The Birds by
Martin A Hansen
Translated by R.
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
"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
"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
The boy promised to, and when November came he went over to
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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—
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"And there's another picture," said the boy, who caught sight of a
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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-
"Do you think some knight or other will take a fancy to me now?"
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.