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The first scene takes place on Christmas Eve in a vestibule that has a door with a stained glass window in the shape of a heart. An icebox and a bench sit on either side of the door, one black glove lies on the floor, and the lights are not working. The conservator enters, picks up the black glove with his cane, and determines that it must belong to the young wife. The caretaker enters, exchanges a few friendly words with the conservator, and turns on the lights. As he goes, Ellen enters and gossips with the conservator about how stingy and selfish the young wife is. Ellen concedes that “between times, she’s like an angel of peace,” but that she mistreats the servants. They decide that the wife’s problem stems from the fact that her husband is too rich for his own good. Kristen enters, bearing the news that the wife has lost her favorite ring and has accused Ellen of stealing it. Ellen wants to leave, but the conservator warms her that she needs to learn to be more patient as he exits. Kristen also urges Ellen to stay calm, since the husband is also a suspect. The girls exit together.
The Tomte enters and spies on the young wife, who is fixing her hair in the mirror. The Tomte leaves her a Christmas card with a picture of a thistle on it — “a beautiful flower, but thorny.” He then eavesdrops on Kristen and Ellen’s conversation. When he learns that Ellen has been wrongly accused of stealing the ring, the Tomte resolves to search every nook and cranny of the house to find it.
Shortly after, the Christmas Angel joins the Tomte. Upon hearing the Tomte’s story about Ellen, the angel declares that, “Now the cup of mercy runneth over/ And the wine of wrath shall be pressed from sour grapes,/ Though to punish is not my domain.” The angel commands the Tomte to take away the vain, young wife’s daughter in order to teach the wife a lesson about “what it feels like to lose something,” but promises to give the daughter back as a Christmas gift. Before the angel goes, the Tomte asks her if she could deliver a gift to the conservator as well. The angel agrees and bids the Tomte a merry Christmas.
The young wife, dressed in white and seated at her white mirror in the entrance hall, is sewing a child’s garment. The Tomte turns off the lights and conceals himself behind a curtain. The young wife rings a bell to summon Ellen, then scolds her. Ellen cries and exits. The young wife’s eyes well up as she finds the Tomte’s Christmas card, listens to her neighbor playing Beethoven’s “Sonata 31, Opus 110,” and begins to brush off her child’s clothes. She picks up a black glove, searches for its twin, and gives up. As the piano music changes to Beethoven’s “Funeral March,” the young wife is overcome with fear. A child screams, Kristen runs in and whispers something to the wife, and the wife falls to her knees as she hugs the child’s coat.
The caretaker sits alone in his room, which has been decorated for Christmas. The conservator joins him, and remarks that that the members of the household “bring their confidences, their worries and their sorrows” to the caretaker. After hearing the commotion downstairs and Ellen’s sobs, the conservator observes that the caretaker’s skills will be in higher demand than usual. As the conservator prepares to leave, he asks the caretaker what he did with the single black glove. The caretaker says he had forgotten about it, and guesses that he must have lost it.
After the conservator leaves, Ellen enters and commiserates to the caretaker about being blamed for both the electricity going out and for stealing the ring. She and the caretaker agree once again that the young couple’s only worry is “how to spend their money,” yet they are exceedingly stingy about their servants’ wages. Both discover that neither have received a Christmas gift from the young couple. They begin to reflect on how spooky the building is and decide that it is a “ghost-building.” The caretaker mentions that one of the servants “had seen a Tomte sitting on the roof of the elevator holding onto the lines.” At that moment, the Tomte rearranges the keys on the caretaker’s rack. The police telephone and demand that Ellen come in for questioning about the stolen ring. Though Ellen is afraid, the caretaker convinces Ellen to go because he doesn’t believe that any harm will come to her.
When Ellen goes, an old woman enters with the missing glove and a lost child’s boot and puts it on the caretaker’s table. While the caretaker examines the boot, the Tomte snatches the glove and hides it. When the caretaker turns around to look for the glove, it is gone.
Kristen brings the news that the young wife’s child has disappeared, then leaves to call the police. When the caretaker hears the young wife approaching, he hides. The young wife enters in a daze. At first, she cannot remember where she is. She sees the a picture of the nativity scene, which jolts her out of her dreamlike state. As she comes out of shock, she remembers that her daughter has disappeared, and she screams. She realizes that she is in the caretaker’s room. The caretaker emerges and urges her to come with him. The young wife is puzzled to find that the caretaker is so kind to her, since she has treated him so poorly in the past.
The Tomte enters the conservator’s room and notices that everything is in perfect order. He explains that the conservator has dedicated his life to solving life’s riddle, and has accumulated thousands of notes over the years in pursuit of this goal. The Tomte decides to “create chaos once again/ So [the conservator will] have to start from the beginning.” The Tomte proceeds to rearrange the conservator’s papers. When the conservator enters, he declares he dreamed of the note that holds the key to understanding the riddle. He searches for the note, but becomes perplexed when he discovers files are out of order. He searches frantically until he falls asleep exhausted. When he awakens, he sees the Tomte.
The Tomte reveals to the conservator the riddle that the conservator has forgotten – that order can be found in “the unity of matter.” The conservator is delighted, but after supplying the theory, the Tomte immedietly disproves it. He gives the conservator examples of the world’s duality: “Magnetic power [which is] is divided between North and South; Electricity is positive and negative; [and] The seed of the plant is both male and female.” The conservator despairs that “There’s no point now in living any longer” because the Tomte has just rendered his sixty years of philosophical thinking useless. The Tomte reasons that even if the conservator has no desire to start his life over with fresh vitality, he must at least “reconcile with life.” The Tomte draws a box from a cabinet and conjures images of old memories. The conservator weeps, and the Tomte reaches into the box and reveals the black glove. He gives it to the conservator, telling him that if he returns it to his rightful owner, he “will have spread happiness” and solved a riddle worth solving. The conservator knows that bringing happiness to someone else is the only way that he might be able to alleviate his own sorrow. The Tomte exits.
Ellen enters, utterly distressed. She tells the conservator that although she told the police that she did not steal the ring, they still suspect her and are now looking for her. The conservator gives her the black glove, and the ring falls out of it. Ellen is overjoyed, and thanks the conservator.
The young wife, dressed in black, enters the child’s room and tears bits off of her black veil, which she places on various objects in the room. In the midst of mourning her child whom she presumes to be dead, she finds the black glove that she lost with the ring inside its finger. Ellen enters, and the young wife begs her for forgiveness. Ellen accepts her apology and tells her that the conservator has “passed on — reconciled and satisfied with what he had wished for.” Ellen also reveals that after searching through his files, she discovered that the conservator was the young wife’s father. The young wife reveals that she had suspected this. Ellen and the young wife leave to “close his eyes and perform the final services.” Kristen and the caretaker pass across the stage, watching the crib. Tomte and the angel appear to return the child to its crib, though the child is not seen by the audience. The angel declares that “Now our mission will soon be finished/ I saw a kneeling, heard a tone of voice;/ A single little word: “forgive” can reconcile everything… Put sorrow aside! Let the feast of happiness begin!” The young wife mother returns from her dead father and sees the child in the crib. Overcome with joy, she says “when a mother has her child back in her arms, there are no words for happiness, and happiness weeps.”