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The Birds by Martin A Hansen

Translated by R. P. Keigwin

 

Espen, the boy, came home and said he had given up his job and secured a new one.

"Wagtails have got to wag," said his father. "It's not so long since it last happened—and once before, as well. Who's to have the honour this time?"

"The parson at Kyndelby," answered Espen.

"The balmy priest, as they call him," said the father. "It's nice to have a sensible son who will look after the sheep that go astray. What'll your wages be?"

The boy was to have half what he got in his last place.

"Better and better," said the father. "I daresay you promised to pay his debts as well?"

"You're quite entitled to call it all off, if you like," said the boy.

"I can't do that, can I, when I've been so lucky as to have such a clever son," replied the father. "Besides, you're seventeen, and that's a good age."

"You forget, Father, that I'm nearly eighteen," said Espen.

"No, I don't in the least—if I may venture to correct you," answered the father. "If you're nearly eighteen, it's obvious that you are seventeen. But now you'd better find a cloth to mop the floor with, for I'm afraid your mother will shed tears over this one."

"Have you gone and forgotten all those good sermons?" She had heard what the boy had said, and was crying.

"They sent me to sleep," was his reply.

"How can you talk like that to your mother?" she moaned.

"There's got to be an end," said the boy. "I prefer the parson at Kyndelby."

"His sermons are dreadful," said the mother.

"Yes, they are bad," admitted Espen.

"Why—have you heard him, child?" she shrieked.

"Three and a half times," he said. "The half time was when I fell asleep in the middle. That was the first time; it was force of habit."

"It's almost worse than if you had become a pimp or a Catholic—poor child!" she said. "But if you really mean to do it whatever happens, then do you think you can get us some good apples that will keep from the parsonage garden? They're said to be extra fine there."

The boy promised to, and when November came he went over to Kyndelby.

"Why do you give a little cough every time I see you?" asked the parson, when Espen had been there for a fortnight.

"All that's left over at the back ought to have been carted out long ago," answered the boy. He meant the stable manure.

"Ought it really?" said the parson. "How annoying! Why didn't you mention it, Mads?"

"Well, it had to heap up a bit first," exclaimed Mads. He was an old fellow who went about there on the farm. The parson worked the land himself, and he didn't do it well.

"What a pity!" said the parson. "But is it quite out of the question now?"

"No, it'll be all right, as long as Mads doesn't get in my way," said the boy.

"I resign," cried the old loafer.

"I suppose we're wrong," said the parson. "Mads has nothing else to live on. I have often felt, Mads, that you were a tremendous waster of time; but I couldn't bring myself to sack you."

"One must be thankful for small mercies," exclaimed Mads. "One has to wag one's tail and to play the flatterer and the beggar."

"What's that you say, you old villain?" shouted the parson. "Do you insult the man and the home that gives up everything for you, you rascal? Do you speak of beggars? Do you dare to imply that it was beggars who stole my eggs and cheese and sold them in the town? Perhaps it was a beggar who emptied the tobacco canister, you thieving ruffian?"

"I don't care a brass farthing what you say about me," answered Mads. "Good God! I haven't been paid a penny for nine months."

"One gets nothing but worry and blame," cried the parson, "worry and blame..."

"But the fact is," he continued to the boy, "I've really done old Mads a bitter injustice. He's loyal, he's extremely good. He's the handiest, most patient of men, and he really has a lot of wages owing. Did I accuse you of stealing, dear Mads? I'm sorry if I did, Mads, very sorry. I will put up your wages. Yes, couldn't we let Mads have wages without his having to do any work?"

"Why, yes," said the boy; "they would be well-earned." So the boy carted out the manure, spread it, and was a great stand-by in the fields. The parson came out with the horses to plough.

"I love ploughing," he said. As a matter of fact, he didn't know how to. The furrows were so crooked that the birds who came swarming after worms became dizzy. As the parson went past Espen, he heard him saying as he spread the muck: "This unmentionable stuff is too bad for anything—Amen. It's all of it bad farming—Amen."

"What's that you keep on saying?" asked the parson.

"I was preaching a sermon," replied the boy.

"It was a funny kind of sermon."

"That's something you understand, sir," said the boy; "and so may I say that that's a funny way to plough?"

"Well, I'm sorry," said the parson. "But perhaps you'll give me a lesson?"

The boy drove the plough for a while and straightened the furrows; and, although it was so misty that they might have been alone on a desert island, every furrow was now so straight that you could have fired a rifle-shot right along it.

"That looks splendid," said the tall parson, who had to quicken his step to keep up with them. "But now you must explain what you do."

"It's not a question of explaining," said Espen; "you must have it in you. But the horses have got to learn to step out and keep the whipple-tree straight. Then they hold up their heads and are proud of their job. Otherwise they'll get sullen and crotchety like Mads."

"I should like to know what I could teach you," said the parson.

"As you turn the plough, the traces should be taut," the boy went on, "then you can set the plough in the furrow with two fingers. Look here—it gets up from the ground, and settles down again, as lightly as a gull."

"That must be delightful," said the parson. "What I can't make out is, why you want to work for me when you're so clever."

"Well, you see, once in a lifetime you've got to do something silly," was the boy's reply.

"No doubt," said the parson, "but it surely needn't be as silly as this. Aren't there any other reasons?"

"There are such a lot that have cleared out from here that it encouraged me to have a try."

"You'll be a weight on my conscience," said the parson, "for, you see, I may even not be able to pay you your wages. Whatever can I do for you? Would you like to learn Latin?"

"Yes, sir, I would."

"But surely there must be some other reason."

"Ye-es, maybe," said Espen slowly. "The fact is, sir, I don't find that your sermons are up to much."

"That's another thing you're good at. And so you think that my sermons are poor," said the parson sadly. "You're absolutely right. God help me, it's true enough."

"So many good sermons have sent me to sleep," said the boy, "that I'll gladly change them for some bad ones."

"I'm no Demosthenes or Abelard, dear me, no," said the parson, "and I realise that my superiors are very dissatisfied with me. You're right. I feel my inferiority when I go before the altar or into the pulpit... But whatever was that?"

"It was a toad," said Espen. They saw the squat little creature twitch its arms and legs in the furrow before the plough turned the earth up over it. The parson began to burrow in the soil with his hands.

"We must rescue you, little brother," he said. When he could not find the toad, he went home and fetched tools. At last, just as darkness was falling over the ploughland, there he was with the toad in his hand. It was alive all right, its heart beating away with continual little throbs from its chest...

"Now tell me frankly," said the parson, when they sat down at evening to do Latin in his study, "is it by any chance because of my daughter you have come to me?"

"I should think that would have been a good reason for staying away," answered the boy.

"Good," said the parson; "but, all the same, we will begin by declining the word amor, because that's the most important word of all."

Progress with Latin was extremely slow; the parson had so many other things to think about. The boy had plenty of aptitude; he had a good head for figures, and he was beginning to keep accounts for the farming. The outlook was black; but the boy wore himself to the bone to make it brighter.

It happened that the parson wanted to read some Homer to them, as they sat there one evening. "I love Homer," he said. "Since the Gospel was written, there have been no creators in the art of poetry. I suppose they have not been wanted. But Homer was a creator. Couldn't you imagine yourself being a Homer?"

"Ye-es, I could," said the boy. But he sometimes fell asleep over his books, like Homer himself.

"Never mind, I'll open your eyes for you," said the parson.

One night, later in the winter, he woke Espen and told him to get up and put on his warmest clothes. Outside there was fearful weather, and it was blowing hard. The parson also woke up the tramps, who were sleeping in the parlour. There were three of them. There was always somebody who came there for a meal and a bed. "Now you shall all see God write a poem," the parson shouted in to them. "You'll find some coats in the hall." His wife and daughter emerged in thick overmantles. The parson bowed to his wife, who was a fine-looking woman, and then he offered her his arm. "You can take Helen," he cried to the boy. After the parson and his wife went the three drowsy tramps, and then came Espen and the daughter. She held on to him tightly, and he was a bit doubtful about that. They made for the coast, dead against the wind. They had to lean right forward in order not to be blown off their feet. Helen squeezed the boy's arm—she was a year older than he was and full of life—and it wasn't long before she put her hand in his pocket. "Oh, how lovely and warm it is!" she said. "But what is it you have there?"

"I expect it's only some snail-shells. They aren't worth anything."

"But there's something else—bigger. What is it?"

"Oh, I expect it's a stone with a curious hole in it."

"Well, but there's something jagged—what's that?"

"Oh, that's nothing; it's a lobster-claw."

"You'll be my knight, won't you?" she said.

"If I'm equal to it," answered the boy.

"You're fair and strong and good-looking, you have clean nails," she said; "you can perfectly well be my knight. But then you ought to play the harp before me, or the flute. And you must wear my colour on your armour."

"What colour is it?"

"Red," she answered, delighted.

"Red like rust," said the boy.

"No, like blood," said the girl; "and then you must come riding to me with beautiful, costly presents."

"I've nothing but snail-shells and the lobster-claw," said Espen.

"Oh, if only we were betrothed," she said right up into his ear, so close that it tickled. It was blowing so hard that you had almost to shriek what is generally whispered.

"Yes, I dare say," said the boy.

"You may stand and sing at night under my window, if you like."

"Thanks very much."

"You may knock on the window, if you like."

"Thanks," he said.

"Oh, it's hard work walking ahead," she continued. "Put your strong arm round my waist, darling. Yes, like that. No, hold me tighter than that, my own husband."

So the boy had to hold her tighter than that, and he couldn't help noticing that the place was well suited for the purpose. There she was slim, but plumper both above and below.

As they approached the sea, whole clouds of foam came flying towards them. The parson led his little party up to the cliff, and there they had to remain. The whole of the foreshore was foaming surf. A portion of the cliff in front of them slid away, and one of the tramps just managed to save the parson's wife in time. A large tree sank slowly and toppled into the sea without their hearing the splash. A vast quantity of stones came running up the beach every time the sea drew breath. It was as black as if both water and clouds came floating straight out of the kingdom of the dead, forcing along with them white flocks of sheep.

The parson stood like a tall, extinguished lighthouse at the edge of the cliff. He stretched up his long arm as though he would tear tatters from the sky. His hat was dashed from his head and flew away like a large bird into the darkness. But nobody could hear what it was he was shouting and explaining.

The eldest of the vagrants also wanted to speak. The blanket he had wrapped himself in bulged about him and made him enormously fat. He and the parson bawled at each other several times without the parson understanding him.

"I was only saying how it blows!" bellowed the vagrant with all his might. But when they saw a lantern swaying far out at sea, the parson wanted to go home and telephone to the coastguard. Helen slipped back into the boy's arm; they came last in the procession. As long as he held tight, she said nothing.

"Oh, it's been a wonderful trip," whispered the young girl into his ear, as they reached the shelter of the trees. And the boy discovered that he was kissing her.

"Go on, my knight," she said. The boy obeyed, and he couldn't understand how she could endure it. His snail-shells couldn't—as he saw afterwards.

"Oh," said Helen, "I am a sea with lovely great waves in it. Only mind you don't let Mother catch you at it."

The parson insisted on their coming into the church. They must say prayers for those at sea. He lighted the candles and said: "Has any of you ever been a sailor?"

"Yes, I have," said one of the tramps.

"And so have I," said another.

"Then you are the ones to speak to God," said the parson.

"I will beseech the Almighty to keep them broadside to the waves," said the first.

"And to keep them in good spirits," added the other.

"Amen," said the parson.

 After that nocturnal excursion the parson's good lady went into a decline; more and more she sickened, and towards spring she died.

"I am to blame for my wife's death," the parson told everyone he met. "Oh, don't take it like that," they replied, in order to say something.

"Ah, yes, my boy," he said to Espen, as she lay at her last gasp, "I knew she wasn't strong, and yet I took her out with us to see Homer's Superior reciting hexameters. She's the finest soul ever bestowed upon earth, and yet that's how I've always been—hot-headed and inconsiderate. Don't you think so?"

"Yes, I do," said the boy.

"It's good to hear you say it," said the parson, wiping his nest "But now go in to my wife. She's been asking for you."

"Take care of him," she said to the boy, who hardly dared to breathe inside the sickroom for fear of blowing out her life's candle, so frail did she appear. "Take care of him. He has a bird in his breast; take good care of that."

The boy drove home to his father and mother.

"Well," said the father, "your clothes haven't stopped shrinking. You ought to buy yourself a new suit that's big enough. You get good wages, don't you?"

"I haven't got any yet."

"What does that matter, as long as the money's safe," said the father. "Otherwise, I was thinking that, next time you turn tail, you might come home and dig us a new well. But you're not leaving yet, then?"

"No," said the boy. "I've come to ask if you'll lend me a hundred crowns or so."

"All right, I will," was the answer. "I've not got them, for things aren't too promising here, but I'll go out and borrow them for you at once. It's good for a son to know that his father enjoys people's confidence, in the same way as it's good when a father can say of his children: 'Look you, even if one or two splinters from that drone go to the bad, yet I know there is sound wood in him.'"

"I've got a stone here with a curious hole in it," said the boy. "I'll put it on the chest of drawers. It'll do as a pledge for the money, and when you look at it you'll know I'm coming home to dig the well as soon as I can. But you haven't asked me what I'm going to do with the money." His father said nothing. He combed the few hairs he had left and put on a dark coat to go out and borrow money.

"I should very much like to know, Espen," said his mother.

"I want the parson's wife to have a nice funeral," said the boy.

"Poor lady," said the mother. "She was the daughter of a bishop—just fancy. But you have my blessing, too."

The boy had paid for the coffin, and he helped to carry it. He could hardly feel that he was carrying anything, so light had she become. So strong had the boy become.

"Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return, from dust shalt thou rise again," said the parson. Around him stood numbers of the poor and the vagrant. There was a large gathering.

The seams in the home gave way, now the wife was gone. The parson was deeply in debt; he gave a lot away, was cheated by others, and took no care of the rest. And he began to be eccentric. He refused to see anyone at the parsonage, he locked himself inside his study, and there he sat trying to draw a picture of his wife's face. If they had previously had pictures of her, these had now disappeared in the general confusion. The parson couldn't really draw her, but he went on trying. He kept tearing papers in half and throwing it out of the window—and then he made a fresh attempt. When a long time had been spent in this way, the boy knocked at the door.

"Don't come and disturb me!" shouted the parson.

The boy went round to the window.

"What do you want?" called out the parson.

"There's a lot to be done," answered Espen.

"How dare you keep on at me, you young scamp?" shouted the parson. "You're a rude, importunate fellow. I should like to hear how much you know of the Creed. And how did it go with the Latin? Not to mention Homer, whom you fell asleep over. Go and do your work. After all, you get good wages."

"Do I?" said the boy. "It's nice to know that."

"And you're impudent as well," bawled the parson.

"I'm glad to be getting my wages," said Espen; "I should like them now."

"Bless my soul!" said the parson. "Then take one of the cows in the stable. How many are there left? Are there a couple? Take one of those—and be off with you!"

The boy went indoors and packed up his belongings. As he was leaving the parsonage with his bundle, he met Helen. She had a wreath of dandelions round her neck.

"Tell me, my gallant, what you've got there in that package?" she cried.

"That? That's my armour."

"Are you going on a crusade?" she asked. "Oh, do come back quickly and set me free. I shall soon be out of mourning now, and I thought the day after to-morrow we really ought to get married. So now you must give me a love-token."

"Here's the lobster-claw," answered Espen. Shortly after, he was overtaken by the parson, who was carrying a weeding-fork. "Please, will you show me how to weed?" asked the parson. Espen took his things back into the house and then showed the parson how to weed.

"Now I can see my wife's face in the flowers," said the parson, when he had been weeding some time. He no longer shut himself up in his room. But it was the boy who did most of the work. He toiled enough for three on the land, and sang as well. "Attention—take aim!" he said, and with that he let loose at thistles and quitch in the neglected fields. When the weather was fine, Helen came out to the boy. She was not very helpful. "I'm really a poppy," she said. "I have to mind and not lose my petals, though you become twice as strong when you have a poppy to look at."

She didn't wear very much, and she got quite brown. When the boy was harvesting hay in the marsh, where nobody could see them, she went crazy. "Now I know for certain," she said, "that my time of mourning is over. Oh, how I'll be sea again. Kiss me, Prince Paris." Then she went on: "Ah, what games we can have: you'll be like a thousand handsome knights, and I'll clip you in the middle, for I'm the scissors."

The boy left the hay standing rather too long, and they played at Adam and Eve the whole time.

"Your father will certainly have to know," said Espen.

"Do whatever you please, my idol!" she replied.

Espen shirked it for a few days; then he approached the parson. "I'm afraid I've been and broken one of the Commandments."

"Have you, my friend?" said the parson. "Only one of the Commandments? Which one?"

"I think it must be the fifth," said the boy.

"Espen, Espen—why, Espen!" said the parson and laid his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Then you must have been very desperate and unhappy. And you acted no doubt in a fit of anger? Anger, anger—that's in itself so terrible. Almighty God! It's not often that Peter can safely cut off Malthus's ear. My boy, my boy, even if you've done this terrible thing, which I have only been on the point of doing, yet I'll confess to you that I am no better than you. But tell me about it."

"Well, but I'm afraid I made a mistake," said Espen, retreating a little in order to avoid the parson's fatherly grasp of his shoulders, which he failed to do, for the parson followed after him. "Perhaps I ought to have said the seventh Commandment."

"You have not murdered but stolen," exclaimed the parson. "What's that you're saying, boy? Do you come here with a confession of common theft? And whatever's up with you, man? You make a mistake in the Commandments—go rooting round with your snout in God's Commandments like a lazy pig. Here to my very face. You young fool! If I'd suspected it, I'd have lost no time in knocking the Commandments word for word into that thick chuckle-pate of yours."

"I'm not sure that would have been enough," said the boy.

"Possibly not, possibly not," said the parson. "Desperate remedies required, I can see. What have you stolen?"

"I can't very well tell you that," answered Espen. "You can't? Now, look at that!" cried the priest, striding testily up and down the room. "Then what in heaven's name makes you come to me?"

"I didn't want others to come and tell you before I did."

The parson stood at the window and collected his thoughts. "Stealing?" he said. "I would never have thought it of you—and I can't believe it now. You've made another blunder. You meant of course the Commandment in between—the sixth."

"Yes, that was it," said the boy.

"How I must have aged," said the parson, sitting down in his chair, "not to have thought of that first of all! But tell me, Espen, do you imagine you can leave off sinning by just telling me?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"I, too, am afraid not," said the parson; "No, I'm afraid not."

"It isn't so easy," said Espen.

"I know it isn't easy, my boy," said the parson. "But I didn't think you had yet gone so far. I must praise you for having behaved so nicely and correctly towards my daughter Helen."

"Yes, part of the time," returned the boy.

"Goodness me!" said the parson. "At your age, too. But then we must see that you two get married. For you want to, don't you?"

"Yes, we do," said the boy.

"I'm glad of that," said the parson, "very glad. It's a great relief to my mind. I've been so anxious about Helen since her mother left us. But I'll thank God, I will, for the son-in-law I'm getting. Now we must have a glass of wine."

The parson shouted to the maid to call Helen in, and he fetched some dusty glasses. From the bottom of a cupboard he produced a wine bottle.

"It's empty," he said. The next one was also empty. "They're all empty," he said, "but we must have a glass."

The maid came and said she couldn't find Helen, but someone had seen her going off for a walk in the wood with the grocer's son, who was home on a holiday.

"Very well, Anna," said the parson, "but now come and help me search everywhere for some good wine."

The boy went out. He, too, went for a walk in the wood, which was not large, but only a leafy grove with some old trees, with copse and hiding-places that he knew so well. But he didn't pry into the hiding- places, although he went right round the grove. The boy had by now grown into a fine thumping young fellow; he had put on weight, and he went and trod on all the dry twigs so that they creaked and crackled under him. Then he went home again.

Helen did not come back till evening. She was looking wonderfully well. The parson called them both in to him. He had not been able to find any wine. In its place he poured out raspberry juice into the glasses. Raising his glass, he looked at the beaming Helen and the sulky boy.

"Children," he said, "I am very happy."

"So am I," said Helen, "but why are we to drink wine now?"

"Already I can see in front of me," said the parson, "how I shall sit with my little grandchildren on my knees."

"Yes, you shall have them, lovely children," said Helen, "and they shall have a wonderfully handsome father."

"Well, well," said the parson, "Espen's not bad-looking, but— wonderfully handsome?"

"Well, you see, dear, it isn't Espen," said the daughter. "What makes you think it is? Espen is charming—you really are, Espen. But you're nothing but a peasant, and a peasant you'll remain. That's really a perfectly good nose you have and manly eyes and a firm mouth; but all the same it's a peasant's nose and a peasant's mouth, you must admit that yourself. There are men, let me tell you, who are much more distinguished-looking."

The parson emptied his wine-glass. "Good-night, children," he said, and then off he went.

"I don't mind you kissing me," said Helen, "but you really mustn't expect me to marry you. Can't you see that?"

"Skaal," said Espen, and drank his raspberry juice.

"You made me feel very embarrassed," said Helen. "We heard plainly the way you went creeping round the wood. But you were so clumsy that you kept on treading the whole time on dead branches. The student turned quite pale with anger. You must bear that in mind another time."

The boy watched over every straw, every seed, and toiled from dawn to dusk. What the creditors did not take, the parson gave away. And he began to add to his debts with wine-bottles, which arrived full but very soon became empty. Perhaps he thought that in wine he might find a real remedy for the enthusiasms of his daughter. He talked, he threatened, he implored. But Helen had a passion for good-looking knights and made them happy. Finally she flew off. She flew with an admirer over land and sea to the capital. She sent home brief postcards in bright colours; she had marvellous adventures. And the parson preached several particularly bad sermons, saying that he was a bad, unhappy father and priest and a caricature of God. "Be not as I am, my brethren," he cried. Many people agreed with him entirely; and, as the worst reports got about of his daughter's life in town and he himself was not up to much, neither did he keep properly to the liturgy but disgusted the truly pious, he was at long last thrust out of office. And as the fellow was terribly in debt, impossible for Espen to keep above water even if he wore himself to the bone, they had to distrain for the debt by holding an auction over his personal chattels.

But then Helen came suddenly flying home to her father, whose large nose had acquired a remarkable tinge of blue. She had heard he was to be turned out of doors, but now of course she must help him.

A couple of years had now gone by, and Helen, radiant and beautiful, came driving up in a car that was as lovely as a ladybird and was her own. She had got it from a delightful man who gave her the most costly presents—yes, anything for the asking. Her husband? Oh, bless you, no. Whoever could imagine that Helen would be so narrow and self- seeking as to get married? Why, suppose she were to meet an impoverished, large-hearted flute-player whom she wanted to make happy for the rest of his life. What then? She would have to be divorced; that would be so cumbrous and commonplace. But now she must find means for her father. How much did he need?

"My poor child," said the parson, "I can't do that."

"Yes, but why do you say 'poor'?" asked Helen. "I know well enough that there aren't so many perfect gentle knights as I thought. But I can assure you there are delightful people existing, who will gladly make me happy and whom I can make happy. Now you shall be happy, too."

"My poor little girl," said the parson, "I must not hide my poverty behind the shame of your riches. Would to God that in the shame of poverty you had come here to hide behind my rags."

"Shame, dear Father?" she said, "but, dearest, I am so gloriously happy to make others happy. It's so wonderful to be a pretty woman that I may positively become jealous of myself, I don't mind admitting. Oh, to be a sort of billowy ocean! To be a kind of postcard in pretty colours and to travel with the mail and make a sorrowing man happy! I'm a bird on the wing—is there any shame in that?"

"My dear, sweet child," said the parson, "no doubt you have this flying craze from me. And here you can see how one's feathers moult and one is left sitting on one's rump. My vessel is so cracked that no power from God can any more be poured into it, to tell you truly what I ought to tell you. But are you really happy?"

"I could fly up and kiss the sun," she replied.

"If ever you're not happy," said the parson, "or have burnt your fingers, come to me."

"But, father darling," said Helen, "your clothes are too frightful! You really must let me help you."

"Oh, well, you might perhaps buy me a bottle of wine. Wine is so good for my health."

She gave him a happy kiss, and then she asked: "Who's that singing?" "It must be Espen," he answered. "He has been paid his wages; that's probably why."

"Dearest, I thought he had gone to America years ago."

"He's soon going," said the parson. "At last he's got his wages. I'm so proud to have been able to pay him wages. Not all of them, mind you—no, very little, in fact. Didn't you notice that all my books are gone? Yes, I sold them, before you came, and made an inventory of all my things, and Espen knew nothing about it either. And I managed to take such good care of the money that I was able to give him more than half. But Homer I couldn't part with. I carry it about secretly—the Iliad in my right-hand pocket, the Odyssey in my left, nearest to the heart, you see. And of course my Testament in an inner pocket."

Helen drove in her crimson ladybird to the grocer's and came back with a whole dozen bottles for the parson. Then she went across to Espen's room. He was sitting tying a lump of lead to the end of a string.

"Good heavens, what a man you've grown into!" she said. "But what's that to be?"

"A plumb-line," answered the boy. "The kind that's used for digging a well. How's the lobster-claw?"

"What lobster-claw?" she asked. "But what a man you've become! Such a fine profile, and such arms! And then your moustache—though you are beautifully clean-shaven. I quite enjoy having a good look at you."

"How many knights have now played their harps for you?"

"Ever so many," she replied. "But I could love thousands and thousands of handsome men."

"Here's a good spade for digging wells," he went on. "I forged it myself and shaped the ash handle. It's a mighty fine one—good enough for a peasant, anyway."

"So, then, you're going abroad," said Helen. "Well, then, I shall look after Father. He shall have a good time with me—yes, I shall spoil him."

"I don't think you will," said Espen; "he's already gone to the dogs, but he's too good for that though. I must teach you to remember that another time."

With that the boy took Helen and laid her across his knees.

"Espen," she cried, struggling to get free, "I'm a poppy, you know that. I can put up with anything, when I'm happy. But you'll shake off my petals, if you hurt me."

"I have worn your colour on my armour," said the boy, and then he spanked her.

She crept up on to his bed and sat down there. "Helen," he said, "you're not to sit there gazing at me."

"Do you remember?" she asked.

"Helen, you're not to sit there looking pretty." But she did, and the boy failed to finish off the plumb-line. And now he was the only one for Helen. She wanted to stay on. But the boy took his departure.

 "You've not got any fatter," said Espen's father, as the boy stood in his house. "The clothes will get round you better now; that's a good thing, anyway."

"Here's the money you lent me," said the boy, "and thank you for the loan." "That's all right," answered his father. "Now I'll put on a shirt-front and go and pay it back straight away. But you've given me too much."

"It takes in the interest, and interest on the interest, up to and including today," said the boy.

"Have you turned tail again?" asked the father.

"We can take measurements for the well," said Espen. "I have one more errand I must do. But the stone with the hole is still on the chest of drawers, you know. Where's Mother?"

"She's lying down," answered the father. "She's been running about like a roe-deer, but now we're dragging our hoofs a bit. Go in to her, while I run up and prevent any more interest running up."

 The parson was all alone, when he took leave of the empty house. He also went round the garden, where he picked a rose from a bush that his wife had planted. He stuck it in his button-hole, clapped his hand to his Odyssey and departed.

"Oh, here you are?" he said. It was the boy; he was sitting on one of the stones outside the gate. The parson sat down with a sigh on the other stone. He was already leg-weary merely from walking across the yard.

"I thought you had played the fool long enough," said the parson.

"One has to be thorough," said the boy.

"This child HAS been," declared the parson, sniffing at the rose.

"I want to ask one thing," said Espen. "I want to know whether I may call you by your Christian name now."

"My dear boy," said the parson. "You've made me very happy. I feel as if I had been decorated."

"Where did you think of going to?" asked the boy.

"No idea," answered the parson. "But I suppose there's a place for beggars."

"I was to give their compliments and say that you are welcome to come to my parents' home," said the boy, "and to live there."

"Thank you," said the parson.

They sat and rested for a while on the stones at the gate.

"What I wanted to say to you," Espen began presently, "was that your good lady told me something just before she died. There was a person, she said, who had a bird in his breast, and one had to be careful of that. What do you think she meant?"

"Adele," said the parson, "she believed in me too much. I don't know exactly what she meant by that. She often said things like that. But she was the one all along. Things have been going badly downhill ever since, haven't they?"

"Yes, they have," said the boy.

"What were you driving at?" asked the parson.

"Trees often bear their sweetest fruit just before they fall," said Espen.

"Really!" exclaimed the parson. "You mean I ought to preach some more miserable sermons. Really! Are you quite right in the head, young fool? Oughtn't I to have some peace by this time? I feel as if my knees can hardly hold up my moth-eaten carcass. I thought you said I was welcome in your home. Yes, and I was so touched at the idea that I went half-dizzy on this stone. But, my dear sir, I don't trust you any longer. I cannot accept the invitation. No, I go to the land of Nod, that no one knows."

"I know how to work," said the boy, "plough, forge, dig a well, work out interest, go errands, find food for a bird that can't do it himself. But I can't tell people something they don't know, but which it would do them good to know."

"Do you mean to say I could do that, failure that I am!" said the parson. "But, in that case, explain to me—how can a bad sermon be good?"

"All right," said Espen. "Suppose you get kicked out one stormy night, and a man bawls out some explanation you can't hear or follow. All the same, you still get to know something which you never knew before."

"Boy!" said the parson and stood up. "I'm one of God's casuals. I'll wear away roads and streets till I drop. I don't exactly know what I mean to do. But God will whisper me that as I go along. Perhaps I shall scream like a crow about the vanity of life, or I shall twitter like a lark about the dawn of resurrection. Perhaps God will say that to that person you shall say nothing at all. I really can't tell how the bad sermons are to be, or whether I am to preach any. But now I'm going."

"I'll go with you," said the boy, "or it'll be no go at all."

"Such lovely old trees," said the parson, as they walked along the avenue of limes. "One feels like shaking hands with every leaf and having a nice long chat with the old dames. One should peruse them well; they are full of hieroglyphs and histories scored from top to bottom on their stems. And look at the clouds—they really ARE clouds- -and you can see them framed among the trees. And the grass over there—there's only one thing in the world it can pass for, and that is genuine green grass. And that oats, we've seen it so often, we know it inside and out; but it gives us new hearts, it's like seeing a face once more that one can never grow tired of. And there's a picture of Adele," he said, pointing to a small white-starred flower in the ditch.

"And there's another picture," said the boy, who caught sight of a poppy.

 The flat stone with the curious hole in it was still lying on the chest of drawers, on the white table-centre which was changed for festive occasions. But there was dusting once or twice a week according as they were busy in the garden and field, and the stone was then rubbed with a damp cloth. There it lay for a while with bright colours showing in places—red, blue, and a touch now and then of yellow and of silver. When it dried, it became grey once more. But this process of colouring was the stone's brief Sunday.

The stone had several hundred Sundays. Later it was allowed to stay grey. No more did the wifely hand come with the damp cloth. Occasionally, when the dust lay too thick, a bearded head came and blew the worst of it away.

At a hospital in the big town near by, in a ward with many other patients, the "balmy priest" lay ill. He lay sleeping with mouth half- open and nose sticking up in the air. Above the nose there was not much left of him. There was nothing more to be done. The other patients saw that it would evidently be to-night. They had been able to tell that by the nurses; one's eyes grow very sharp in hospital. Two people came in and sat down quietly by the slumbering parson, a man and a woman, on either side of the bed. They sat there for some time, but at length she touched the parson. His consciousness had difficulty in emerging from sleep. It crawled up the slope of wakefulness, drew near to the summit, the tired eyes opened—but then it slid down again. At last he was properly awake.

"My little girl," he said, "I knew you were here. I heard you singing out in the garden. It was this one." And the old parson started to hum a tune, but it wouldn't go right.

It was Helen. She kissed him.

"My little girl," he said, "then he's really found you at last." The old man pinched his lips in pain. Helen could hardly recognize him, his mouth was so fallen in. He hadn't a tooth in his head, and this defect had no doubt not improved his preaching.

"You look as young and well as ever," he went on. "And are you still happy?"

"Yes, I'm happy," she answered, and kissed him. That was how she looked to the dying man. But Helen was certainly not as young as ever. She was black under the eyes. And rather sallow. Helen was a trifle the worse for wear.

"And I am very happy," said the parson, "now I've got you both here together. At last. God bless you!"

"It's time you took a rest, old man," said the boy.

"That'll do," said the parson. "You mustn't think you can order me about now. You know, my dear, that Espen and I, we two have done a good spell between us. Good and long. Lots of roads and lots of streets. Is there anything coming up? No fields. Birds came flying with berries and seeds, and these may have struck root in a chink between the stones now and then. Yes, the call—that was what he made me obey, and I was really more his servant than he mine. I preached terribly long, dull sermons, and he saw to everything and helped everywhere."

"It's time you took a rest, old man," repeated Espen.

"Will you please stop," said the parson. "Now I'm going to read to you. I still can, you know. You shall have a little Homer, to start with."

It didn't come to anything. He went off in the middle of it. On his table lay the Homer and his Testament. They were dirty and dog-eared. The covers were gone as well, but the boy had given them stout new bindings of sole-leather and bearskin. He had hammered out a bird on the binding. It was a tolerable likeness; you could see that it was meant to be the form of a bird.

It was in the act of spreading out its wings and soaring to its lofty nest...

The boy went with Helen to the place where she lived in a narrow street, up a great many worn-out stairs to her room, which did not at all appeal to him; the air was sickly sweet and heavy with the scent of powder.

"Is it all right to sit down?" asked the boy.

"Do what you like," said Helen. She was standing at a glass and colouring her grey lips.

"I've been searching for you," he said.

"How charming of you, Sir Knight," said Helen.

"Wherever we used to go," he continued.

"You're sitting on the bodice I've just ironed," she said.

"I'm sorry," said the boy. Then he simply had to get up; he had no desire to sit on that soft divan that was strewn with cushions.

"You ought to come away with me," he said.

"To your snail-shell?" said Helen, powdering herself. "There was a time, not long ago, when I was ready to. But you shook the petals off me, and since then the poppy hasn't got on so well, Mr. Lobster-claw. Now I don't care a damn."

"Helen," said the boy. "Just turn this way a moment."

Helen looked at herself in the glass. She gave her nose a couple of dabs; now she was a work of art that looked wonderful in the lamp- light.

"Do you think some knight or other will take a fancy to me now?" she asked.

 Espen's father was woken up early one morning by a sound he could not understand. When he went and stood in his doorway, he saw there was a big heap of earth in the yard. On the top was the rich red clay, dug up in great lumps that lay glistening at the side. Behind the clay he could see the head and broad shoulders of a fellow he knew. And he went up to him.

"Well, young wagtail," he said, "your spade had got a bit rusty."

"It's clean now," said the boy.

More snow had drifted into the father's hair though there was not really much of it left, and the top of his head shone bright and gay. In among the clay was a big stone that Espen had scooped out. He took it and placed it up on the edge.

"That's a tidy bit of work for a weakling," said the father. "We must have that stone on the chest of drawers."

The sun was just rising. The boy was four spades deep in the well.

 
 
 

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