Two Cities

The City at the Bottom of the Sea


It was a calm and clear night. The wild geese did not trouble themselves to seek shelter in any of the grottoes, but stood and slept upon the mountain top; and the boy had lain down in the short, dry grass beside the geese.

It was bright moonlight that night; so bright that it was difficult for the boy to go to sleep. He lay there and thought about just how long he had been away from home; and he figured out that it was three weeks since he had started on the trip. At the same time he remembered that this was Easter-eve.

“It is tonight that all the witches come home from Blakulla,” thought he, and laughed to himself. For he was just a little afraid of both the sea-nymph and the elf, but he didn’t believe in witches the least little bit.

If there had been any witches out that night, he should have seen them, to be sure. It was so light in the heavens that not the tiniest black speck could move in the air without his seeing it.

While the boy lay there with his nose in the air and thought about this, his eye rested on something lovely! The moon’s disc was whole and round, and rather high, and over it a big bird came flying. He did not fly past the moon, but he moved just as though he might have flown out from it. The bird looked black against the light background, and the wings extended from one rim of the disc to the other. He flew on, evenly, in the same direction, and the boy thought that he was painted on the moon’s disc. The body was small, the neck long and slender, the legs hung down, long and thin. It couldn’t be anything but a stork.

A couple of seconds later Herr Ermenrich, the stork, lit beside the boy. He bent down and poked him with his bill to awaken him.

Instantly the boy sat up. “I’m not asleep, Herr Ermenrich,” he said. “How does it happen that you are out in the middle of the night, and how is everything at Glimminge castle? Do you want to speak with mother Akka?”

“It’s too light to sleep tonight,” answered Herr Ermenrich. “Therefore I concluded to travel over here to Karl’s Island and hunt you up, friend Thumbietot. I learned from the seamew that you were spending the night here. I have not as yet moved over to Glimminge castle, but am still living at Pommern.”

The boy was simply overjoyed to think that Herr Ermenrich had sought him out. They chatted about all sorts of things, like old friends. At last the stork asked the boy if he wouldn’t like to go out riding for a while on this beautiful night.

Oh, yes! that the boy wanted to do, if the stork would manage it so that he got back to the wild geese before sunrise. This he promised, so off they went.

Again Herr Ermenrich flew straight toward the moon. They rose and rose; the sea sank deep down, but the flight went so light and easy that it seemed almost as if the boy lay still in the air.

When Herr Ermenrich began to descend, the boy thought that the flight had lasted an unreasonably short time.

They landed on a desolate bit of seashore, which was covered with fine, even sand. All along the coast ran a row of flying-sand drifts, with lyme-grass on their tops. They were not very high, but they prevented the boy from seeing any of the island.

Herr Ermenrich stood on a sand-hill, drew up one leg and bent his head backward, so he could stick his bill under the wing. “You can roam around on the shore for a while,” he said to Thumbietot, “while I rest myself. But don’t go so far away but what you can find your way back to me again!”

To start with, the boy intended to climb a sand-hill and see how the land behind it looked. But when he had walked a couple of paces, he stubbed the toe of his wooden shoe against something hard. He stooped down, and saw that a small copper coin lay on the sand, and was so worn with verdigris that it was almost transparent. It was so poor that he didn’t even bother to pick it up, but only kicked it out of the way.

But when he straightened himself up once more he was perfectly astounded, for two paces away from him stood a high, dark wall with a big, turreted gate.

The moment before, when the boy bent down, the sea lay there⁠—shimmering and smooth, while now it was hidden by a long wall with towers and battlements. Directly in front of him, where before there had been only a few seaweed banks, the big gate of the wall opened.

The boy probably understood that it was a spectre-play of some sort; but this was nothing to be afraid of, thought he. It wasn’t any dangerous trolls, or any other evil⁠—such as he always dreaded to encounter at night. Both the wall and the gate were so beautifully constructed that he only desired to see what there might be back of them. “I must find out what this can be,” thought he, and went in through the gate.

In the deep archway there were guards, dressed in brocaded and purred suits, with long-handled spears beside them, who sat and threw dice. They thought only of the game, and took no notice of the boy who hurried past them quickly.

Just within the gate he found an open space, paved with large, even stone blocks. All around this were high and magnificent buildings; and between these opened long, narrow streets. On the square⁠—facing the gate⁠—it fairly swarmed with human beings. The men wore long, fur-trimmed capes over satin suits; plume-bedecked hats sat obliquely on their heads; on their chests hung superb chains. They were all so regally gotten up that the whole lot of them might have been kings.

The women went about in high headdresses and long robes with tight-fitting sleeves. They, too, were beautifully dressed, but their splendour was not to be compared with that of the men.

This was exactly like the old storybook which mother took from the chest⁠—only once⁠—and showed to him. The boy simply couldn’t believe his eyes.

But that which was even more wonderful to look upon than either the men or the women, was the city itself. Every house was built in such a way that a gable faced the street. And the gables were so highly ornamented, that one could believe they wished to compete with each other as to which one could show the most beautiful decorations.

When one suddenly sees so much that is new, he cannot manage to treasure it all in his memory. But at least the boy could recall that he had seen stairway gables on the various landings, which bore images of the Christ and his Apostles; gables, where there were images in niche after niche all along the wall; gables that were inlaid with multicoloured bits of glass, and gables that were striped and checked with white and black marble. As the boy admired all this, a sudden sense of haste came over him. “Anything like this my eyes have never seen before. Anything like this, they would never see again,” he said to himself. And he began to run in toward the city⁠—up one street, and down another.

The streets were straight and narrow, but not empty and gloomy, as they were in the cities with which he was familiar. There were people everywhere. Old women sat by their open doors and spun without a spinning-wheel⁠—only with the help of a shuttle. The merchants’ shops were like market-stalls⁠—opening on the street. All the hand-workers did their work out of doors. In one place they were boiling crude oil; in another tanning hides; in a third there was a long rope-walk.

If only the boy had had time enough he could have learned how to make all sorts of things. Here he saw how armourers hammered out thin breastplates; how turners tended their irons; how the shoemakers soled soft, red shoes; how the gold-wire drawers twisted gold thread, and how the weavers inserted silver and gold into their weaving.

But the boy did not have the time to stay. He just rushed on, so that he could manage to see as much as possible before it would all vanish again.

The high wall ran all around the city and shut it in, as a hedge shuts in a field. He saw it at the end of every street⁠—gable-ornamented and crenelated. On the top of the wall walked warriors in shining armour; and when he had run from one end of the city to the other, he came to still another gate in the wall. Outside of this lay the sea and harbour. The boy saw olden-time ships, with rowing-benches straight across, and high structures fore and aft. Some lay and took on cargo, others were just casting anchor. Carriers and merchants hurried around each other. All over, it was life and bustle.

But not even here did he seem to have the time to linger. He rushed into the city again; and now he came up to the big square. There stood the cathedral with its three high towers and deep vaulted arches filled with images. The walls had been so highly decorated by sculptors that there was not a stone without its own special ornamentation. And what a magnificent display of gilded crosses and gold-trimmed altars and priests in golden vestments, shimmered through the open gate! Directly opposite the church there was a house with a notched roof and a single slender, sky-high tower. That was probably the courthouse. And between the courthouse and the cathedral, all around the square, stood the beautiful gabled houses with their multiplicity of adornments.

The boy had run himself both warm and tired. He thought that now he had seen the most remarkable things, and therefore he began to walk more leisurely. The street which he had turned into now was surely the one where the inhabitants purchased their fine clothing. He saw crowds of people standing before the little stalls where the merchants spread brocades, stiff satins, heavy gold cloth, shimmery velvet, delicate veiling, and laces as sheer as a spider’s web.

Before, when the boy ran so fast, no one had paid any attention to him. The people must have thought that it was only a little gray rat that darted by them. But now, when he walked down the street, very slowly, one of the salesmen caught sight of him, and began to beckon to him.

At first the boy was uneasy and wanted to hurry out of the way, but the salesman only beckoned and smiled, and spread out on the counter a lovely piece of satin damask as if he wanted to tempt him.

The boy shook his head. “I will never be so rich that I can buy even a metre of that cloth,” thought he.

But now they had caught sight of him in every stall, all along the street. Wherever he looked stood a salesman and beckoned to him. They left their costly wares, and thought only of him. He saw how they hurried into the most hidden corner of the stall to fetch the best that they had to sell, and how their hands trembled with eagerness and haste as they laid it upon the counter.

When the boy continued to go on, one of the merchants jumped over the counter, caught hold of him, and spread before him silver cloth and woven tapestries, which shone with brilliant colours.

The boy couldn’t do anything but laugh at him. The salesman certainly must understand that a poor little creature like him couldn’t buy such things. He stood still and held out his two empty hands, so they would understand that he had nothing and let him go in peace.

But the merchant raised a finger and nodded and pushed the whole pile of beautiful things over to him.

“Can he mean that he will sell all this for a gold piece?” wondered the boy.

The merchant brought out a tiny worn and poor coin⁠—the smallest that one could see⁠—and showed it to him. And he was so eager to sell that he increased his pile with a pair of large, heavy, silver goblets.

Then the boy began to dig down in his pockets. He knew, of course, that he didn’t possess a single coin, but he couldn’t help feeling for it.

All the other merchants stood still and tried to see how the sale would come off, and when they observed that the boy began to search in his pockets, they flung themselves over the counters, filled their hands full of gold and silver ornaments, and offered them to him. And they all showed him that what they asked in payment was just one little penny.

But the boy turned both vest and breeches pockets inside out, so they should see that he owned nothing. Then tears filled the eyes of all these regal merchants, who were so much richer than he. At last he was moved because they looked so distressed, and he pondered if he could not in some way help them. And then he happened to think of the rusty coin, which he had but lately seen on the strand.

He started to run down the street, and luck was with him so that he came to the selfsame gate which he had happened upon first. He dashed through it, and commenced to search for the little green copper penny which lay on the strand a while ago.

He found it too, very promptly; but when he had picked it up, and wanted to run back to the city with it⁠—he saw only the sea before him. No city wall, no gate, no sentinels, no streets, no houses could now be seen⁠—only the sea.

The boy couldn’t help that the tears came to his eyes. He had believed in the beginning, that that which he saw was nothing but an hallucination, but this he had already forgotten. He only thought about how pretty everything was. He felt a genuine, deep sorrow because the city had vanished.

That moment Herr Ermenrich awoke, and came up to him. But he didn’t hear him, and the stork had to poke the boy with his bill to attract attention to himself. “I believe that you stand here and sleep just as I do,” said Herr Ermenrich.

“Oh, Herr Ermenrich!” said the boy. “What was that city which stood here just now?”

“Have you seen a city?” said the stork. “You have slept and dreamt, as I say.”

“No! I have not dreamt,” said Thumbietot, and he told the stork all that he had experienced.

Then Herr Ermenrich said: “For my part, Thumbietot, I believe that you fell asleep here on the strand and dreamed all this.

“But I will not conceal from you that Bataki, the raven, who is the most learned of all birds, once told me that in former times there was a city on this shore, called Vineta. It was so rich and so fortunate, that no city has ever been more glorious; but its inhabitants, unluckily, gave themselves up to arrogance and love of display. As a punishment for this, says Bataki, the city of Vineta was overtaken by a flood, and sank into the sea. But its inhabitants cannot die, neither is their city destroyed. And one night in every hundred years, it rises in all its splendour up from the sea, and remains on the surface just one hour.”

“Yes, it must be so,” said Thumbietot, “for this I have seen.”

“But when the hour is up, it sinks again into the sea, if, during that time, no merchant in Vineta has sold anything to a single living creature. If you, Thumbietot, only had had an ever so tiny coin, to pay the merchants, Vineta might have remained up here on the shore; and its people could have lived and died like other human beings.”

“Herr Ermenrich,” said the boy, “now I understand why you came and fetched me in the middle of the night. It was because you believed that I should be able to save the old city. I am so sorry it didn’t turn out as you wished, Herr Ermenrich.”

He covered his face with his hands and wept. It wasn’t easy to say which one looked the more disconsolate⁠—the boy, or Herr Ermenrich.

The Living City


On the afternoon of Easter Monday, the wild geese and Thumbietot were on the wing. They travelled over Gottland.

The large island lay smooth and even beneath them. The ground was checked just as it was in Skåne and there were many churches and farms. But there was this difference, however, that there were more leafy meadows between the fields here, and then the farms were not built up with small houses. And there were no large manors with ancient tower-ornamented castles.

The wild geese had taken the route over Gottland on account of Thumbietot. He had been altogether unlike himself for two days, and hadn’t spoken a cheerful word. This was because he had thought of nothing but that city which had appeared to him in such a strange way. He had never seen anything so magnificent and royal, and he could not be reconciled with himself for having failed to save it. Usually he was not chickenhearted, but now he actually grieved for the beautiful buildings and the stately people.

Both Akka and the goosey-gander tried to convince Thumbietot that he had been the victim of a dream, or an hallucination, but the boy wouldn’t listen to anything of that sort. He was so positive that he had really seen what he had seen, that no one could move him from this conviction. He went about so disconsolate that his travelling companions became uneasy for him.

Just as the boy was the most depressed, old Kaksi came back to the flock. She had been blown toward Gottland, and had been compelled to travel over the whole island before she had learned through some crows that her comrades were on Little Karl’s Island. When Kaksi found out what was wrong with Thumbietot, she said impulsively:

“If Thumbietot is grieving over an old city, we’ll soon be able to comfort him. Just come along, and I’ll take you to a place that I saw yesterday! You will not need to be distressed very long.”

Thereupon the geese had taken farewell of the sheep, and were on their way to the place which Kaksi wished to show Thumbietot. As blue as he was, he couldn’t keep from looking at the land over which he travelled, as usual.

He thought it looked as though the whole island had in the beginning been just such a high, steep cliff as Karl’s Island⁠—though much bigger of course. But afterward, it had in some way been flattened out. Someone had taken a big rolling-pin and rolled over it, as if it had been a lump of dough. Not that the island had become altogether flat and even, like a bread-cake, for it wasn’t like that. While they had travelled along the coast, he had seen white lime walls with grottoes and crags, in several directions; but in most of the places they were levelled, and sank inconspicuously down toward the sea.

In Gottland they had a pleasant and peaceful holiday afternoon. It turned out to be mild spring weather; the trees had large buds; spring blossoms dressed the ground in the leafy meadows; the poplars’ long, thin pendants swayed; and in the little gardens, which one finds around every cottage, the gooseberry bushes were green.

The warmth and the spring-budding had tempted the people out into the gardens and roads, and wherever a number of them were gathered together they were playing. It was not the children alone who played, but the grownups also. They were throwing stones at a given point, and they threw balls in the air with such exact aim that they almost touched the wild geese. It looked cheerful and pleasant to see big folks at play; and the boy certainly would have enjoyed it, if he had been able to forget his grief because he had failed to save the city.

Anyway, he had to admit that this was a lovely trip. There was so much singing and sound in the air. Little children played ring games, and sang as they played. The Salvation Army was out. He saw a lot of people dressed in black and red⁠—sitting upon a wooded hill, playing on guitars and brass instruments. On one road came a great crowd of people. They were Good Templars who had been on a pleasure trip. He recognized them by the big banners with the gold inscriptions which waved above them. They sang song after song as long as he could hear them.

After that the boy could never think of Gottland without thinking of the games and songs at the same time.

He had been sitting and looking down for a long while; but now he happened to raise his eyes. No one can describe his amazement. Before he was aware of it, the wild geese had left the interior of the island and gone westward⁠—toward the seacoast. Now the wide, blue sea lay before him. However, it was not the sea that was remarkable, but a city which appeared on the seashore.

The boy came from the east, and the sun had just begun to go down in the west. When he came nearer the city, its walls and towers and high, gabled houses and churches stood there, perfectly black, against the light evening sky. He couldn’t see therefore what it really looked like, and for a couple of moments he believed that this city was just as beautiful as the one he had seen on Easter night.

When he got right up to it, he saw that it was both like and unlike that city from the bottom of the sea. There was the same contrast between them, as there is between a man whom one sees arrayed in purple and jewels one day, and on another day one sees him dressed in rags.

Yes, this city had probably, once upon a time, been like the one which he sat and thought about. This one, also, was enclosed by a wall with towers and gates. But the towers in this city, which had been allowed to remain on land, were roofless, hollow and empty. The gates were without doors; sentinels and warriors had disappeared. All the glittering splendour was gone. There was nothing left but the naked, gray stone skeleton.

When the boy came farther into the city, he saw that the larger part of it was made up of small, low houses; but here and there were still a few high gabled houses and a few cathedrals, which were from the olden time. The walls of the gabled houses were whitewashed, and entirely without ornamentation; but because the boy had so lately seen the buried city, he seemed to understand how they had been decorated: some with statues, and others with black and white marble. And it was the same with the old cathedrals; the majority of them were roofless with bare interiors. The window openings were empty, the floors were grass-grown, and ivy clambered along the walls. But now he knew how they had looked at one time; that they had been covered with images and paintings; that the chancel had had trimmed altars and gilded crosses, and that their priests had moved about, arrayed in gold vestments.

The boy saw also the narrow streets, which were almost deserted on holiday afternoons. He knew, he did, what a stream of stately people had once upon a time sauntered about on them. He knew that they had been like large workshops⁠—filled with all sorts of workmen.

But that which Nils Holgersson did not see was, that the city⁠—even today⁠—was both beautiful and remarkable. He saw neither the cheery cottages on the side streets, with their black walls, and white bows and red pelargoniums behind the shining windowpanes, nor the many pretty gardens and avenues, nor the beauty in the weed-clad ruins. His eyes were so filled with the preceding glory, that he could not see anything good in the present.

The wild geese flew back and forth over the city a couple of times, so that Thumbietot might see everything. Finally they sank down on the grass-grown floor of a cathedral ruin to spend the night.

When they had arranged themselves for sleep, Thumbietot was still awake and looked up through the open arches, to the pale pink evening sky. When he had been sitting there a while, he thought he didn’t want to grieve any more because he couldn’t save the buried city.

No, that he didn’t want to do, now that he had seen this one. If that city, which he had seen, had not sunk into the sea again, then it would perhaps become as dilapidated as this one in a little while. Perhaps it could not have withstood time and decay, but would have stood there with roofless churches and bare houses and desolate, empty streets⁠—just like this one. Then it was better that it should remain in all its glory down in the deep.

“It was best that it happened as it happened,” thought he. “If I had the power to save the city, I don’t believe that I should care to do it.” Then he no longer grieved over that matter.

And there are probably many among the young who think in the same way. But when people are old, and have become accustomed to being satisfied with little, then they are more happy over the Visby that exists, than over a magnificent Vineta at the bottom of the sea.