MOTHER SAT there with her little child. She was so downcast, so afraid that it should die! It was so pale, the small eyes had closed themselves, and it drew its breath so softly, now and then, with a deep respiration, as if it sighed; and the mother looked still more sorrowfully on the little creature.
Then a knocking was heard at the door, and in came a poor old man wrapped up as in a large horse-cloth, for it warms one, and he needed it, as it was the cold winter season! Everything out-of-doors was covered with ice and snow, and the wind blew so that it cut the face.
As the old man trembled with cold, and the little child slept a moment, the mother went and poured some ale into a pot and set it on the stove, that it might be warm for him; the old man sat and rocked the cradle, and the mother sat down on a chair close by him, and looked at her little sick child that drew its breath so deep, and raised its little hand.
"Do you not think that I shall save him?" said she. "Our Lord will not take him from me!"
And the old man--it was Death himself--he nodded so strangely, it could just as well signify yes as no. And the mother looked down in her lap, and the tears ran down over her cheeks; her head became so heavy--she had not closed her eyes for three days and nights; and now she slept, but only for a minute, when she started up and trembled with cold.
"What is that?" said she, and looked on all sides; but the old man was gone, and her little child was gone--he had taken it with him; and the old clock in the corner burred, and burred, the great leaden weight ran down to the floor, bump! and then the clock also stood still.
But the poor mother ran out of the house and cried aloud for her child.
Out there, in the midst of the snow, there sat a woman in long, black clothes; and she said, "Death has been in thy chamber, and I saw him hasten away with thy little child; he goes faster than the wind, and he never brings back what he takes!"
"Oh, only tell me which way he went!" said the mother. "Tell me the way, and I shall find him!"
"I know it!" said the woman in the black clothes. "But before I tell it, thou must first sing for me all the songs thou hast sung for thy child! I am fond of them. I have heard them before; I am Night; I saw thy tears whilst thou sang'st them!"
"I will sing them all, all!" said the mother. "But do not stop me now--I may overtake him--I may find my child!"
But Night stood still and mute. Then the mother wrung her hands, sang and wept, and there were many songs, but yet many more tears; and then Night said, "Go to the right, into the dark pine forest; thither I saw Death take his way with thy little child!"
The roads crossed each other in the depths of the forest, and she no longer knew whither she should go! then there stood a thorn-bush; there was neither leaf nor flower on it, it was also in the cold winter season, and ice-flakes hung on the branches.
"Hast thou not seen Death go past with my little child?" said the mother.
"Yes," said the thorn-bush; "but I will not tell thee which way he took, unless thou wilt first warm me up at thy heart. I am freezing to death; I shall become a lump of ice!"