By Hans Christian Andersen
Every key has its story, and there are many
keys ; the chamberlain's key, the clock-key,
St. Peter's key ; we could tell about all
the keys, but now we shall only tell about
the chamberlain's door-key.
It came into being at a locksmith's, but it
could well believe that it was at a
blacksmith's, it was hammered and filed so
much. It was too big for the trousers pocket,
so it had to be carried in the coat pocket.
Here it lay for the most part in the dark,
but it also had its appointed place on the
wall, by the side of the chamberlain's
portrait from childhood's days, in which he
looked like a force-meat ball with a frill
They say that every person has in his
character and conduct something of the
constellation he was born under, the bull,
the virgin, or the scorpion, as they are
called in the almanac. The chamberlain's
wife named none of these, but said her
husband was born under the ' sign of the
wheelbarrow ', because he had always to be
His father pushed him into an office, his
mother pushed him into marriage, and his
wife pushed him up to be chamberlain, but
she did not say so, she was an excellent
discreet woman, who was silent in the right
place, and talked and pushed in the right
Now he was up in years, ' well proportioned,'
as he said himself, a man with education,
good humour, and a knowledge of keys as well,
something which we shall understand better
He was always in a good humour, every one
thought much of him and liked to talk with
him. If he went into the town, it was
difficult to get him home again if mother
was not with him to push him along. He must
talk with every acquaintance he met. He had
many acquaintances, and the result was bad
for the dinner.
His wife watched from the window. ' Now he
is coming ! ' said she to the servant, ' put
on the pot ! Now he is stopping to talk to
some one, so take off the pot, or the food
will be cooked too much ! Now he is coming !
Yes, put the pot on again ! ' But he did not
come for all that.
He would stand right under the window and
nod up to her, but if an acquaintance came
past, then he could not help it, he must say
a word or two to him ; if another one came
past while he talked with the first, he held
the first one by the button-hole and seized
the other one by the hand, whilst he shouted
to another one who was passing.
It was a trial of patience for his wife. '
Chamberlain ! Chamberlain ! ' she shouted
then. ' Yes, the man is born under the sign
of the wheelbarrow, he cannot come away
unless he is pushed ! '
He liked very much to go into the bookshops,
to look at the books and papers. He gave the
bookseller a little present, to be allowed
to take the new books home to read that is
to say, to have leave to cut the books up
the long way, but not along the top, because
then they could not
be sold as new. He was a living journal of
etiquette, knew everything about
engagements, weddings, literary talk and
town gossip ; he threw out mysterious
allusions about knowing things which nobody
knew. He got it from the door-key.
As young newly married people the
chamberlain and his wife had lived on their
own estate, and from that time they had the
same door-key, but then they did not know
its wonderful power they only got to know
that later on.
It was in the time of Frederick VI.
Copenhagen at that time had no gas ; it had
oil lamps ; it had no Tivoli or Casino, no
tramways and no railways. There were not
many amusements compared to what there are
now. On Sunday people went out of the town
on an excursion to the churchyard, read the
inscriptions on the graves, sat in the grass
and ate and drank, or they went to
Fredericksberg, where the band played before
the castle, and many people watched the
royal family rowing about on the little,
narrow canals where the old king steered the
boat, and he and the queen bowed to all the
people without making any distinctions.
Prosperous families came out
there from the town and drank their evening
tea. They could get hot water at a peasant's
little house, outside the garden, but they
had to bring the other things with them.
The chamberlain's family went there one
sunny Sunday afternoon ; the servant went on
first with the tea-basket, and a basket with
eatables. ' Take the door-key ! ' said the
wife, ' so that we can slip in ourselves
when we come back ; you know they lock up at
dusk, and the bell-wire was
broken yesterday ! We shall be late in
coming home ! After we leave Fredericksberg
we shall go to the theatre to see the
And so they went to Fredericksberg, heard
the music, saw the royal boat with the
waving flag, saw the old king, and the white
swans. After they had had a good tea, they
hurried off, but did not come in time to the
The rope-dance was over and the stilt-dance
was past and the pantomime begun : they were
too late, as usual, and it was the
chamberlain's fault ; every minute he stood
and talked to some acquaintance on the way ;
in the theatre he also found good friends,
and when the performance was over, he and
his wife must necessarily go in with a
family, to enjoy a glass of punch : it would
only take about ten minutes, but they
dragged on to an hour. They talked and
Particularly entertaining was a Swedish
Baron, or was he a German ? the chamberlain
did not exactly remember, but on the
contrary, the trick he taught him with the
key he remembered for all time. It was
extraordinarily interesting ! he could get
the key to answer everything he asked it
about, even the most secret things.
The chamberlain's key was peculiarly fitted
for this, it was heavy in the wards, and it
must hang down. The Baron let the handle of
the key rest on the first finger of his
right hand. Loose and easy it hung there,
every pulsebeat in the finger point could
set it in motion, so that it turned, and if
that did not happen, then the Baron knew how
to make it turn as he wished without being
Every turning was a letter, from A, and as
far down the alphabet as one wished. When
the first letter was found, the key turned
to the opposite side, and then one sought
for the next letter, and so one got the
whole word, then whole sentences ; the
answer to the question. It was all
fabrication, but always entertaining. That
was also the chamberlain's first idea, but
he did not stick to it.
' Man ! Man ! ' shouted his wife. e The west
gate is shut at twelve o'clock ! we will not
get in, we have only a quarter of an hour.
They had to hurry themselves ; several
people who wished to get into the town went
quickly past them. As they approached the
last guard-house, the clock struck twelve,
and the gate banged to : many people stood
shut out, and amongst them the chamberlain
and his wife and the girl with the
tea-basket. Some stood there in great
terror, others in vexation : each took it in
way. What was to be done ?
Fortunately, it had been settled lately that
one of the town gates should not be locked,
and through the guardhouse there,
foot-passengers could slip into the town.
The way was not very short, but the weather
was beautiful, the sky clear and starry,
frogs croaked in ditch and pond. The party
began to sing, one song after another, but
the chamberlain neither sang nor looked at
the stars, nor even at his own feet, so he
fell all his length, along by
the ditch ; one might have thought that he
had been drinking too much, but it was not
the punch, it was the key, which had gone to
his head and was turning about there.
Finally they got to the guard-house, slipped
over the bridge and into the town.
Now I am glad again,' said the wife. ' Here
is our door ! '
' But where is the door-key ? ' said the
chamberlain. It was neither in the back
pocket, nor the side pocket.
' Merciful God ! ' shouted his wife. ' Have
you not got the key ? You have lost it with
your key-tricks with the Baron. How can we
get in now ? The bell -wire was broken
yesterday, and the policeman has no key for
the house. We are in despair ! '
The servant girl began to sob, the
chamberlain was the only one who had any
' We must break one of the chandler's
window-panes,' said he ; ' get him up and
then slip in.'
He broke one pane, he broke two. ' Petersen
! ' he shouted, and stuck his umbrella
handle through the panes ; the cellar-man's
daughter inside screamed. The cellar-man
threw open the shop door and shouted '
Police ! ' and before he had seen the
chamberlain's family, recognized and let
them in ; the policeman whistled, and in the
next street another policeman answered with
a whistle. People ran to the windows. 'Where
is the fire ? Where is the disturbance ? '
they asked, and were still asking when the
chamberlain was already in his room ; there
he took his coat off, and in it lay the
door-key not in the pocket, but in the
lining ; it had slipped down through a hole,
which should not have been in the pocket.
From that evening the door-key had a
particularly great significance, not only
when they went out in the evening, but when
they sat at home, and the chamberlain showed
his cleverness and let the key give answers
to questions. He himself thought of the most
likely answer, and so he let the key give
it, till at last he believed in it himself ;
but the apothecary a young man closely
related to the chamberlain did not believe.
The apothecary had a good critical head ; he
had, from his schooldays, written criticisms
on books and theatres, but without signing
his name, that does so much. He was what one
calls a wit, but did not believe in spirits,
and least of all in key-spirits.
' Yes, I believe, I believe,' said he, '
dear chamberlain, I believe in the door-key
and all key-spirits, as firmly as I believe
in the new science which is beginning to be
known, table-turning and spirits in old and
new furniture. Have you heard about it ? I
have ! I have doubted, you know
I am a sceptic, but I have become converted
by reading in a quite trustworthy foreign
paper, a terrible story. Can you imagine,
chamberlain I give you the story as I have
it. Two clever children had seen their
parents waken the spirit in a big
dining-table. The little ones were alone and
would now try in the same way to rub life
into an old bureau. The life came, the
spirit awoke, but it
would not tolerate the command of the
children ; it raised itself, a crash sounded,
it shot out its drawers and laid each of the
children in a drawer and ran with them out
of the open door, down the stair and into
the street, along to the canal, into which
it rushed and drowned both of them. The
little ones were buried in Christian ground,
but the bureau was brought into the council
room, tried for child murder, and burnt
alive in the market.
' I have read it ! ' said the apothecary, '
read it in a foreign paper, it is not
something that I have invented myself. It
is, the key take me, true ! now I swear a
solemn oath ! '
The chamberlain thought that such a tale was
too rude a jest. These two could never talk
about the key, the apothecary was stupid on
the subject of keys.
The chamberlain made progress in the
knowledge of keys ; the key was his
amusement and his hobby.
One evening the chamberlain was just about
to go to bed he stood half undressed, and
then he' heard a knocking on the door out in
the passage ; it was the cellar-man who came
so late ; he also was half undressed, but he
had, he said, suddenly got a thought which
he was afraid he could not keep over the
' It is my daughter, Lotte-Lena, I must
speak about. She is a pretty girl, and she
is confirmed, and now I would like to see
her well placed.'
' I am not yet a widower,' said the
chamberlain, and smiled, ' and I have no son
I can offer her ! '
' You understand me, I suppose, Chamberlain
said the cellar -man. ' She can play the
piano, and sing ; you might be able to hear
her up here in the house. You don't know all
that that girl can hit upon. She can imitate
everybody in speaking and walking. She is
made for comedy, and that is a good way for
pretty girls of good family, they might be
able to marry a count, but that is not the
thought with me or Lotte-Lena. She can sing
and she can play the piano ! so I went with
her the other day up to the music school.
She sang, but she has not the finest kind of
voice for a woman ; she has not the canary
-shriek in the highest notes which one
demands in lady singers, and so they advised
her against that career. Then, I thought, if
she cannot be a singer, she can at any rate
be an actress, which only requires speech.
To-day I spoke to the instructor, as they
call him. " Has she education ? " he asked.
" No," said I, " absolutely none ! " "
Education is necessary for an artist ! "
said he. She can get that yet, I thought,
and so I went home. She can go into a
lending library and read what is there. But
as I sat this evening, undressing, it
occurred to me, why hire books when one can
borrow them? The chamberlain is full up with
books, let her read them ; that is education
enough, and she can have that free ! '
' Lotte-Lena is a nice girl ! ' said the
chamberlain, ' a pretty girl ! She shall
have books for her education. But has she
that which one calls " go " in her brain
genius ? And has she, what is of as much
importance luck ? '
' She has twice won a prize in the lottery,'
said the cellar-man, ' once she won a
wardrobe, and once six pairs of sheets ; I
call that luck, and she has that ! '
' I will ask the key ! ' said the
chamberlain. And he placed the key upon his
forefinger and on the cellar-man's
forefinger, let it turn itself and give
letter by letter.
The key said, ' Victory and Fortune ! ' and
so Lotte- Lena's future was settled.
The chamberlain at once gave her two books
to read : the play of ' Dyveke ' and
Knigge's ' Intercourse with People '. From
that evening a kind of closer
acquaintanceship between Lotte-Lena and the
chamberlain's family began. She came up into
the family, and the chamberlain
thought that she was an intelligent girl ;
she believed in him and in the key. The
chamberlain's wife saw, in the boldness with
which she every moment showed her great
ignorance, something childish and innocent.
The couple, each in their own way, thought
much of her, and she of
' There is such a nice smell upstairs/ said
Lotte-Lena. There was a smell, a scent of
apples in the passage, where the wife had
laid out a whole barrel of ' greystone
apples. There was also an incense smell of
roses and lavender through all the rooms.
' It is something lovely,' said Lotte-Lena.
Her eyes were delighted with the many lovely
flowers, which the chamberlain's wife always
had here ; yes, even in winter the lilac and
cherry branches flowered here. The leafless
branches were cut off and put in water, and
in the warm room they
soon bore leaves and flowers.
' One might believe that the bare branches
were dead, but, look ! how they rise up from
' That has never occurred to me before,'
said Lotte-Lena. ' Nature is charming !
And the chamberlain let her see his '
Key-book ' where he had written the
remarkable things the key had said, even
about half of an apple cake which had
disappeared from the cupboard just the
evening when the servant girl had a visit
from her sweetheart. The chamberlain asked
his key, ' Who has eaten the apple cake the
cat or the sweetheart ? ' and the door-key
answered, ' The sweet- heart ! ' The
chamberlain knew it before he asked, and the
servant girl confessed : the cursed key knew
' Yes, is it not remarkable ? ' said the
chamberlain. ' The key ! the key ! and about
Lotte-Lena it predicted " Victory and
Fortune ! " We shall see that yet 1 answer
for it ! '
' That is delightful,' said Lotte-Lena.
The chamberlain's wife was not so confident,
but she did not express her doubt when her
husband could hear it, but confided to
Lotte-Lena that the chamberlain, when he was
a young man, had been quite given up to the
theatre. If any one at that time had pushed
him, he would certainly have been trained as
an actor, but the family pushed the other
way. He insisted on going on the stage, and
to get there he wrote a comedy.
' It is a great secret I confide to you,
little Lotte-Lena. The comedy was not bad,
it was accepted at the Royal Theatre and
hissed off the stage, so that it has never
been heard of since, and I am glad of it. I
am his wife and know him. Now, you will go
the same way ; I wish you everything
good, but I don't believe it will happen, I
do not believe in the key ! '
Lotte-Lena believed in it; and the
chamberlain agreed with her. Their hearts
understood each other in all virtue and
honour. The girl had several abilities which
the chamberlain appreciated. Lotte-Lena knew
how to make starch from potatoes, to make
silk gloves from old silk stockings, and to
cover her silk dancing-shoes, although she
had had the means to buy everything new. She
had what the chandler called ' money in the
table-drawer, and bonds in
the bank'. The chamberlain's wife thought
she would make a good wife for the
apothecary, but she did not say so and did
not let the key say it either. The
apothecary was going to settle down soon,
and have his own business in one of the
nearest and biggest provincial towns.
Lotte-Lena constantly read the books she had
borrowed from the chamberlain. She kept them
for two years, but by that time she knew by
heart all the parts of ' Dyveke ', but she
only wished to appear in one of them, that
of Dyveke herself, and not in the capital
where there was so much jealousy, and where
they would not have her. She would begin her
artistic career (as the chamberlain called
it) in one of the bigger provincial towns.
Now it was quite miraculous, that it was
just the very same place where the young
apothecary had settled himself as the town's
youngest, if not the only, apothecary.
The long-looked-for evening came when
Lotte-Lena should make her first appearance
and win victory and fortune, as the key had
said. The chamberlain was not there, he was
ill in bed and his wife nursed him ; he had
to have warm bandages and camomile tea ; the
bandages on the stomach and the tea in the
The couple were not present themselves at
the performance of ' Dyveke ', but the
apothecary was there and wrote a letter
about it to his relative the chamberlain's
' If the chamberlain's key had been in my
pocket,' he wrote, ' I would have taken it
out and whistled in it ; she deserved that,
and the door-key deserved it, which had so
shamefully lied to her with its " Victory
and Fortune ".'
The chamberlain read the letter. The whole
thing was malice, said he hatred of the key
which vented itself on the innocent girl.
And as soon as he rose from his bed, and was
himself again, he sent a short but venomous
letter to the apothecary, who answered it as
if he had not found anything but jest and
good humour in the whole epistle.
He thanked him for that as for every future,
benevolent contribution to the publication
of the key's incomparable worth and
importance. Next, he confided to the
chamberlain, that he, besides his work as
apothecary, was writing a great key romance,
in which all the characters were keys ;
without exception, keys. ' The door-key '
was naturally the leading person, and the
chamberlain's door-key was the model for him,
endowed with prophetic vision and
All the other keys must revolve round it ;
the old chamberlain's key, which knew the
splendour and festivities of the court ; the
clock-key, little, fine, and elegant,
costing threepence at the ironmonger's ; the
key of the pulpit, which reckons itself
among the clergy, and has, by sitting
through the night in the key-hole, seen
ghosts. The dining-room, the wood-house and
the wine-cellar keys all appear, curtsy, and
revolve around the door-key. The sunbeams
light it up like
silver ; the wind, the spirit of the
universe, rushes in on it, so that it
whistles. It is the key of all keys, it was
the chamberlain's door-key, now it is the
key of the gate of Heaven, it is the Pope's
key, it is ' infallible '.
' Malice,' said the chamberlain, ' colossal
He and the apothecary did not see each'other
again except at the funeral of the
She died first.
There was sorrow and regret in the house.
Even the branches of cherry-tree, which had
sent out fresh shoots and flowers, sorrowed
and withered ; they stood forgotten, she
cared for them no more.
The chamberlain and the apothecary followed
her coffin, side by side, as the two nearest
relations ; here was no time or inclination
Lotte-Lena sewed the mourning-band round the
chamberlain's hat. She was here in the
house, come back long ago without victory
and fortune in her artistic career. But it
would come ; Lotte-Lena had a future. The
key had said it, and the chamberlain had
She came up to him. They talked of the dead,
and they wept, Lotte-Lena was tender ; they
talked of art, and Lotte-Lena was strong.
' The theatre life is charming ! ' said she,
' but there is so much quarrelling and
jealousy ! I would rather go my own way.
First myself, then art ! '
Knigge had spoken truly in his chapter about
actors ; she saw that the key had not spoken
truly, but she did not speak about that to
the chamberlain ; she thought too much of
The door-key was his comfort and consolation
all the year of mourning. He asked it
questions and it gave answers. And when the
year was ended, and he and Lotte- Lena sat
together one evening, he asked the key,
' Shall I marry, and whom shall I marry ? '
There was no one to push him, he pushed the
key, and it said ' Lotte-Lena '. So it was
said, and Lotte-Lena became the
' Victory and Fortune ! ' These words had
been said beforehand by the door-key.