as he did of old times, no wonder the three nuts came into his mind which the gypsy woman had given him when a child, and of the two which he had given to Christina. These wishing nuts, after all, had proved true fortune-tellers. One had contained a gilded carriage and noble horses, and the other beautiful clothes; all of these Christina would now have in her new home at Copenhagen. Her part had come true. And for him the nut had contained only black earth. The gypsy woman had said it was the best for him. Perhaps it was, and this also would be fulfilled. He understood the gypsy woman's meaning now. The black earth– the dark grave– was the best thing for him now.

Again years passed away; not many, but they seemed long years to Ib. The old innkeeper and his wife died one after the other; and the whole of their property, many thousand dollars, was inherited by their son. Christina could have the golden carriage now, and plenty of fine clothes.

During the two long years which followed, no letter came from Christina to her father; and when at last her father received one from her, it did not speak of prosperity or happiness. Poor Christina! Neither she nor her husband understood how to economize or save, and the riches brought no blessing with them, because they had not asked for it.

Years passed; and for many summers the heath was covered with bloom; in winter the snow rested upon it, and the rough winds blew across the ridge under which stood Ib's sheltered home. One spring day the sun shone brightly, and he was guiding the plough across his field. The ploughshare struck against something which he fancied was a firestone, and then he saw glittering in the earth a splinter of shining metal which the plough had cut from something which gleamed brightly in the furrow. He searched, and found a large golden armlet of superior workmanship, and it was evident that the plough had disturbed a Hun's grave. He searched further, and found more valuable treasures, which Ib showed to the clergyman, who explained their value to him. Then he went to the magistrate, who informed the president of the museum of the discovery, and advised Ib to take the treasures himself to the president.

"You have found in the earth the best thing you could find," said the magistrate.

"The best thing," thought Ib; "the very best thing for me,– and found in the earth! Well, if it really is so, then the gypsy woman was right in her prophecy."

So Ib went in the ferry-boat from Aarhus to Copenhagen. To him who had only sailed once or twice on the river near his own home, this seemed like a voyage on the ocean; and at length he arrived at Copenhagen.

The value of the gold he had found was paid to him; it was a large sum– six hundred dollars. Then Ib of the heath went out, and wandered about in the great city.

On the evening before the day he had settled to return with the captain of the passage-boat, Ib lost himself in the streets, and took quite a different turning to the one he wished to follow. He wandered on till he found himself in a poor street of the suburb called Christian's Haven. Not a creature could be seen. At last a very little girl came out of one of the wretched-looking houses, and Ib asked her to tell him the way to the street he wanted; she looked up timidly at him, and began to cry bitterly. He asked her what was the matter; but what she said he could not understand. So he went along the street with her; and as they passed under a lamp, the light fell on the little girl's face. A strange sensation came over Ib, as he caught sight of it. The living, breathing embodiment of Little Christina stood before him, just as he remembered her in the days of her childhood.

He followed the child to the wretched house, and ascended the narrow, crazy staircase which led to a little garret in the roof. The air in the room was heavy and stifling, no light was burning, and from one corner came sounds of moaning and sighing. It was the mother of the child who lay there on a miserable bed. With the help of a match, Ib struck a light, and approached her.

"Can I be of any service to you?" he asked. "This little girl brought me up here; but I am a stranger in this city. Are there no neighbors or any one whom I can call?" Then he raised the head of the sick woman, and smoothed her pillow. He started as he did so.

It was Christina of the heath!

No one had mentioned her name to Ib for years; it would have disturbed his peace of mind, especially as the reports respecting her were not good. The wealth which her husband had inherited from his parents had made him proud and arrogant. He had given up his certain appointment, and travelled for six months in foreign lands, and, on his return, had lived in great style, and got into terrible debt. For a time he had trembled on the high pedestal on which he had placed himself, till at last he toppled over, and ruin came. His numerous merry companions, and the visitors at his table, said it served him right, for he had kept house like a madman. One morning his corpse was found in the canal.

The cold hand of death had already touched the heart of Christina. Her youngest child, looked for in the midst of prosperity, had sunk into the grave when only a few weeks old; and at last Christina herself became sick unto death, and lay, forsaken and dying, in a miserable room, amid poverty she might have borne in her younger days, but which was now more painful to her from the luxuries to which she had lately been accustomed. It was her eldest child, also a Little Christina, whom Ib had followed to her home, where she suffered hunger and poverty with her mother.

"It makes me unhappy to think that I shall die, and leave this poor child," sighed she. "Oh, what will become of her?" She could say no more.

Then Ib brought out another match, and lighted a piece of candle which he found in the room, and it threw a glimmering light over the wretched dwelling.

Ib looked at the little girl, and thought of Christina in her young days. For her sake, could he not love this child, who was a stranger to him? As he thus reflected, the dying woman opened her eyes, and gazed at him. Did she recognize him? He never knew; for not another word escaped her lips.


In the forest by the river Gudenau, not far from the heath, and beneath the ridge of land, stood the little farm, newly painted and whitewashed. The air was heavy and dark; there were no blossoms on the heath; the autumn winds whirled the yellow leaves towards the boatman's hut, in which strangers dwelt; but the little farm stood safely sheltered beneath the tall trees and the high ridge. The turf blazed brightly on the hearth, and within was sunlight, the sparkling light from the sunny eyes of a child; the birdlike tones from the rosy lips ringing like the song of a lark in spring. All was life and joy. Little Christina sat on Ib's knee. Ib was to her both father and mother; her own parents had vanished from her memory, as a dream-picture vanishes alike from childhood and age. Ib's house was well and prettily furnished; for he was a prosperous man now, while the mother of the little girl rested in the churchyard at Copenhagen, where she had died in poverty.

Ib had money now– money which had come to him out of the black earth; and he had Christina for his own, after all.
No lejos de Gudenaa, en la selva de Silkeborg, se levanta, semejante a un gran muro, una loma llamada Aasen, a cuyo pie, del lado de Poniente, había, y sigue habiendo aún, un pequeño cortijo, rodeado por una tierra tan árida, que la arena brilla por entre las escuálidas mieses de centeno y cebada.
Desde entonces han transcurrido muchos años. La gente que vivía allí por aquel tiempo cultivaba su mísero terruño y criaba además tres ovejas, un cerdo y dos bueyes; de hecho, vivían con cierta holgura, a fuerza de aceptar las cosas tal como venían.
Incluso habrían podido tener un par de caballos, pero decían, como los demás campesinos: «El caballo se devora a sí mismo».
Un caballo se come todo lo que gana. Jeppe-Jänsen trabajaba en verano su pequeño campo, y en invierno confeccionaba zuecos con mano hábil. Tenía además, un ayudante; un hombre muy ducho en la fabricación de aquella clase de calzado: lo hacía resistente, a la vez que ligero y elegante. Tallaban asimismo cucharas de madera, y el negocio les rendía; no podía decirse que aquella gente fuesen pobres.
El pequeño Ib, un chiquillo de 7 años, único hijo de la casa, se sentaba a su lado a mirarlo; cortaba un bastoncito, y solía cortarse también los dedos, pero un día talló dos trozos de madera que parecían dos zuequitos. Dijo que iba a regalarlos a Cristinita, la hija de un marinero, una niña tan delicada y encantadora, que habría podido pasar por una princesa. Vestida adecuadamente, nadie hubiera imaginado que procedía de una casa de turba del erial de Seis. Allí moraba su padre, viudo, que se ganaba el sustento transportando leña desde el bosque a las anguileras de Silkeborg, y a veces incluso más lejos, hasta Randers. No tenía a nadie a quien confiar a Cristina, que tenía un año menos que Ib; por eso la llevaba casi siempre consigo, en la barca y a través del erial y los arándanos. Cuando tenía que llegarse a Randers, dejaba a Cristinita en casa de Jeppe-Jänsen.
Los dos niños se llevaban bien, tanto en el juego como a las horas de la comida; cavaban hoyos en la tierra, se encaramaban a los árboles y corrían por los alrededores; un día se atrevieron incluso a subirse solos hasta la cumbre de la loma y adentrarse un buen trecho en el bosque, donde encontraron huevos de chocha; fue un gran acontecimiento.
Ib no había estado nunca en el erial de Seis, ni cruzado en barca los lagos de Gudenaa, pero ahora iba a hacerlo: el barquero lo había invitado, y la víspera se fue con él a su casa.
A la madrugada los dos niños se instalaron sobre la leña apilada en la barca y desayunaron con pan y frambuesas. El barquero y su ayudante impulsaban la embarcación con sus pértigas; la corriente les facilitaba el trabajo, y así descendieron el río y atravesaron los lagos, que parecían cerrados por todas partes por el bosque y los cañaverales. Sin embargo, siempre encontraban un paso por entre los altos árboles, que inclinaban las ramas hasta casi tocar el suelo, y los robles que las alargaban a su encuentro, como si, habiéndose recogido las mangas, quisieran mostrarles sus desnudos y nudosos brazos. Viejos alisos que la corriente había arrancado de la orilla, se agarraban fuertemente al suelo por las raíces, formando islitas de bosque. Los nenúfares se mecían en el agua; era un viaje delicioso. Finalmente llegaron a las anguileras, donde el agua rugía al pasar por las esclusas. ¡Cuántas cosas nuevas estaban viendo Ib y Cristina!
En aquel entonces no había allí ninguna fábrica ni ninguna ciudad, y tan sólo se veían la vieja granja, en la que trabajaban unos cuantos hombres. El agua, al precipitarse por las esclusas, y el griterío de los patos salvajes, eran los únicos signos de vida, que se sucedían sin interrupción. Una vez descargada la leña, el padre de Cristina compró un buen manojo de anguilas y un cochinillo recién sacrificado, y lo guardó todo en un cesto, que puso en la popa de la embarcación. Luego emprendieron el regreso, contra corriente, pero como el viento era favorable y pudieron tender las velas, la cosa marchaba tan bien como si un par de caballos tirasen de la barca.
Al llegar a un lugar del bosque cercano a la vivienda del ayudante, éste y el padre de Cristina desembarcaron, después de recomendar a los niños que se estuviesen muy quietecitos y formales. Pero ellos no obedecieron durante mucho rato; quisieron ver el interior del cesto que contenía el lechoncito; sacaron el animal, y, como los dos se empeñaron en sostenerlo, se les cayó al agua, y la corriente se lo llevó. Fue un suceso horrible.
Ib saltó a tierra y echó a correr un trecho; luego saltó también Cristina.
- ¡Llévame contigo! - gritó, y se metieron saltando entre la maleza; pronto perdieron de vista la barca y el río. Continuaron corriendo otro pequeño trecho, pero luego Cristina se cayó y se echó a llorar; Ib acudió a ayudarla.
- Ven conmigo - dijo -, la casa está allá arriba -. Pero no era así. Siguieron errando por un terreno cubierto de hojas marchitas y de ramas secas caídas, que crujían bajo sus piececitos. De pronto oyeron un penetrante grito. Se detuvieron y escucharon. Entonces resonó el chillido de un águila - era un chillido siniestro, - que los asustó en extremo. Sin embargo, delante de ellos, en lo espeso del bosque, crecían en número infinito magníficos arándanos. Era demasiado tentador para que pudieran pasar de largo, y se entretuvieron comiendo las bayas, manchándose de azul la boca y las mejillas. En esto se oyó otra llamada.
- ¡Nos pegarán por lo del lechón! - dijo Cristina.
- Vámonos a casa - respondió Ib -; está aquí en el bosque.
Se pusieron en marcha y llegaron a un camino de carros, pero que no conducía a su casa. Mientras tanto había oscurecido, y los niños tenían miedo. El singular silencio que los rodeaba era sólo interrumpido por el feo grito del búho o de otras aves que no conocían los niños. Finalmente se enredaron entre la maleza. Cristina rompió a llorar e Ib hizo lo mismo, y cuando hubieron llorado por espacio de una hora, se tumbaron sobre las hojas y se quedaron dormidos.
El sol se hallaba ya muy alto en el cielo cuando despertaron; tenían frío, pero Ib pensó que subiéndose a una loma cercana a poca distancia, donde el sol brillaba por entre los árboles, podrían calentarse y, además, verían la casa de sus padres. Pero lo cierto es que se encontraban muy lejos de ella, en el extremo opuesto del bosque. Treparon a la cumbre del montículo y se encontraron en una ladera que descendía a un lago claro y transparente; los peces aparecían alineados, visibles a los rayos del sol. Fue un espectáculo totalmente inesperado, y por otra parte descubrieron junto a ellos un avellano muy cargado de frutos, a veces siete en un solo manojo. Cogieron las avellanas, rompieron las cáscaras y se comieron los frutos tiernos, que empezaban ya a estar en sazón. Luego vino una nueva sorpresa, mejor dicho, un susto: del espesor de bosque salió una mujer vieja y alta, de rostro moreno y cabello negro y brillante; el blanco de sus ojos resaltaba como en los de un moro. Llevaba un lío a la espalda y un nudoso bastón en la mano; era una gitana. Los niños, al principio, no comprendieron lo que dijo, pero entonces la mujer se sacó del bolsillo tres gruesas avellanas, en cada una de las cuales, según dijo, se contenían las cosas más maravillosas; eran avellanas mágicas.
Ib la miró; la mujer parecía muy amable, y el chiquillo, cobrando ánimo, le preguntó si le daría las avellanas. Ella se las dio, y luego se llenó el bolsillo de las que había en el arbusto.
Ib y Cristina contemplaron con ojos abiertos las tres avellanas maravillosas.
- ¿Habrá en ésta un coche con caballos? - preguntó Ib.
- Hay una carroza de oro con caballos de oro también - contestó la vieja.
- ¡Entonces dámela! - dijo Cristinita. Ib se la entregó, y la mujer la ató en la bufanda de la niña.
- ¿Y en ésta, no habría una bufanda tan bonita como la de Cristina? - inquirió Ib.
- ¡Diez hay! - contestó la mujer - y además hermosos vestidos, medias y un sombrero.
- ¡Pues también la quiero! - dijo Cristina; e Ib le dio la segunda avellana. La tercera era pequeña y negra.
- Tú puedes quedarte con ésta - dijo Cristina -, también es bonita.
- ¿Y qué hay dentro? - preguntó el niño.
- Lo mejor para ti - respondió la gitana.
Y el pequeño se guardó la avellana. Entonces la mujer se ofreció a enseñarles el camino que conducía a su casa, y, con su ayuda, Ib y Cristina regresaron a ella, encontrando a la familia angustiada por su desaparición. Los perdonaron, pese a que se habían hecho acreedores a una buena paliza, en primer lugar por haber dejado caer al agua el lechoncito, y después por su escapada.
Cristina se volvió a su casita del erial, mientras Ib se quedaba en la suya del bosque. Al anochecer lo primero que hizo fue sacar la avellana que encerraba «lo mejor». La puso entre la puerta y el marco, apretó, y la avellana se partió con un crujido; pero dentro no tenía carne, sino que estaba llena de una especie de rapé o tierra negra. Estaba agusanada, como suele decirse.
«¡Ya me lo figuraba! - pensó Ib -. ¿Cómo en una avellana tan pequeña, iba a haber sitio para lo mejor de todo? Tampoco Cristina encontrará en las suyas ni los lindos vestidos ni el coche de oro».
Llegó el invierno y el Año Nuevo.
Pasaron otros varios años. El niño tuvo que ir a la escuela de confirmandos, y el párroco vivía lejos. Por aquellos días presentóse el barquero y dijo a los padres de Ib que Cristina debía marcharse de casa, a ganarse el pan. Había tenido la suerte de caer en buenas manos, es decir, de ir a servir a la casa de personas excelentes, que eran los ricos fondistas de la comarca de Herning. Entraría en la casa para ayudar a la dueña, y si se portaba bien, seguiría con ellos una vez recibida la confirmación.
Ib y Cristina se despidieron; todo el mundo los llamaba «los novios». Al separarse le enseñó ella las dos nueces que él le diera el día en que se habían perdido en el bosque, y que todavía guardaba; y le dijo, además, que conservaba asimismo en su baúl los zuequitos que él le había hecho y regalado. Y luego se separaron.
Ib recibió la confirmación, pero se quedó en casa de su madre; era un buen oficial zuequero, y en verano cuidaba de la buena marcha de la pequeña finca. La mujer sólo lo tenía a él, pues el padre había muerto.
Raras veces - y aun éstas por medio de un postillón o de un campesino de Aal - recibía noticias de Cristina. Estaba contenta en la casa de los ricos fondistas, y el día de su confirmación escribió a su padre, y en la carta, enviaba saludos para Ib y su madre. Algo decía también de seis camisas nuevas y un bonito vestido que le habían regalado los señores. Realmente eran buenas noticias.
- A la primavera siguiente, un hermoso día llamaron a la puerta de Ib y su madre. Eran el barquero y Cristina. Le habían dado permiso para hacer una breve visita a su casa, y, habiendo encontrado una oportunidad para ir a Tem y regresar el mismo día, la había aprovechado. Era linda y elegante como una auténtica señorita, y llevaba un hermoso vestido, confeccionado con gusto extremo y que le sentaba a las mil maravillas. Allí estaba ataviada como una reina, mientras Ib la recibía en sus viejos indumentos de trabajo. No supo decirle una palabra; cierto que le estrechó la mano y, reteniéndola, sintióse feliz, pero sus labios no acertaban a moverse. No así Cristina, que habló y contó muchas cosas y dio un beso a Ib.
- ¿Acaso no me conoces? - le preguntó. Pero incluso cuando estuvieron solos él, sin soltarle la mano, no sabía decirle sino:
- ¡Te has vuelto una señorita, y yo voy tan desastrado! ¡Cuánto he pensado en ti y en aquellos tiempos de antes!
Cogidos del brazo subieron al montículo y contemplaron, por encima del Gudenaa, el erial de Seis con sus grandes colinas; pero Ib permanecía callado. Sin embargo, al separarse vio bien claro en el alma que Cristina debía ser su esposa; ya de niños los habían llamado los novios; le pareció que eran prometidos, a pesar de que ni uno ni otro habían pronunciado la promesa.
Muy pocas horas pudieron permanecer juntos, pues ella debía regresar a Tem para emprender el viaje de vuelta al día siguiente. Su padre e Ib la acompañaron hasta Tem; era luna llena, y cuando llegaron, el mozo, que retenía aún la mano de Cristina, no podía avenirse a soltarla; tenía los ojos serenos, pero las palabras brotaban lentas y torpes, aunque cada una le salía del corazón:
- Si no te has acostumbrado al lujo - le dijo - y puedes resignarte a vivir conmigo en la casa de mi madre, algún día seremos marido y mujer. Pero podemos esperar todavía un poquitín.
- Sí, esperemos un poco, Ib - respondió ella, estrechándole la mano, mientras él la besaba en la boca -. ¡Confío en ti, Ib! ­ dijo Cristina - y creo que te quiero; pero déjame que lo piense bien.
Y se despidieron. Ib explicó al barquero que él y Cristina estaban como quien dice prometidos, y el hombre contestó que siempre había pensado que la cosa terminaría de aquel modo. Acompañó a Ib a su casa y durmió en su misma cama, y ya no se habló más del noviazgo.
Había transcurrido un año; entre Ib y Cristina se habían cruzado dos cartas, con las palabras «fiel hasta la muerte» por antefirma. Un día el barquero se presentó en casa de Ib, trayéndole saludos de la muchacha y un encargo algo más peliagudo. Resultó que a Cristina le iban muy bien las cosas, más que bien incluso; era una joven muy guapa, apreciada y estimada. El hijo del fondista había estado en su casa, de visita. Vivía en Copenhague, con un buen empleo en una gran casa comercial. Se prendó de Cristina, a ella le gustó también, y los padres no veían la cosa con malos ojos. Pero a la muchacha le remordía la conciencia, sabiendo que Ib seguía pensando en ella, y por eso estaba dispuesta a renunciar a su felicidad, dijo el barquero.
De momento Ib no contestó una palabra, pero se puso pálido como la cera; luego, sacudiendo la cabeza, exclamó:
- No quiero que Cristina renuncie a su felicidad.
- Escríbele unas palabras - dijo el barquero.
Ib escribió, sólo que no encontraba las palabras a propósito, por lo que rasgó muchas hojas; pero al día siguiente había conseguido, redactar la carta dirigida a la muchacha: «He leído la carta que escribiste a tu padre, y por ella veo que las cosas te van espléndidamente y que puedes esperar todavía otras mejores. Pregunta a tu propio corazón, Cristina, y reflexiona en lo que te espera si te casas conmigo. Muy poco es lo que puedo ofrecerte. No pienses en mí ni en lo que de mí haya de ser, piensa sólo en tu felicidad. No estás ligada a mí por ninguna promesa, y si acaso me la diste en tu corazón, te desligo de ella. Que toda la ventura del mundo acuda a ti, Cristinita. Dios sabrá encontrar consuelo para mi corazón. Para siempre tu sincero amigo Ib».
La carta fue expedida, y Cristina la recibió.
Se publicaron las amonestaciones en la iglesia del erial y en Copenhague, donde residía el novio, y allí se trasladó la moza con su suegra, pues los negocios impedían al novio emprender el largo viaje hasta Jutlandia. Según lo convenido, Cristina se encontró con su padre en el pueblo de Funder; estaba en el camino a la capital, y era el más cómodo para él; allí se despidieron padre e hija. Cambiaron algunas palabras, pero no había noticias de Ib; se había vuelto muy ensimismado, según decía su anciana madre. Sí, se había vuelto caviloso y retraído; por eso le vinieron a la memoria las tres avellanas que de niño le diera la gitana, de las cuales había cedido dos a Cristina. Eran avellanas mágicas, y en una de ellas se encerraba una carroza de oro con caballos dorados, y en la otra hermosísimos vestidos. Sí, había resultado verdad. Ahora le esperaba una vida magnífica en la capital del reino, Copenhague. Para ella se había cumplido el vaticinio... En cambio, la nuez de Ib contenía sólo tierra negra. «Lo mejor para él», como dijera la gitana; sí, y también esto se había cumplido; para él, lo mejor era la negra tierra. Ahora comprendía claramente lo que la mujer quiso significar: para él, lo mejor era la negra tierra, la tumba.
Pasaron años - a Ib no le parecieron muchos, pero en realidad, fueron muchos -; los viejos fondistas murieron con poco tiempo de diferencia, y su hijo heredó toda su fortuna, una porción de miles de escudos. Cristina pudo viajar en carroza dorada y llevar hermosos vestidos.
Durante dos largos años, el padre de Cristina no recibió carta de su hija, y cuando, por fin, llegó la primera, no respiraba precisamente alegría y bienestar. ¡Pobre Cristina! Ni ella ni su marido habían sabido observar moderación en la riqueza; el dinero se había fundido con la misma facilidad con que vino; no les había traído la prosperidad, por su misma culpa.
Florecieron los brezos y se marchitaron; varios inviernos vieron la nieve caer sobre el erial de Seis y sobre el montículo, donde Ib vivía al abrigo del viento. Brillaba el sol de primavera, e Ib estaba arando su campo. De pronto le pareció que la reja del arado chocaba con un pedernal; un objeto extraño, semejante a una viruta negra, salió a la superficie, y al recogerlo Ib vio que era de metal; el punto donde había chocado el arado despedía un intenso brillo. Era un pesado brazalete de oro de la antigüedad pagana. Pertenecía a una tumba antigua, que encerraba valiosos adornos. Ib lo mostró al párroco, quien le reveló el alto valor del hallazgo. Fuese con él al juez comarcal, quien informó a Copenhague y aconsejó a Ib que llevase personalmente el precioso objeto a las autoridades correspondientes.
- Has encontrado en la tierra lo mejor que podías encontrar - le dijo el juez.
«¡Lo mejor! - pensó Ib -. ¡Lo mejor para mí, y en la tierra! Así también conmigo tuvo razón la gitana, suponiendo que sea esto lo mejor».
Ib se embarcó en Aarhus para Copenhague; para él, que sólo había llegado hasta Gudenaa, aquello representaba un viaje alrededor del mundo. Y llegó a Copenhague.
Le pagaron el valor del oro encontrado, una buena cantidad: seiscientos escudos. Nuestro hombre, venido del bosque de Seisheide, se entretuvo vagando por las calles de la capital.
Justamente la víspera del día en que debía embarcar para el viaje de regreso, equivocó la dirección entre la maraña de callejas, y, por el puente de madera, fue a parar a Christianshafen, en lugar de a la Puerta del Oeste. Había seguido hacia Poniente, pero no llegó adonde debiera. En toda la calle no se veía un alma, cuando de pronto una chiquilla salió de una mísera casucha; Ib le pidió que le indicase el camino de su posada. La pequeña se quedó perpleja, lo miró y prorrumpió en amargo llanto. Le preguntó él qué le ocurría; la niña respondió algo ininteligible. Se encontraron debajo de un farol, y al dar la luz en el rostro de la rapazuela, sintió Ib una impresión extraña, pues veía ante sí a Cristinita, su vivo retrato, tal como la recordaba del tiempo en que ambos eran niños.
Siguiendo a la chiquilla a su pobre casucha, subió la estrecha y ruinosa escalera, hasta una reducida buhardilla sesgada, bajo el tejado. Llenaba el cuarto una atmósfera pesada y opresiva, y no había luz. De un rincón llegó un suspiro, seguido de una respiración fatigosa. Ib encendió una cerilla. Era la madre de la criatura, tendida en un mísero lecho.
- ¿Puedo hacer algo por usted? - preguntó Ib -. La pequeña me ha guiado hasta aquí, pero soy forastero en la ciudad. ¿No hay algún vecino o alguien a quien pueda llamar? -. Y levantó la cabeza de la enferma.
Era Cristina, la del erial de Seis.
Hacía años que su nombre no se había mencionado en Jutlandia; sólo hubiera servido para turbar la mente de Ib. Y tampoco eran buenos los rumores que se oían, y que resultaron ser ciertos. El mucho dinero heredado de los padres se le había subido a la cabeza al hijo, volviéndole arrogante. Dejó su buena colocación; por espacio de medio año viajó por el extranjero; a su regreso contrajo deudas, pero sin dejar de vivir rumbosamente. La balanza se inclinaba cada vez más, hasta que cayó del todo. Sus numerosos compañeros de francachelas decían de él que llevaba su merecido, pues había administrado su fortuna como un insensato. Una mañana encontraron su cadáver en el canal del jardín de Palacio.
Cristina llevaba ya la muerte en el corazón; su hijo menor, concebido en la prosperidad, nacido en la miseria, yacía ya en la tumba, tras unas semanas de vida. Enferma de muerte y abandonada de todos, yacía ahora Cristina en una mísera buhardilla, sumida en una miseria que de seguro no hubiera encontrado insoportable en sus años infantiles del erial de Seis. Ahora empero, acostumbrada a cosas mejores, la pobreza le era intolerable. Aquella pequeña era su hija mayor - otra Cristinita, que había sufrido con ella hambre y privaciones -, y ella había traído a Ib a su vera.
- Mi pena es morir dejando a esta pobre criatura - suspiró la madre -. ¿Qué será de ella en el mundo? -. Nada más pudo decir.
Ib encendió otra cerilla y un cabo de vela que encontró, y la luz iluminó la pobre habitación.
El hombre, al mirar a la chiquilla, pensó en Cristina, cuando era niña aún; por amor de la madre recogería a la hija, aquella hija a quien no conocía. La moribunda clavó en él la mirada, y sus ojos se abrieron desmesuradamente: ¿lo habría reconocido? Él jamás lo supo, pues ni una palabra salió ya de sus labios.

* * *

El escenario era el bosque del Gudenaa, cerca del erial de Seis; la atmósfera era gris, y los brezos estaban marchitos; las tormentas de Poniente barrían las hojas amarillas, arrojándolas al río y al otro lado del erial, donde se levantaba la casa de turba del barquero, habitada ahora por personas desconocidas. Pero bajo el Aas, resguardada del viento por los altos árboles, alzábase la casita, blanqueada y pintada. En el interior ardía la turba en el horno y entraba el sol, que se reflejaba en dos ojos infantiles; el canto primaveral de la alondra resonaba en las palabras que salían de la boquita roja y sonriente: había allí vida y alegría, pues Cristinita estaba presente. Estaba sentada en las rodillas de Ib, que era para ella padre y madre a la vez - aquellos padres que habían desaparecido como se esfuma el sueño para niños y mayores. Ib vivía en la casita linda y bien cuidada, en desahogada posición; la madre de la chiquilla yacía en el cementerio de los pobres de la ciudad de Copenhague.
Ib tenía dinero en su arca, se decía; ¡oro de la negra tierra! Y tenía, además, a Cristinita.

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