Down in a narrow crooked street among other poverty stricken houses, stood a very high and narrow one, built of lath and plaster; it was in a very bad state and bulged out in every direction. It was entirely inhabited by poor people, but the attic looked the poorest of all. Outside the window in the sunshine hung a battered bird cage, which had not even got a proper drinking glass, but only the neck of a bottle turned upside down, with a cork at the bottom to serve this purpose. An old maid stood at the window, she had just been hanging chickweed all over the cage in Which a little linnet hopped about from perch to perch, singing as gaily as possible.
"Ah, you may well sing!" said the bottle neck; but of course it did not say it as we should say it, for a bottle neck cannot talk, but it thought it within itself, much as when we inwardly talk to ourselves. "Yes, you may well sing, you who have all your limbs whole. You should try what it is like to have lost the lower part of your body like me, and only to have a neck and a mouth, and that with a cork in it, such as I have, and you wouldn't sing much. I have nothing to make me sing, nor could I if I would. But it is a good thing that somebody is pleased. I could have sung when I was a whole bottle and anyone rubbed me with a cork. I used to be called the real lark then, the big lark; and then I went to the picnic in the wood, with the furrier and his family, and his daughter was engaged—yes, I remember it as well as if it had been yesterday. I have had no end of experiences when I begin to look back upon them. I have been through fire and water, and down into the black earth, and higher up than most people, and now I hang in the sunshine outside a bird cage. It might be worth while to listen to my story, but I don't speak very loud about it, for I can't."
Then it related within itself, or thought out its story inwardly. It was a curious enough story; the little bird twittered away happily enough, and down in the street people walked and drove as usual, all bent upon their own concerns, thinking about them, or about nothing at all; but not so the bottle neck. It recalled the glowing smelting furnace in the factory, where it had been blown into life. It still remembered feeling quite warm, and gazing longingly into the roaring furnace, its birth-place; and its great desire to leap back again into it. But little by little as it cooled, it began to feel quite comfortable where it was. It was standing in a row with a whole regiment of brothers and sisters, all from the same furnace, but some were blown into champagne bottles, and others into beer bottles, which makes all the difference in their after life I Later, when out in the world, a beer bottle may certainly contain the costliest LacrimEe Christe, and a champagne bottle may be filled with blacking; but what one is born to may be seen in the structure. Nobility is nobility even if it has black blood in its veins!
All the bottles were soon packed up and our bottle with them. It never dreamt then of ending its days as a bottle neck serving as a drinking glass for a bird; but after all that is an honourable position, so one is something after all. It first saw the light again, when with its other companions it was unpacked in the wine merchant's cellar. Its first rinsing was a peculiar experience. Then it lay empty and corkless, and felt curiously fiat, it missed something, but did not know exactly what it was. Next it was filled with some good strong wine, was corked and sealed, and last of all it was labelled outside "first quality." This was just as if it had passed first class in an examination, but of course the wine was really good and so was the bottle. While one is young one is a poet I Something within it sang and rejoiced, something which it really knew nothing at all about; green sunlit slopes where the vine grew, merry girls and jovial youths singing and kissing each other. Ah, life is a heavenly thing! All this stirred and worked within the bottle just as it does in young poets, who very often know no more about it than the bottle.
At last one morning the bottle was bought by the furrier's apprentice; he was sent for a bottle of the best wine. It was packed up in the luncheon basket together with the ham, the cheese and the sausage; the basket also contained butter of the best, and various fancy breads. The furrier's daughter packed it herself, she was quite young and very pretty. She had laughing brown eyes, and a smile on her lips; her hands were soft and delicate and very white, yet not so white as her neck and bosom. It was easy to see that she was one of the town beauties, and yet she was not engaged. She held the provision basket on her lap during the drive to the wood. The neck of the bottle peeped out beyond the folds of the table cloth. There was red sealing wax on the cork, and it looked straight up into the maiden's face; and it also looked at the young sailor who sat beside her, he was a friend of her childhood, the son of a portrait painter. He had just passed his examination for promotion with honour, and was to sail next day as mate on a long trip to foreign parts. There had been a good deal of talk about this journey during the packing, and while it was going on the expression in the eyes and on the mouth of the pretty girl had been anything but cheerful. The two young people walked together in the wood, and talked to each other. What did they talk about? Well the bottle did not hear their conversation, for it was in the luncheon basket. It was a very long time before it was taken out, but when this did occur, it was evident that something pleasant had taken place. Everybody's eyes were beaming, and the furrier's daughter was laughing, but she talked less than the others, and her cheeks glowed like two red roses.
Father took up the bottle and the cork-screw—it was a curious sensation for the cork to be drawn from the bottle for the first time. The bottle neck never afterwards forgot the solemn moment when the cork flew out with a "kloop" and it gurgled when the wine flowed out of it into the glasses.
"The health of the betrothed," said father, and every glass was drained, while the young sailor kissed his lovely bride.
"Health and happiness!" said both the old people. The young man filled the glasses again and drank to the "homecoming and the wedding this day year." When the glasses were emptied, he took the bottle and held it up above his head. "You have shared my happiness to-day, and you shall serve nobody else, saying which he threw it up into the air. The furrier's daughter little thought she was ever to see it again; however this was to come to pass. It fell among the rushes by a little woodland lake. The bottle neck remembered distinctly how it lay there thinking over these events. "I gave them wine, and they gave me swamp water in return, but they meant it well." It could no longer see the betrothed pair or the joyous old people, but it could hear them for a long time gaily talking and singing. After a time two little peasant boys came along peering among the reeds where they saw the bottle and took it away with them, so it was provided for. At home in the forester's cottage where they lived, their eldest brother who was a sailor had been yesterday to take leave of them, as he was starting on a long voyage. Mother was now packing up a bundle of his things which father was to take to the town in the evening, when he went to see his son once more, and to take his mother's last greeting. A little bottle had already been filled with spiced brandy, and was just being put into the bundle when the two boys came in with the other larger bottle they had found. This one would hold so much more than the little one, and this was all the better for it as such a splendid cure for a chill. It was no longer red wine like the last which was put into the bottle but bitter drops; however, these were good too—for the stomach. The large new bottle was to go and not the little one; so once more the bottle started on a new journey. It was taken on board the ship to Peter Jensen, and it was the very same ship in which the young mate was to sail. But the mate did not see the bottle, and even if he had he would not have known it, nor would he ever have thought that it was the one out of which they had drunk to his home-coming.
Certainly it no longer contained wine, but there was something just as good in it. Whenever Peter Jensen brought it out, his shipmates dubbed it, "the apothecary." It contained good physic, and cured all their complaints as long as there was a drop left in it. It was a very pleasant time, and the bottle used to sing whenever it was stroked with a cork, so they christened it "Peter Jensen's lark."
A long time passed and it stood in a corner empty, when something happened—whether it was on the outward or the homeward journey, the bottle did not know, for it had not been ashore.
A storm rose, great waves dark and heavy poured over the vessel and tossed it up and down. The masts were broken and one heavy sea sprang a leak; the pumps refused to work, and it was a pitch dark night. The ship sank, but at the last moment the young mate wrote upon a scrap of paper, "In the name of Jesus, we are going down!" He wrote the name of his bride, his own, and that of the ship, put the paper into an empty bottle he saw, hammered in the cork, and threw it out into the boiling seething waters. He did not know that it was the very bottle from which he had poured the draught of joy and hope for her and for himself. Now it swayed up and down upon the waves with farewells and a message of death.
The ship sank, and the crew with it, but the bottle floated like a bird, for it had a heart in it you know—a lover's letter. The sun rose and the sun set and looked to the bottle just like the glowing furnace in its earliest days, when it had a longing to leap back again. It went through calms and storms: it never struck against any rock, nor was it ever followed by sharks; it drifted about for more than a year and a day, first towards north and then towards south, just as the current drove it. It was otherwise entirely its own master, but one may get tired even of that.
The written paper, the last farewell from the bridegroom to the bride, could only bring grief, if it ever came into the right hands; but where were those hands, the ones which had shone so white when they spread the cloth upon the fresh grass in the green woods on the day of the betrothal?, Where was the furrier's daughter? Nay, where was the land, and which land lay nearest? All this the bottle knew not; it drifted and drifted, till at last it was sick of drifting about; it had never been its own intention, but all the same it had to drift till at last it reached land—a strange land. It did not understand a word that was said; it was not the language it was accustomed to hear, and one loses much if one does not understand the language.
The bottle was picked up and looked at, the bit of paper inside was inspected, turned and twisted, but they did not understand what was written on it. They saw that the bottle had been thrown overboard, and that something about it was written on the paper, but what it was, this was the remarkable part. So it was put into the bottle again, and this was put into a large cupboard in a large room in a large house.
Every time a stranger came the slip of paper was taken out, turned and twisted, so that the writing which was only in pencil became more and more illegible. At last it was impossible even to make out the letters. The bottle stood in the cupboard for another year, then it was put into the lumber-room, where it was soon hidden with dust and spiders' webs; then it used to think of the better days when it poured forth red wine in the wood, and when it danced on the waves and carried a secret, a letter, a farewell sigh within it.
Now it stood in the attic for twenty years, and it might have stood there longer, if the house had not been rebuilt. The roof was torn off, the bottle was seen and remarked upon, but it did not understand the language; one does not learn that by standing in a lumber-room, even for twenty years. "Had I remained downstairs," it thought indeed, "I should have learnt it fast enough!"
Now it was washed and thoroughly rinsed out, a process which it sorely needed; it became quite clear and transparent, and felt youthful again in its old age. The slip of paper it had contained within it so long had vanished in the rinsing.
The bottle was filled with seed corn, a sort of thing it knew nothing at all about. Then it was well corked and wrapped up tightly, so that it could neither see the light of lantern or candle, far less the sun or the moon—and one really ought to see something when one goes on a journey, thought the bottle. However, it saw nothing, but it did the most important thing required of it; that was to arrive at its destination, and there it was unpacked.
"What trouble these foreigners have taken with it!" was said, "but I daresay it is cracked all the same." However, it was not cracked. The bottle understood every single word that was said, it was all spoken in the language it had heard at the smelting furnace, at the wine merchant's, in the wood, and on board ship—the one and only good old language which it thoroughly understood. It had come home again to its own country, where it had a hearty welcome in the language. It nearly sprang out of the people's hands from very joy; it hardly noticed the cork being drawn. Then it was well shaken to empty it, and put away in the cellar to be kept and also forgotten. There is no place like home, even if it be a cellar. It never occurred to the bottle to think how long it lay there, but it lay there comfortably for many years; then one day some people came down and took away all the bottles and it among them.
In the garden outside everything was very festive. There were festoons of lamps and transparent paper lanterns like tulips. It was a clear and lovely evening; the stars shone brightly, and the slim crescent of the new moon was just up; in fact, the whole moon, like a pale grey globe, was visible with a golden rim to the half of it. It was a beautiful sight for good eyes.
There were also some illuminations in the side-paths, enough, at any rate, to see one's way about. Bottles were placed at intervals in the hedges, each with a lighted candle in it, and among them stood our bottle too, the one we know, which was to end its days as a bottle neck for a bird's drinking fountain. Everything here appeared lovely to the bottle, for it was once again in the green wood and taking part once more in merry-making and gaiety. It heard music and singing once again, and the hum and buzz of many people, especially from that corner of the garden where the lanterns shone and the paper lamps gave their coloured light. The bottle was only placed in one of the side walks, but even there it had food for reflection. There it stood bearing its light aloft; it was being of some use as well as giving pleasure, and that was the right thing—in such an hour one forgets all about the twenty years passed in an attic—and it is good sometimes to forget.
A couple of persons passed close by it, arm in arm, like the betrothed pair in the woods, the sailor and the furrier's daughter. The bottle felt as if it were living its life over again. The guests walked about in the garden, and other people too, who had come to look at thenr and at the illuminations. Among them there was an old maid who was without kith or kin, but not friendless. She was thinking of the very same thing as the bottle; of the green wood and of a young pair very dear to her, as she herself was one of them. It had been her happiest hour, and that one never forgets, however old a spinster one may be. But she did not know the bottle, and it did not know her again; thus people pass one another in the world—till one meets again like these two who were now in the same town.
The bottle was taken from the garden to the wine merchant's, where it was again filled with wine and sold to an aeronaut who next Sunday was to make an ascent in a balloon. A crowd of people came to look on; there was a regimental band and many preparations. The bottle saw everything from a basket, where it lay in company with a living rabbit, which was much depressed, for it knew it was being taken up to be sent down in a parachute. The bottle knew nothing at all about it; it only saw that the balloon was being distended to a great size, and when it could not get any bigger it began to rise higher and higher, and to become very restive. The ropes which held it were then cut, and it ascended with the aeronaut, basket, bottle and rabbit. There was a grand clashing of music, and the people shouted "Hurrah!"
"It is a curious sensation to go up into the air like this!" thought the bottle. "It's a new kind of sailing, and there can't be any danger of a collision up here!"
Several thousands of persons watched the balloon, and among them the old maid. She stood by her open window, where the cage hung with the little linnet, which at that time had no drinking fountain, but had to content itself with a cup. A myrtle stood in a pot in the window, and it was moved a little to one side so as not to be knocked over when the old maid leant out to look at the balloon. She could see the aeronaut quite plainly when he let the rabbit down in the parachute; then he drank the health of the people, after which he threw the bottle high up into the air. Little did she think that she had seen the same bottle fly into the air above her and her lover on that happy day in the woods in her youth. The bottle had no time to think, it was so taken by surprise at finding itself suddenly thus at the zenith of its career. The church steeples and housetops lay far, far below, and the people looked quite tiny. The bottle sank with far greater rapidity than the rabbit, and on the way it turned several somersaults in the air; it felt so youthful, Aso exhilarated—it was half-drunk with the wine—but not for long did it feel so. What a journey it had! The sun shone upon the bottle, and all the people watched its flight; the balloon was already far away, and the bottle was soon lost to sight too. It fell upon a roof, where it was smashed to pieces, but there was such an impetus on the bits that they could not lie where they fell; they jumped and rolled till they reached the yard, where they lay in still smaller bits; only the neck was whole, and that might have been cut off with a diamond.
"That would do very well for a bird's drinking fountain!" said the man who lived in the basement; but he had neither bird nor cage, and it would have been too much to procure these merely because he had found a bottle neck which would do for a drinking fountain. The old maid in the attic might find a use for it, so the bottle neck found its way up there. It had a cork put into it, and what had been the top became the bottom, in the way changes often take place; fresh water was put into it and it was hung outside the cage of the little bird which sang so merrily.
"Yes, you may well sing!" was what the bottle neck said; and it was looked upon as a very remarkable one for it had been up in a balloon. Nothing more was known of its history. There it hung now as a drinking fountain, where it could hear the roll and the rumble in the streets below, and it could also hear the old maid talking in the room. She had an old friend with her, and they were talking, not about the bottle neck, but about the myrtle in the window.
"You must certainly not spend five shillings on a bridal bouquet for your daughter," said the old maid. "I will give you a beauty covered with blossom. Do you see how beautifully my myrtle is blooming. Why it is a cutting from the plant you gave me on the day after my betrothal; the one I was to have had for my bouquet when the year was out—the day which never came! Before then the eyes which would have gladdened and cherished me in this life were closed. He sleeps sweetly in the depths of the ocean—my beloved! The tree grew old, but I grew older, and when it drooped I took the last fresh branch and planted it in the earth where it has grown to such a big plant. So it will take part in a wedding after all and furnish a bouquet for your daughter!" There were tears in the old maid's eyes as she spoke of her betrothal in the wood, and of the beloved of her youth. She thought about the toasts which had been drunk, and about the first kiss— but all these she did not speak, was she not an old maid I Of all the thoughts that came into her mind, this one never came, that just outside her window was a relic of those days, the neck of the bottle out of which the cork came with a pop when it was drawn on the betrothal day. The bottle neck did not recognise her either, in fact it was not listening to her conversation, partly, if not entirely, because it was only thinking about itself.