The King's Face by Leck Fischer
Translated by Eileen Macleod
I shall never forget that day in August...A midday peace lay over
the courtyard and the children's sandpit, when Agnes suddenly threw
down her spade and would not play any more, and squatted down by the
wall which was warm from the sun and the heat of summer. The fowls sat
lazily on the soft soil under the chestnut tree, and up in the house
the blinds were drawn whilst Grandpa and Grandma had their after-
dinner nap. Even the cobbler's workshop with its wide, shiny windows
was empty. The world went softly on its way in the little Danish town
until it was once more time to work.
"What do you want to do then?" I looked disappointedly at my
sister, who was three years older than me, and went on patting my
sandhill, which was going to be a castle. She was ten, and always the
"Shall we go up and look at the King's picture?" She got up with a
jump and stood kicking little hollows in the sand—"Grandpa won't be
up for an hour, and I've been up there before. He's got a red cloak
on—the King, I mean—". "You've been up there..." I couldn't say
anymore. We were allowed to so everywhere except up into the loft. The
house itself with its large living quarters, and the shop had been
explored long ago. Over the workshop the pigeons lived in a cooing
mass, but in the loft over the outhouse Grandpa kept a wealth of
strange things that he wanted to have to himself.
A shaky ladder led from the peat shed up to the forbidden place.
Agnes had told me that the King's picture was up there, but she had
not let out before that she had really seen it.
"Are you coming?" She sauntered a few steps and tempted me with her
calm indifference. It was so exciting that I dropped my spade and left
it there—the sand heap was not to be made into a castle just now.
Agnes crept up first. One rung of the ladder was loose and she
stepped as lightly as a cat up on to the next whilst with her back she
pushed up a hatch. Behind me stood a wall of stacked turves which shut
the light out. The sweat stood on my forehead from excitement. "Come
on." She knelt down and I crept up and eagerly grabbed the hand she
held out to me. Anxiously I passed the loose rung and reached the top.
There really was something to look at here. Agnes closed the hatch
and we were alone with the stored treasures and the cobwebs and dust
of many years. Over by the chimney hung some of Grandpa's old great
coats and on a chest stood a sewing machine. Piles of cake boxes, shoe
boxes and old newspapers were stacked right up to the top of the end
"Can you see out?" I looked at the sloping window covered with
spiders' webs, and Agnes lifted me up and pointed to the trees in the
garden and the water, which the dirty glass transformed into an unreal
view that I did not recognise. Then she took my hand and led me over
to the newspapers.
"Here's the King." She pointed and moved an engraving of the Battle
of Isted which fascinated me because it showed Danish soldiers
vanquishing an enemy in flight. It was only when she pulled the King
out into full view that I became impressed. The frame was nothing
much, and the glass had gone long ago, but there was the King on his
throne, with his son and his grandson and his grandson's little boy,
and they all had crimson cloaks or robes over their shoulders. The
King was a nice kind old man with side-whiskers.
"Isn't he grand?" Agnes expected praise.
"Yes," I answered humbly, for I had never seen such a picture
"Of course, he's dead now. The other one is king now—that one."
Agnes pointed again and enjoyed showing off her knowledge. "The
King got ill, just like Daddy and died of it, and now we'll play
hospitals." She moved the pictures and arranged some newspapers. In a
moment she had made an excellent bed for me.
"But if Grandpa..." I tried to raise objections. If Grandpa came
up, he would see at once that the things had been moved.
"He's asleep. Now you're ill just like Daddy, in hospital and I'm
your nurse." There was no more to be said, and I lay down on my bed of
sickness with a cake box for a pillow.
We were only too familiar with illness. Father had been ill for six
months and came home from one hospital only to be sent to another.
Everything had changed because of Father's illness. Mother was quite
unlike herself, and we were alone at Grandpa and Grandma's. Nobody had
said when we would be going home.
"Now you must lie still. A patient always lies still." Agnes gave
this information and disappeared behind the chimney. When she came
back she had a white cloth over her hair—I noticed that it was an old
hand towel; the red monogram sat in the middle of her forehead, like a
jewel. She also brought a rug with her. It was made of little pieces
of cloth of all colours, and the dust hung in a cloud over me as she
"You must have this over you, and then I'll go down and get your
medicine." She tucked me up in spite of my protests. It was unbearably
hot in the low-roofed loft and I could not bear having anything over
me. The rug was a heavy as a feather bed.
"And now you're not to move until I come back." She opened the
hatch and disappeared through the floor. It was always like that. I
always had just to lie, or stand or sit whilst she had the amusing
part of the game. I stretched myself and kicked the patchwork rug
away. And then the dreadful thing happened. My heel hit something at
the side and the King's picture split, with a dry scrunch, right
across his bearded face. The pieces curled backwards to either side
and disclosed an old, yellow newspaper. It seemed to me as if the
world had come to a shivering standstill. Hesitantly I crawled over to
see what I had done.
The King's face could not be saved. I bent down and with fumbling
fingers, I tried to hold the pieces together, but some of the old King
was missing. What would Grandpa say? Now it was quite impossible to
conceal our visit to the loft and he had forbidden it. He must have
had a reason for the ban. Perhaps he had put the picture there
specially so that we should not touch it.
I struggled to my feet and moved a few steps away, horrified. I
hoped wildly that the King would again look sadly at me when I turned
round, but my hope was not fulfilled. I tried several times, but it
was no good. Only the old newspapers stared at me.
And then suddenly I heard somebody calling my name. Grandpa was
calling from the courtyard, and it was not yet his usual time for
getting up. He had never before cut short his after-dinner rest. And
he called me again, his tired old voice coming nearer and nearer.
I stood petrified, nobody was going to get me to leave my hiding
place. Agnes ought to be ashamed of herself, waking Grandpa to tell
him that we had been up in his loft. And she little knew what had
happened later on—there, by my newspaper bed stood the headless King
in his crimson cloak bordered with ermine.
The steps in the courtyard became more distinct—Grandpa came
through the door of the outhouse, Grandpa was touching the ladder up
to the loft.
I still stood there. I was so frightened that I hardly dared to
breathe when Grandpa slowly raised the hatch, stuck his grey head up
through the floor and beckoned to me. His voice was not angry and that
increased my fright, he was much more than angry, he was sad and
distressed about it as he called to me: "Come down, my boy, we must
have a talk together."
Step by step I climbed down the ladder. It was worse than I had
expected. Grandpa didn't say a word. He didn't scold me and he didn't
smack me. What ever would happen when he saw the broken picture? He
took my hand, and we went out into the daylight, which blinded me. We
walked slowly over the cobble-stones of the courtyard and in through
the door to his office. It was a dreadful walk—we were to be punished
together, Agnes and I—it was as bad as that.
She was there already, sitting on the settee under the window with
Grandma, crying, and they didn't look up when we came in. Over on the
big green desk lay a small sheet of white paper which slid across the
top as we shut the door. It filled me with despair to think that our
naughtiness was so bad that both the old people had got up.
"I have something to say to you." Grandpa took my face in his hands
and his touch was loving and clumsy, as only a man's hand can be when
it is difficult for human beings to help each other, and his voice was
strange and croaky. His mouth trembled—"I must tell you—your Daddy
is dead. We have just had a telegram." He looked helplessly at me and
fumbled with the white paper which rolled itself into a ball in his
broad hands—"We have just had a telegram."
"Is Daddy—?" I looked round in bewilderment and understood. It was
queer to see Grandpa with tears in his eyes—and Daddy was dead—no, I
couldn't believe it, my Daddy.....
After that the day was as new as a shiny unused thing. We went
about in the big house and were quite unlike ourselves, we spoke
softly and were clean and neat, and we dared not settle down anywhere.
The castle in the sand-pit never got finished.
And in the evening I told Grandpa about the King's picture. He sat
at his desk looking vaguely at me, as if he didn't understand what I
was talking about.
"The King," he said, "what do you mean?" He was very tired. The
wrinkles in his face seemed suddenly to have become deeper. Slowly he
took his spectacles off:
"Never mind, my boy, what does it matter now." That was all. And
then his look again became distant, far away from the boy who had
struggled with his fear in order to tell of his sin.
I felt a great, clean and rich happiness. In the midst of my sorrow
I was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of relief. Now it would not be
hard to go on...to go to bed at night and get up in the morning.
Father was dead, but now...now that was all right again.
And it was only many years later when doors closed themselves to
the widow's son, that I fully understood how much I had lost on that
hot August day when my ailing young father died and I tore the King's
face with by heel.