Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
Once upon a time there lived a dreamy, solitary child, a miller’s son named Johannes. Sometimes he was invited to play with Victoria and Ditlef, the children who lived in a nearby mansion known as the Castle. So begins this fairy-tale romance that conveys a pervasive sense of long ago and far away. As the book opens, Johannes, fourteen, has been called upon to row the children of his betters and their friends to an island. Among them is the enchanting, ten-year-old Victoria. When Johannes attempts to help Victoria ashore and to join the group in their adventure, he is brutally reminded of his place by the churlish Otto, the son of a chamberlain. The always-amiable Johannes contents himself with his favorite escape: fantasy. He is Sultan, and Victoria is begging to be one of his slaves, or he is chief pirate, with Princess Victoria his chief treasure.
Years pass. Johannes is sent away to town for school, rarely returning home because of the expense, but never does he forget Victoria. She is his inspiration; all of his poems have been written to her. Yet when he sees her again, she seems aloof, their conversation banal. When Johannes saves a child from drowning and temporarily becomes a hero, he exults in the knowledge that Victoria has seen him do it but is soon deflated when he discovers that she has taken little notice. In subsequent years, he is tormented because Victoria’s social circles are closed to a miller’s son, which he will always be—even though he is also beginning to be known as a poet. When he next encounters Victoria in town, where he is a student, she is staying at the Chamberlain’s house, and she is wearing what appears to be an engagement ring. Shaken, Johannes pours out his heart: She is the only one whom he has ever loved, and everything he has ever written or tried to become is for her. She reveals that she has carried one of his poems next to her heart and that she loves him. Johannes’ ecstasy is extreme but short-lived. Searching for her the next day, he finds her at the theater, accompanied by Otto. She at first totally ignores Johannes, then she humiliates him by her condescension. Later, she tells him that everything is impossible for them; there is too much that separates them; her father would never consent.
Johannes feels that his soul has withered, but he immerses himself in his writing and poetic reveries, which continue to revolve around Victoria. He publishes a book which becomes a success and goes abroad without telling anyone where. Two years pass. Johannes returns home and encounters Victoria gathering flowers in the woods that they once roamed as children. She invites him to a party at the Castle and, seeing his reluctance to accept, adds that she will have a surprise for him there. He notes that she wears no ring. When Victoria later sends a special invitation to him by messenger, he joyfully accepts and prepares to enter the Castle for the first time. In the drawing room, he finds many important guests, including the Chamberlain and his Lady and their son, Otto, now a lieutenant. When Victoria finally enters, she gives Johannes his surprise: She presents Camilla, whom Johannes, years before, saved from drowning, now an attractive young woman of eighteen. The party is a celebration of Victoria and Otto’s engagement. Camilla is a consolation prize for Johannes. Bitterly noting that Victoria is again wearing a ring, he tells her not to take it off again. She replies that she is certain that she never will. Johannes and Victoria thus continue to wound each other throughout the remainder of the day. The truculent Otto, taking note of the strange tension between the two, blackens Johannes’ eye and loudly announces that he is going to join the Laird’s shooting party.
Within hours, news comes that Otto has been killed in a hunting accident. Victoria, hysterical, cries out to Johannes, “He was a hundred thousand times better than you.” Later, Victoria goes to Johannes and explains that her father, a fiercely proud man, had compelled her to accept Otto because they needed Otto’s money to avoid financial ruin. She had stalled, saying that in three years she would marry Otto, but as the day drew nearer, she begged her parents to insure her life instead and allow her to drown herself. She has always and only loved Johannes. To this passionate declaration, he has only one response; “I’m engaged.” He and Camilla have entered into a secret understanding that one day she will marry him. Meanwhile, Victoria’s father, attempting through insurance to save something for his heirs and unable to face ruin, takes advantage of everyone’s absence during Otto’s funeral to torch the Castle and himself.
When Johannes returns to town, he becomes so absorbed in his writing that he has little time to escort his secret fiancee to the balls and parties that she wishes to attend. By mutual agreement, Richmond, an Englishman, becomes her escort. Soon the two fall in love. Johannes is oddly unaffected by this revelation. He extends his blessing and returns to his writing, too preoccupied to attend a party at Camilla’s home that he knows Victoria will attend. One night, Johannes arrives home to find an old acquaintance waiting in his doorway, the former tutor and aspiring poet from the Castle. He had not seen the tutor since the disastrous engagement party. At that time, the tutor confessed that he had not married because his first love had rejected him, but now he has married a widow and has thus instantly acquired a family, clothes, shoes, house, and home. Johannes congratulates him and patiently listens to him babble. Suddenly, the tutor asks Johannes whether he has heard about Victoria. In confusion, Johannes replies yes, and then no. The tutor tells him that she is gravely ill with tuberculosis, that she attended a party at Camilla’s family home, where she danced like a mad person, and that she collapsed in a pool of blood and had to be carried home. In fact, he tells Johannes, Victoria is dead. He hands Johannes a letter which she asked him to deliver after her death and leaves, his mission ended.
Johannes, struggling to take in the fact that Victoria is dead, opens the envelope and reads: “Dear Johannes, When you read this letter I shall be dead.” She is able at last to be perfectly honest. She clings to life but knows that there is no hope for her. She bitterly regrets that she has been unable to show how much she has loved him. She begs forgiveness for the many unkindnesses and injuries she has inflicted on him. She asks him not to see her in her coffin. She thanks him “for every single day and hour,” and the letter and the book end.