It is in the hot countries that the sun burns down in earnest, turning the people there a deep mahogany-brown. In the hottest countries of all they are seared into negroes, but it was not quite that hot in this country to which a man of learning had come from the colder north. He expected to go about there just as he had at home, but he soon discovered that this was a mistake. He and other sensible souls had to stay inside. The shutters were drawn and the doors were closed all day long. It looked just as if everyone were asleep or away from home. The narrow street of high houses where he lived was so situated that from morning till night the sun beat down on it – unbearably!
To this young and clever scholar from the colder north, it felt as if he were sitting in a blazing hot oven. It exhausted him so that he became very thin, and even his shadow shrank much smaller than it had been at home. Only in the evenings, after sundown, did the man and his shadow begin to recover.
This was really a joy to see. As soon as a candle was brought into the room, the shadow had to stretch itself to get its strength back. It stretched up to the wall, yes, even along the ceiling, so tall did it grow. To stretch himself, the scholar went out on the balcony. As soon as the stars came out in the beautifully clear sky, he felt as if he had come back to life.
In warm countries each window has a balcony, and in all the balconies up and down the street people came out to breathe the fresh air that one needs, even if one is already a fine mahogany-brown. Both up above and down below, things became lively. Tailors, shoemakers – everybody – moved out in the street. Chairs and tables were brought out, and candles were lighted, yes, candles by the thousand. One man talked, another sang, people strolled about, carriages drove by, and donkeys trotted along, ting-a-ling-a-ling, for their harness had bells on it. There were church bells ringing, hymn singing, and funeral processions. There were boys in the street firing off Roman candles. Oh yes, it was lively as lively can be down in that street.
Only one house was quiet – the one directly across from where the scholarly stranger lived. Yet someone lived there, for flowers on the balcony grew and thrived under that hot sun, which they could not have done unless they were watered. So someone must be watering them, and there must be people in the house. Along in the evening, as a matter of fact, the door across the street was opened. But it was dark inside, at least in the front room. From somewhere in the house, farther back, came the sound of music. The scholarly stranger thought the music was marvelous, but it is quite possible that he only imagined this, for out there in the warm countries he thought everything was marvelous – except the sun. The stranger’s landlord said that he didn’t know who had rented the house across the street. No one was ever to be seen over there, and as for the music, he found it extremely tiresome. He said:
“It’s just as if somebody sits there practicing a piece that’s beyond him – always the selfsame piece. ‘I’ll play it right yet,’ he probably says, but he doesn’t, no matter how long he tries.”
One night the stranger woke up. He slept with the windows to his balcony open, and as the breeze blew his curtain aside he fancied that a marvelous radiance came from the balcony across the street. The colors of all the flowers were as brilliant as flames. In their midst stood a maiden, slender and lovely. It seemed as if a radiance came from her too. It actually hurt his eyes, but that was because he had opened them too wide in his sudden awakening.
One leap, and he was out of bed. Without a sound, he looked out through his curtains, but the maiden was gone. The flowers were no longer radiant, though they bloomed as fresh and fair as usual. The door was ajar and through it came music so lovely and soft that one could really feel very romantic about it. It was like magic. But who lived there? What entrance did they use? Facing the street, the lower floor of the house was a row of shops, and people couldn’t run through them all the time.
On another evening, the stranger sat out on his balcony. The candle burned in the room behind him, so naturally his shadow was cast on the wall across the street. Yes, there it sat among the flowers, and when the stranger moved, it moved with him.
“I believe my shadow is the only living thing to be seen over there,” the scholar thought to himself. “See how he makes himself at home among the flowers. The door stands ajar, and if my shadow were clever he’d step in, have a look around, and come back to tell me what he had seen.”
“Yes,” he said as a joke, “you ought to make yourself useful. Kindly step inside. Well, aren’t you going?” He nodded to the shadow, and the shadow nodded back. “Run along now, but be sure to come back.”
The stranger rose, and his shadow across the street rose with him. The stranger turned around, and his shadow turned too. If anyone had been watching closely, he would have seen the shadow enter the half-open balcony door in the house across the way at the same instant that the stranger returned to his room and the curtain fell behind him.
Next morning, when the scholar went out to take his coffee and read the newspapers, he said, “What’s this?” as he came out in the sunshine. “I haven’t any shadow! So it really did go away last night, and it stayed away. Isn’t that annoying?”
What annoyed him most was not so much the loss of his shadow, but the knowledge that there was already a story about a man without a shadow. All the people at home knew that story. If he went back and told them his story they would say he was just imitating the old one. He did not care to be called unoriginal, so he decided to say nothing about it, which was the most sensible thing to do.
That evening he again went out on the balcony. He had placed the candle directly behind him, because he knew that a shadow always likes to use its master as a screen, but he could not coax it forth. He made himself short and he made himself tall, but there was no shadow. It didn’t come forth. He hemmed and he hawed, but it was no use.
This was very vexing, but in the hot countries everything grows most rapidly, and in a week or so he noticed with great satisfaction that when he went out in the sunshine a new shadow was growing at his feet. The root must have been left with him. In three weeks’ time he had a very presentable shadow, and as he started north again it grew longer and longer, until it got so long and large that half of it would have been quite sufficient.
The learned man went home and wrote books about those things in the world that are true, that are good, and that are beautiful.
The days went by and the years went past, many, many years in fact. Then one evening when he was sitting in his room he heard a soft tapping at his door. “Come in,” said he, but no one came in. He opened the door and was confronted by a man so extremely thin that it gave him a strange feeling. However, the man was faultlessly dressed, and looked like a person of distinction.
“With whom do I have the honor of speaking?” the scholar asked.
“Ah,” said the distinguished visitor, “I thought you wouldn’t recognize me, now that I’ve put real flesh on my body and wear clothes. I don’t suppose you ever expected to see me in such fine condition. Don’t you know your old shadow? You must have thought I’d never come back. Things have gone remarkably well with me since I was last with you. I’ve thrived in every way, and if I have to buy my freedom, I can.” He rattled a bunch of valuable charms that hung from his watch, and fingered the massive gold chain he wore around his neck. Ho! how his fingers flashed with diamond rings – and all this jewelry was real.
“No, I can’t get over it!” said the scholar. “What does it all mean?”
“Nothing ordinary, you may be sure,” said the shadow. “But you are no ordinary person and I, as you know, have followed in your footsteps from childhood. As soon as you thought me sufficiently experienced to strike out in the world for myself, I went my way. I have been immeasurably successful. But I felt a sort of longing to see you again before you die, as I suppose you must, and I wanted to see this country again. You know how one loves his native land. I know that you have got hold of another shadow. Do I owe anything to either of you? Be kind enough to let me know.”
“Well! Is it really you?” said the scholar. “Why, this is most extraordinary! I would never have imagined that one’s own shadow could come back in human form.”
“Just tell me what I owe,” said the shadow, “because I don’t like to be in debt to anyone.”
“How can you talk that way? said the student. “What debt could there be? Feel perfectly free. I am tremendously pleased to hear of your good luck! Sit down, my old friend, and tell me a bit about how it all happened, and about what you saw in that house across the street from us in the warm country.”
“Yes, I’ll tell you all about it,” the shadow said, as he sat down. “But you must promise that if you meet me anywhere you won’t tell a soul in town about my having been your shadow. I intend to become engaged, for I can easily support a family.”
“Don’t you worry,” said the scholar. “I won’t tell anyone who you really are. I give you my hand on it. I promise, and a man is as good as his word.”
“And a word is as good as its – shadow,” the shadow said, for he couldn’t put it any other way.
It was really remarkable how much of a man he had become, dressed all in black, with the finest cloth, patent-leather shoes, and an opera hat that could be pressed perfectly flat till it was only brim and top, not to mention those things we already know about – those seals, that gold chain, and the diamond rings. The shadow was well dressed indeed, and it was just this that made him appear human.
“Now I’ll tell you,” said the shadow, grinding his patent-leather shoes on the arm of the scholar’s new shadow, which lay at his feet like a
poodle dog. This was arrogance, perhaps, or possibly he was trying to make the new shadow stick to his own feet. The shadow on the floor lay quiet and still, and listened its best, so that it might learn how to get free and work its way up to be its own master.
“Do you know who lived in the house across the street from us?” the old shadow asked. “She was the most lovely of all creatures – she was Poetry herself. I lived there for three weeks, and it was as if I had lived there three thousand years, reading all that has ever been written. That’s what I said, and it’s the truth! I have seen it all, and I know everything.”
“Poetry!” the scholar cried. “Yes, to be sure she often lives as a hermit in the large cities. Poetry! Yes, I saw her myself, for one brief moment, but my eyes were heavy with sleep. She stood on the balcony, as radiant as the northern lights. Tell me! Tell me! You were on the balcony. You went through the doorway, and then – ”
“Then I was in the anteroom,” said the shadow. “It was the room you were always staring at from across the way. There were no candles there, and the room was in twilight. But the door upon door stood open in a whole series of brilliantly lit halls and reception rooms. That blaze of lights would have struck me dead had I gone as far as the room where the maiden was, but I was careful – I took my time, as one should.”
“And then what did you see, my old friend?” the scholar asked.
“I saw everything, and I shall tell everything to you, but – it’s not that I’m proud – but as I am a free man and well educated, not to mention my high standing and my considerable fortune, I do wish you wouldn’t call me your old friend.”
“I beg your pardon!” said the scholar. “It’s an old habit, and hard to change. You are perfectly right, my dear sir, and I’ll remember it. But now, my dear sir, tell me of all that you saw.”
“All?” said the shadow, “for I saw it all, and I know everything.”
“How did the innermost rooms look?” the scholar asked. “Was it like a green forest? Was it like a holy temple? Were the rooms like the starry skies seen from some high mountain?”
“Everything was there,” said the shadow. “I didn’t quite go inside. I stayed in the dark anteroom, but my place there was perfect. I saw everything, and I know everything. I have been in the antechamber at the court of Poetry.”
“But what did you see? Did the gods of old march through the halls? Did the old heroes fight there? Did fair children play there and tell their dreams?”
“I was there, I tell you, so you must understand that I saw all that
there was to be seen. Had you come over, it would not have made a man of you, as it did of me. Also, I learned to understand my inner self, what is born in me, and the relationship between me and Poetry. Yes, when I was with you I did not think of such things, but you must remember how wonderfully I always expanded at sunrise and sunset. And in the moonlight I almost seemed more real than you. Then I did not understand myself, but in that anteroom I came to know my true nature. I was a man! I came out completely changed. But you were no longer in the warm country. Being a man, I was ashamed to be seen as I was. I lacked shoes, clothes, and all the surface veneer which makes a man.
“I went into hiding – this is confidential, and you must not write it in any of your books. I went into hiding under the skirts of the cake-woman. Little she knew what she concealed. Not until evening did I venture out. I ran through the streets in the moonlight and stretched myself tall against the walls. It’s such a pleasant way of scratching one’s back. Up I ran and down I ran, peeping into the highest windows, into drawing rooms, and into garrets. I peered in where no one else could peer. I saw what no one else could see, or should see. Taken all in all, it’s a wicked world. I would not care to be a man if it were not considered the fashionable thing to be. I saw the most incredible behavior among men and women, fathers and mothers, and among those ‘perfectly darling’ children. I saw what nobody knows but everybody would like to know, and that is what wickedness goes on next door. If I had written it in a newspaper, oh, how widely it would have been read! But instead I wrote to the people directly concerned, and there was the most terrible consternation in every town to which I came. They were so afraid of me, and yet so remarkably fond of me. The professors appointed me a professor, and the tailor made me new clothes – my wardrobe is most complete. The master of the mint coined new money for me, the women called me such a handsome man; and so I became the man I am. Now I must bid you good-by. Here’s my card. I live on the sunny side of the street, and I am always at home on rainy days.” The shadow took his leave.
“How extraordinary,” said the scholar.
The days passed. The years went by. And the shadow called again. “How goes it?” he asked.
“Alack,” said the scholar, “I still write about the true, the good, and the beautiful, but nobody cares to read about such things. I feel quite despondent, for I take it deeply to heart.”
“I don’t,” said the shadow. “I am getting fat, as one should. You don’t know the ways of the world, and that’s why your health suffers. You ought to travel. I’m taking a trip this summer. Will you come with me? I’d like to have a traveling companion. Will you come along as my shadow? It would be a great pleasure to have you along, and I’ll pay all the expenses.”
“No, that’s a bit too much,” said the scholar.
“It depends on how you look at it,” said the shadow. “It will do you a lot of good to travel. Will you be my shadow? The trip won’t cost you a thing.”
“This has gone much too far!” said the scholar.
“Well, that’s the way the world goes,” the shadow told him, “and that’s the way it will keep on going.” And away he went.
The learned man was not at all well. Sorrow and trouble pursued him, and what he had to say about the good, the true, and the beautiful, appealed to most people about as much as roses appeal to a cow. Finally he grew quite ill.
“You really look like a shadow,” people told him, and he trembled at the thought.
“You must visit a watering place,” said the shadow, who came to see him again. “There’s no question about it. I’ll take you with me, for old friendship’s sake. I’ll pay for the trip, and you can write about it, as well as doing your best to amuse me along the way. I need to go to a watering place too, because my beard isn’t growing as it should. That’s a sort of disease too, and one can’t get along without a beard. Now do be reasonable and accept my proposal. We shall travel just like friends!”
So off they started. The shadow was master now, and the master was the shadow. They drove together, rode together, and walked together, side by side, before or behind each other, according to the way the sun fell. The shadow was careful to take the place of the master, and the scholar didn’t much care, for he had an innocent heart, besides being most affable and friendly.
One day he said to the shadow, “As we are now fellow-travelers and have grown up together, shall we not call each other by our first names, the way good companions should? It is much more intimate.”
“That’s a splendid idea!” said the shadow, who was now the real master. “What you say is most open-hearted and friendly. I shall be just as friendly and open-hearted with you. As a scholar, you are perfectly well aware how strange is man’s nature. Some men cannot bear the touch of gray paper. It sickens them. Others quail if they hear a nail scratched across a pane of glass. For my part, I am affected in just that way when I hear you call me by my first name. I feel myself ground down to the earth, as I was in my first position with you. You understand. It’s a matter of sensitivity, not pride. I cannot let you call me by my first name, but I shall be glad to call you by yours, as a compromise.” So thereafter the shadow called his one-time master by his first name.
“It has gone too far,” the scholar thought, “when I must call him by his last name while he calls me by my first!” But he had to put up with it.
At last they came to the watering place. Among the many people was a lovely Princess. Her malady was that she saw things too clearly, which can be most upsetting. For instance, she immediately saw that the newcomer was a very different sort of person from all the others.
“He has come here to make his beard grow, they say. But I see the real reason. He can’t cast a shadow.”
Her curiosity was aroused, and on the promenade she addressed this stranger directly. Being a king’s daughter, she did not have to stand upon ceremony, so she said to him straight:
“Your trouble is that you can’t cast a shadow.”
“Your Royal Highness must have improved considerably,” the shadow replied. “I know your malady is that you see too clearly, but you are improving. As it happens, I do have a most unusual shadow. Don’t you see that figure who always accompanies me? Other people have a common shadow, but I do not care for what is common to all. Just as we often allow our servants better fabrics for their liveries than we wear ourselves, so I have had my shadow decked out as a man. Why, you see I have even outfitted him with a shadow of his own. It is expensive, I grant you, but I like to have something uncommon.”
“My!” the Princess thought. “Can I really be cured? This is the foremost watering place in the world, and in these days water has come to have wonderful medicinal powers. But I shan’t leave just as the place is becoming amusing. I have taken a liking to this stranger. I only hope his beard won’t grow, for then he would leave us.”
That evening, the Princess and the shadow danced together in the great ballroom. She was light, but he was lighter still. Never had she danced with such a partner. She told him what country she came from, and he knew it well. He had been there, but it was during her absence. He had looked through every window, high or low. He had seen this and he had seen that. So he could answer the Princess and suggest things that astounded her. She was convinced that he must be the wisest man in all the world. His knowledge impressed her so deeply, that while they were dancing she fell in love with him. The shadow could tell, for her eyes transfixed him, through and through. They danced again, and she came very near telling him she loved him, but it wouldn’t do to be rash. She had to think of her country, and her throne, and the many people over whom she would reign.
“He is a clever man,” she said to herself, “and that is a good thing. He dances charmingly, and that is good too. But is his knowledge more than superficial? That’s just as important, so I must examine him.”
Tactfully, she began asking him the most difficult questions, which she herself could not have answered. The shadow made a wry face.
“You can’t answer me?” said the Princess.
“I knew all that in my childhood,” said the shadow. “Why, I believe that my shadow over there by the door can answer you.”
“Your shadow!” said the Princess. “That would be remarkable indeed!”
“I can’t say for certain,” said the shadow, “but I’m inclined to think so, because he has followed me about and listened to me for so many years. Yes, I am inclined to believe so. But your Royal Highness must permit me to tell you that he is quite proud of being able to pass for a man, so if he is to be in the right frame of mind to answer your questions he must be treated just as if he were human.”
“I like that!” said the Princess.
So she went to the scholar in the doorway, and spoke with him about the sun and the moon, and about people, what they are inside, and what they seem to be on the surface. He answered her wisely and well.
“What a man that must be, to have such a wise shadow!” she thought. “It will be a godsend to my people, and to my country if I choose him for my consort. That’s just what I’ll do!”
The Princess and the shadow came to an understanding, but no one was to know about it until she returned to her own kingdom.
“No one. Not even my shadow!” said the shadow. And he had his own private reason for this.
Finally they came to the country that the Princess ruled when she was at home.
“Listen, my good friend,” the shadow said the scholar, “I am now as happy and strong as one can be, so I’ll do something very special for you. You shall live with me in my palace, drive with me in my royal carriage, and have a hundred thousand dollars a year. However, you must let yourself be called a shadow by everybody. You must not ever say that you have been a man, and once a year, while I sit on the balcony in the sunshine, you must lie at my feet as shadows do. For I tell you I am going to marry the Princess, and the wedding is to take place this very evening.”
“No! That’s going too far,” said the scholar. “I will not. I won’t do it. That would be betraying the whole country and the Princess too. I’ll tell them everything – that I am the man, and you are the shadow merely dressed as a man.”
“No one would believe it,” said the shadow. “Be reasonable, or I’ll call the sentry.”
“I’ll go straight to the Princess,” said the scholar.
“But I will go first,” said the shadow, “and you shall go to prison.”
And to prison he went, for the sentries obeyed the one who, they knew, was to marry the Princess.
“Why, you’re trembling,” the Princess said, as the shadow entered her room. “What has happened? You mustn’t fall ill this evening, just as we are about to be married.”
“I have been through the most dreadful experience that could happen to anyone,” said the shadow. “Just imagine! Of course a poor shadow’s head can’t stand very much. But imagine! My shadow has gone mad. He takes himself for a man, and – imagine it! he takes me for his shadow.”
“How terrible!” said the Princess. “He’s locked up, I hope!”
“Oh, of course. I’m afraid he will never recover.”
“Poor shadow,” said the Princess. “He is very unhappy. It would really be a charitable act to relieve him of the little bit of life he has left. And, after thinking it over carefully, my opinion is that it will be necessary to put him out of the way.”
“That’s certainly hard, for he was a faithful servant,” said the shadow. He managed to sigh.
“You have a noble soul,” the Princess told him.
The whole city was brilliantly lit that evening. The cannons boomed, and the soldiers presented arms. That was the sort of wedding it was! The Princess and the shadow stepped out on the balcony to show themselves and be cheered, again and again.
The scholar heard nothing of all this, for they had already done away with him.
Original Danish title: “Skyggen” translated by Jean Hersholt.