Published: Denmarks' Best Stories, The American Scandanavian Foundation, 1928.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2000.
SINCE Midsummer Day not a drop of rain had fallen, and now August was nearing its end. The road looked like a trail of spilled flour winding through bare fields. The stubble land was cracked with drought. The fallow fields gleamed yellow against crumbling grayish white soil. The low ditches were lined with ugly dusty grass, like long tangled wisps of hair. All growing things were drying up in an abandonment of despair. The light blue cloudless sky had tortured them too long. The sun, with its self-complacent smile, had scorched them so mercilessly, so continuously, that now, in spite of their burning thirst, they had grown too listless to implore the heavens for a drop of water. In all the dazzling whiteness of the landscape there was not a spot of deeper color to rest the weary eye.
A peasant girl of short, broad stature came walking along the road. Every step she took raised the dust like a low, dense cloud of steam. She seemed as resigned as the plants, but with a considerably greater vitality. No sentimental pity for her floral fellow-creatures moved her–at least she did not waste one glance on them. Only when a cow began to prance in the field she slightly turned her snugly kerchiefed head. She never stopped or quickened her steps, but kept an even pace with unchanging calmness, walking along with her feet apart, like a sturdy, broadgaged wagon, while the thick, heavy soles of her leather shoes made goodly tracks on the ground. Drops of perspiration trickled from her white forehead down her ruddy, freckled nose, but this was the only movement in her big, sun-burned face. She did not even blink in the sun. Her mouth was slightly open, displaying a remarkably strong and beautiful row of upper teeth. From time~ to time she ran the tip of her tongue over her lips, without, however, changing their position.
Stina had need to arm herself with patience; she had already walked two miles from the town where she was in service, and had fully four miles more to go before reaching the village of her destination. Her mistress, the widow of the late dean, had given her a whole day's leave. This occurred twice a year, once at Shrovetide, and once after the summer holidays, when the two sons of the house had returned to their studies at the University in Copenhagen.
Stina always took advantage of these two free days to visit her eight-year-old daughter. With some help from the parish, this child–unfortunately born out of wedlock–had been placed in the care of a cottager and his wife in Stina's native village. The father had worked on the same farm with Stina when she was twenty-two years old, but, upon learning that she was "in trouble," he had hastily left for America.
Stina's progress along the dusty road was very slow, just barely noticeable. One or two vehicles passed her. The first was a light cabriolet, on the back seat of which a fat country gentleman was sprawling, pulling at his cigar. On the front seat the coachman cracked his whip as the carriage whizzed by. Stina came near being struck by the tip of the lash. She even blinked a little at the threatening possibility. The dust stirred up by the wheels whirled around her like the steam from an engine and made her sneeze. Although there was plenty of room in the carriage, it would never occur to a "gentleman farmer" to give a peasant girl a lift, nor would she ever ask him to do so.
A little later she was overtaken by a butcher in his one-horse cart. Whoop-la! What a wild gallop, zigzag from one side of the road to the other, the wheels just escaping the ditches on either side, the springs bouncing and clanging! The butcher was alone in his cart. He was wearing a striped blue and white linen coat, soiled with brownish blood stains, and was lustily whistling "Oh, Susannah." His straw hat was pushed back over his fiery-red, perspiring forehead. In the back of the cart, behind the seat, were two lambs, bleating indolently, as if only fulfilling an official duty. Without stopping, the butcher shouted to Stina, "Hey, lady, will you ride with me through the course of life? Hey?"
Stina did not respond to this address with so much as a glance. She said to herself, "Butchers always talk so silly."
Wrapped in a new cloud of dust, she sneezed again, patiently wiped her nose with the back of her cotton glove, then wiped the glove on her dress in the hollow of her arm.
From a distance she heard the noise of a third vehicle, but did not turn to look. It was a long time coming, and, judging by the sound, the horses were ambling. At last it overtook her. It was a small two-horse spring-cart with only one seat. This seat was occupied by a middle-aged man who looked well fed without being exactly stout. He wore a coat of thick black broadcloth with pockets and edges bound in wide wool braid. His head was covered by a light gray cloth cap, trimmed with numerous small buttons which were faded yellow and displayed their wooden skeletons under the threadbare cloth covering. A short pipe with a big wooden head lay thrust in a corner of the seat. After spitting in the opposite direction from Stina, the man stopped his horses with a soft "Whoa!" and said slowly in the broadest Zealand dialect, "Maybe that girl would like a lift?" "Many thanks," answered Stina.
She took hold of the dash-board, stepped on the whipple-tree so heavily that it swung way out to the side, and let herself down on the seat with a thump that made the springs resound.
For a moment the owner of the cart peered at her from the corner of his eye and looked as if he were going to say something. But when his guest did not by the faintest sign reveal any inclination toward conversation or friendliness, and when he saw her staring straight ahead, crowding as far as possible away from him into the opposite corner of the seat, he sighed loudly, and exclaimed, "Well, well, begosh ye–hm, hm!" He stopped for a moment, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, reached for his pipe, stuffed it from a bladder-pouch, lighted it, touched the fat whitemaned sorrels lightly with the whip, and with a "Gidap!" made them start an easy trot.
Always the same white road, edged by grass and plantain leaves covered with a thick layer of dust. Always the same stubbly fields, unending stretches in woodless regions, interrupted only by the square of some solitary farmhouse, or by a cottage half veiled by the poplar row around the garden. Here and there a dried-out pool with its cracked, wrinkled, and hard clay bottom bore witness to the monstrous drought of the summer.
"It sure is mighty hot," sighed the farmer after they had ridden quite a distance.
Stina nodded, continuing to stare straight ahead. The man could only see the profile of her nose move a bit. Again he was silent for a while before making a new attempt to exchange ideas with her.
"The crop got in very well this year. There was nothing to complain about. For the weather was right steady. But–eh–the grain don't weigh much, and we got a mighty big pile o' chaff."
These reflections awakened so much interest in Stina that she turned half toward the farmer, and murmured, "The hay wasn't any good either."
"No; if only we don't have to buy fodder for the cattle before winter is over."
"That might be bad enough," said Stina sullenly, and turned away from the man. Perhaps this discouraged him from further attempts at conversation. He turned toward her several times, clearing his throat and mumbling, "Well, well, begosh! Ye-e-es." –What was there to be said to that?–Then, as he did not receive the least response, he fell into a silence, perhaps into a reverie. He bent forward, placed his whip between his legs, the handle leaning against his right thigh, and left the two sorrels to do as they pleased. At their present pace it was out of the question for them to cover four miles an hour, and yet the perspiration formed big flakes of foam on their loins and backs.
No sound was heard except the heavy, monotonous creaking of the axles and a slight rattling of the harness when the horses shook themselves to get rid of the "blind flies" that buzzed around the carriage and sometimes, with a short, faintly snapping sound, hit the leather cover which protected the travelers.
The owner of the spring-cart was roused from his drowsiness by a motion of the girl beside him. Again he glanced sideways at her, and saw her untie the knot in the red and white dotted cotton kerchief which was covering the bundle in her lap. Inside was a parcel wrapped in a newspaper. She opened it, took out a big round of rye bread covered with smoked sausage, and broke the bread in two parts. With a nod she offered her host one of these, without, however, looking at him.
"Thanks to him who offers," murmured the farmer. Each devoured his half of the round with due composure. It was succeeded by an other covered with green cheese. This slice was also broken in two by its proprietress who then repeated her silent invitation.
"Why, that's a darned shame," said the farmer. But when Stina continued holding the bread toward him, he took it with an attempt to be polite–"Those are really very fine sandwiches." He half rose in the seat and began to fumble in his coat-tail pocket. As his arms were short, he had some trouble in hauling out a black, hammered pint bottle. A blue checked cotton handkerchief came out with it
. "Shall we make the nightingale chirp?" he asked, chuckling inwardly without moving his lips. He produced a strident noise by rubbing the moist cork against the bottle, which he then offered to Stina. She gave him an indignant glance and rejected the proffered bottle by a gesture. The farmer laughed as before, and said, "Why–it ain't brandy. It's sweet punch extract."
This information altered matters. Stina took a swallow from the bottle, and grunted something which was meant to be thanks. The man took a long pull, and exclaimed with voluptuous delight, "Ah–ah–that cools one off a sight in such a heat. It's a tidy drink."
Stina nodded and licked her lips. A much softer "Ah" than that of the man was evidence of the enjoyment which the sweet drink had given her.
They continued their ride over the white road, without the least change in the surroundings or the situation. A couple of times the farmer moved nearer to Stina, as if by way of experiment, but each time she squeezed farther into the opposite corner of the seat.
They came to a hill. Now the horses had to walk slowly. From the top of the hill a village could be seen, topped by the white church tower with tiled, white-washed step-gables. Here and there were some farms, separated from the road by dunghills and blackish brown pools of water.
"Whoa !" said Stina when they had reached a cottage with green window-frames and a wilted rose-bush growing along the wall.
"Oh, is that where it is?" said the farmer. "Whoa! Do you understand Danish, you red fox ?"
This latter remark was addressed to the near horse, which had not been willing to obey orders at once, but seemed impressed by this appeal to its nationality.
A little girl in a pink calico dress appeared in the door, which consisted of an upper and a lower part, both open.
"Ma," she cried, tripping on the stone floor. But when she saw the stranger and the fine cart she crept behind the door-post, and one could see nothing of her except a ruddy cheek and a flaxen curl. Soon after a middle-aged woman came out. She nodded, saying, "Good-day! It's Stina, is it! So you're coming in a carriage to-day!"
"I give many thanks for the ride," murmured Stina, offering the peasant a limp hand, which was received with a similar suggestion of a handshake.
Stina climbed down, again making the traces and the whipple-tree shake and rattle. The woman from the cottage nodded to the man simultaneously with Stina. He returned the greeting by touching the back of his cap, growled "Nah !" and drove away.
As said before, Stina had come to see her little girl. The cottager had gone to work. His wife and Stina exchanged few words during their dinner, which consisted of kale and bacon.
"That was Per Larsen from Orslovlille who gave you a lift," said the cottager's wife incidentally.
"Yes, I know him," answered Stina.
The girl was even more than usually taciturn that afternoon. As on former occasions, she played with her child in the little yard. Their game consisted of the little girl's catching hold of her mother's dress behind, while both of them jogged back and forth at a slow trot, repeating ad infinitum in a half singing, half reciting tone:
"Now we are driving to Copenhagen,
To buy sweet chocolate."
The cottager's wife stood in the door, shading her eyes with her hand, and said, "How nice little Marsina plays with her mother."
During her former visits Stina had been a trifle livelier, and had interrupted the never varying game by interludes of chatting with the peasant woman. But to-day her
"Now we are driving to Copenhagen,
To buy sweet chocolate–"
went on without intermission, and she stared straight ahead. To be sure, she sometimes kissed little Marsina, who bore this queer name in memory of her unscrupulous father, Jens Madsen, but somehow her caresses lacked heartiness. After each kiss the child gave her mother a strange, dully questioning look. Once when Stina squarely met the glance of her child, she began to cry. The peasant woman thought it her duty to say a word of comfort, which took the following form:
"Yeh, men are foul trash, that's what they are, sure! To think of that fellow Jens Madsen! Well, there are enough of them, begosh. Himself is of course neither hot-headed nor runnin' after the girls–mercy, no–but on the other hand he's most always drunk."
"I s'pose so," said Stina distractedly, "he was always keen on brandy."
"Yeh, what is one to say? If he neither scolds nor beats me, and he ain't doin' nothin' of the kind, one has to take it as it comes. But you ain't quite well to-day, Stina, I don't think. You're so queer."
"There's somethin' rumbling inside of me," said Stina.
"If only it ain't the ague," said the woman.
At five o'clock Stina had to leave. She walked the six miles back to town along the dusty road, but this did not trouble her much. It was as if she were altogether enveloped by the dust-clouds,' and neither saw nor heard anything.
Stina had been working for Mrs. Aaby, widow of the dean, for five years. Her mistress was a plump, black-haired, and brown-eyed little lady of about fifty-five years who, after her husband's death, had moved back to the small city where she was born and where her father had been town judge. She was naturally merry and fun-loving, but during the twenty years of her married life her husband's superior position in the clergy had necessitated a serious and dignified demeanor on her part. Now she was eking out a scant living with a widow's pension. The friends of her youth were scattered in all directions far from her native town. She lived in the memories of her former opulent and hospitable home where the bishop, on his visits of inspection, was so well fed and cared for that he had never there been inclined to give the schoolmasters their usual dose of severe reprimand. The dean's widow spent her time knitting much woolen underwear for poor children, and reading all the novels of the circulating library. Only when dining with the town officials and a few wealthy merchants did she put on her aristocratic, churchly airs.
She had grown fond of the rural population where her husband had his charge. She had humor and heart enough to understand the peasants, and even though her sense of superiority occasionally compelled her to strut a little, this had not harmed her reputation for being "a real common woman." In fact, it pleased the peasants that the widow of the dean knew how to hold her own among the best people. The schoolmaster had long ago informed them that she was a real lady, whereas the wives of the neighboring clergymen, strictly speaking, were just like anybody else.
Her husband's former parishioners had not forgotten her in the course of time. Some farmers still sent her geese and ducks at the great church festivals. Even some well situated cottagers now and then sent her a score of eggs or a bottle of thick cream.
One day–not even a Sunday or holiday–a man brought her a big fat turkey. As People in a small town all know each other, she saw at once that the messenger was Kristen Nielsen in Kirkegade who kept "Board and Lodgings for Travelers," and in whose house the peasants from her husband's former parish Orslovmagle and its annex, Orslovlille, used to put up.
"From whom is that?" asked the widow.
"From Per Larsen in Orslovlille," answered the man.
"Is that so?" said the widow, and tipped the man. When he had gone, she said to herself "I wonder what has come over that sullen and stingy fellow, Per Larsen. He never put his foot inside of the church and did not give a whit more in tithes than the law required."
She rose from her afternoon coffee, and holding the fat turkey by the wing, she went into the kitchen to express to Stina her surprise over this present from Per Larsen.
Stina stood at the kitchen table eating her meat and potatoes with the absent-minded, apparently thoughtful air with which servant girls consume their lonesome and cheerless repasts. When her mistress entered, Stina turned away quickly and raised her kitchen apron to her nose and eyes. "Do you understand, Stina, what has come over Per Larsen in Orslovlille?" "No-o," answered Stina, still turning her head away.
"Look at the huge turkey he is sending me!– Do look at it, Stina We can invite the apothecary's and the Henningsens to dinner on it–but what is the matter, my girl! Why, you are weeping for all you are worth, Stina!–What is it?–Stina! Are you ill?"
"Yes, it pulls from way up in my throat down to my very heels," mumbled Stina in a voice that sounded as if she had a lump of porridge in her throat.
"Don't talk with your mouth full, my girl," said her mistress in a moralizing tone. She got a little attack of her clerical dignity now that she was quite relieved of any worry about the girl's health–for Stina regularly announced the above mentioned symptoms whenever she was in bad humor or had much to do.
Mrs. Aaby laid the turkey on the kitchen table, where she discovered a good-sized piece of card- board lying wrong side up. She turned it over. On it was pasted a colored and shiny picture above some lines of verse. Stina collapsed on the kitchen chair, sobbing wildly. The picture represented an arbor in which a man dressed in a greencoat, green breeches, and white stockings embraced a crimson, short- and narrow-skirted woman with a lemon-colored shepherdess hat. Above the treetops hovered three pink, winged naked creatures–angels or cupids–with yellowish-brown shadows along their backs. Underneath were the following lines:
Two hearts that tremble with earnest love
To the bosom of nature find their way.
The angels from Heaven soar above,
Protecting the two from all dismay.
Rejoice, O maiden! Look toward the light,
The sun smiles down at your ardent bliss;
And later, the stars of the tranquil night
Send your anxious heart a comforting kiss.
Mrs. Aaby read the verse, burst out laughing, and said, "Why, Stina ! Where did you get that terrible stuff ?"
"Yes, that's the worst nonsense I ever saw," answered the maid, "but the picture is real pretty, I think."
"Who gave you that? Have you a suitor? Eh, Stina?"
"Oh, that's some tomfoolery of that silly hired man from Kristen Nielsen. He's always up to some monkeyshines."
"Did he bring the card with the turkey?"
"I didn't see no turkey before Missus brought that big thing there. No, he threw it in when he passed the kitchen window."
"But what can be the matter with Per Larsen in Orslovlille?"
"Well, I'll be darned if I know that."
"Don't say 'darned,' Stina."
As soon as Mrs. Aaby had left the kitchen and could be supposed to be sitting in her living-room, Stina took the card, looked long at the picture, read the poetry in a whispering voice, and said, "To think that anybody can get up such lovely words !"
She opened her dress, hid the card in her bosom, and started to polish the kitchen utensils. As the metal grew brighter, and the sun began to shine warmly through the window, the thirty-year-old girl, usually so serious, seemed to acquire new life. She sighed a few times–was it with fatigue or content? Who knows?–and began to sing:
That men behave like drunken swine
Is not at all uncommon,
Instead of water they drink wine.
This happened to a tailor.
He drank and drank until he could
Not see the flies upon the wall,
And when he went into the field
He had an ugly fall.
His nose tore up the ground so black
With tar one thought 'twas painted;
A sow that stood and saw it all,
With fear she almost fainted.
She sang these words slowly and monotonously; she could not have sung a hymn more solemnly. When she had reached the interesting place in the ballad with which the above quotation ends, her mistress opened the door, and said with a surprised smile, "Are you singing, Stina?–No? Wasn't somebody singing?"
"No, nobody was singin'," answered Stina in a sullen and almost offended tone.
"What in the world can be the matter with Per Larsen?" exclaimed Mrs. Aaby in November when Kristen Nielsen's hired man brought her half a side of bacon with respectful greetings from Per Larsen of Orslovlille. "He sends me presents, but he never comes to see me. What do you think about it, Stina?"
"I don't think nothin' about it," answered Stina.
Toward Christmas Stina received a visit from her little girl's foster-mother. Before leaving, the woman asked permission to speak to Stina's mistress. This was granted her. Mrs. Aaby was drinking her ten-o'clock coffee, and thought it behooved her to be on her dignity.
"Well, Matty," she said, sitting in the middle of her sofa, with the bright-polished, steaming brass samovar on the table before her, "I hear that the little girl is doing well at school." "Yes, she's smart enough at readin'," answered the peasant woman.
"Good–with the Lord's help she may become a joy and comfort to her mother. It was sad that Stina had to go through that bitter lesson in her youth."
"Yes, but now that's all the same."
"Is it–how is that?"
"Why, Stina's goin' to be married. She's leavin' the Missus on Mayday. This very day I brought a message to her from Per Larsen in Orslovlille."
"Good Heavens! What is all this, Matty?"
Forgetting her dignity, the clergyman's widow jumped up and burst into tears. The peasant woman joined her in this, and said in a stifled voice, "Per Larsen is waitin' for me in the street. I rode to town with him, and he'll take me home again. Dear me, yes! The Lord knows that a person has both joy and sorrow in this world."
"I must talk to Per Larsen," said Mrs. Aaby, going to the window and opening it.
True enough, there was his spring-cart standing in the street. Per Larsen, arrayed in a big fur cap and a coat with shoulder-cape and broad sheepskin collar, sat patiently waiting, bent forward, with the whip between his legs. When he heard Mrs. Aaby open the window, he looked up and lifted his cap. He put one foot on the hub of the wheel, jumped heavily to the ground, tied the traces, and approached the house after hauling something out from under the seat. This something turned out to be two geese. He appeared in the living-room with a goose in each hand.
"Well, well, Per Larsen!" said the widow.
"While your old pastor, the dean, was living, we never saw you."
"And that's the truth," said the farmer calmly. "I couldn't afford to make my tithe bigger than I had to so long as I had both the old folks to look out for."
"But you never came to church either, Per Larsen."
"Ye-es! I went to church every time I had something to do there–when there was a funeral, or I was asked to be godfather, or such. I followed the poorest cottager to the grave, I sure did. But–er–I'd like to talk to the Missus about Stina. For howsomever you may be surprised, I mean to marry her."
Per Larsen uttered the last sentence with unusual energy, which he furthermore enhanced by the resolute way in which he placed the geese in an armchair.
"Mercy! they are greasy," said the widow, moving them to a newspaper on the table. "But, Per Larsen–you see, Stina has a–hm!–well, Matty knows that better than any one else."
"Why, of course I know that as well as Matty," said the farmer. "But–er–I take it that one thing and the other may happen to young people. They can't help that, for that's the way our Lord made 'em. But–er–hm–Matty she says as Stina has five hundred dollars in the savings bank, and quite a lot of good things of wool and linen in her chest–and–of course her father had a farm in his days, and it was no fault of his that there were no sons so that the Squire had to lease the farm to his brother-in-law! Now that fellow has taken to drink, and things go badly with him."
"But how has Per Larsen got acquainted with Stina?" asked the widow. "It seems to me that Per Larsen ought to think the matter over. Isn't Per Larsen a widower for the second time? That is what I thought. So Per Larsen has lost two wives. Marriage is a serious thing, Per Larsen."
"It sure is," said the farmer with a sigh, "one can't say that it's all fun."
"Indeed not! Well, of course, Stina is faithful and hard working, but she is very taciturn–she hardly ever says a word."
Per Larsen's small eyes grew lively, and his speech took a slightly quicker tempo.
"Sure, and that's just it. The Missus is quite right in saying that I have been married twice. The Lord help us! One woman gabbled, and the other twaddled, there was no difference. For ten years it was like as if there was a mill whizzing in the room all the time. And my mother, she's still living, she gabbled and twaddled with the wives, and I didn't even have peace when we were eating. But now my old mother never says a word since she had the stroke, and she won't last long, I don't think. And–er–sometime after the harvest I rode five miles with Stina, and upon my word, she didn't hardly answer me when I spoke to her, and that pleased me right well. And she even offered me sandwiches, but the two of us didn't make no conversation while we were eating. And the Missus may believe me, when a person has heard so much prating from women in his life, it'll be a relief to get somebody who can keep her mouth shut tight. And one has to have a woman on a farm like mine, or all the inside work goes to the dogs."
"Has Stina given her consent? Has Per Larsen spoken to her?" asked Mrs. Aaby.
"No-o-o. But sure she can't have nothing against it, for it will mean for her to be the housewife on a farm, and there ain't no step-children for her to take care of, and I guess the Lord'll take my mother before Easter. And if I don't mind that she got into trouble in her young days–"
"Sure, Missus, what more could she want?" said Matty with an assurance which showed that she was well informed in the matter.
Mrs. Aaby called Stina, who was supposed to be in the kitchen. Nobody answered. She opened the door. The kitchen was empty. The girl had chosen to take to her heels, finding it too embarrassing to overhear the proceedings. When her mistress expressed her displeasure at Stina's absence, Per Larsen said with an approving nod and smile, "That's the way I want it! No talking and fooling. Then things'll come out all right."
After Mayday Per Larsen and Stina were married, and the dean's widow poured coffee at the wedding.