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...
(The entire section is 1,169 words.)