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Journey's End by Aage Dons

Translated by F. A. Rush

Hartvig was up by six although he had been difficult to rouse on recent mornings because he had begun to sleep so badly.

But today he had wakened early: Old Weie was to be buried. And even if he had to go next door when "the family" arrived, to play with Jorgen, and was not to be allowed "to follow" Weie, it was an exciting day. The villa "Journey's End" was in a state of feverish busyness.

Aunt Jane had actually forgotten to bring him some coffee to bed. Annoyed, he ran down the stairs, but at old Weie's bedroom door he stopped. He was no longer afraid, as he was in the night; it was now broad daylight and Weie, moreover, had been taken to the chapel. Nevertheless, it was with a sense of victory and a thumping heart that he opened the door ever so slightly. The wind pulled it from him, for the window had been wide open ever since Weie died. Hartvig's night- shirt flapped round his thin legs, but he forget his usual sensitiveness to cold—for this was where Weie died.

Aunt Jane came dashing upstairs and grabbed his arm: "Child, child, you'll catch your death of cold. You're that inquisitive, you are. What have you come running in here for? He's gone."

Hartvig's big, blue eyes flashed with anger. He pulled his arm free, his dignity outraged. "Let go. You're hurting...It can't have been nice for Weie lying in the chapel at night. Why had he to do that? I'd have been scared."

"He's dead, child. He doesn't see or feel anything. It's only the living who are afraid." Jane Olsen often marvelled that Hartvig, who was a bright boy at school, could be so stupid. Still, he was only nine. "Come down with me and get dressed where it's warm."

"You haven't washed my jersey yet," he complained, sitting on the box where the logs for the stove were kept and pulling on his stocking.

"I can't get to it with all the baking and cleaning and only my one pair of hands. What's fifty kroner for ham and beer and all that goes with a funeral? Mrs. Jelk's been real stingy."

"Ham was old Weie's favourite dish and he hardly ever got it," said the boy, remembering how often Weie had grumbled that his food was insipid and did not even taste of either dirt or cinnamon.

Jane did not reply. The boy had been queer since Weie died. That was why he had better go to the Hansens for the day. One never knew what he might say next. She spread a thick layer of sugar on his bread and butter with a steady hand and poured the coffee.

"How old was Weie?" he asked, after a short silence.

"Sixty-nine," she answered, and the boy's wide-open eyes did not leave her's as he asked how old SHE was. She protested angrily, for she never told her age, except when she applied for a job or replied to a marriage advertisement. But nobody could wear a body down like Hartvig, and at last she had to come out with it: Yes, she was thirty- five. Would she never be older than that, he reflected. Anyway, that would mean she had thirty-four years to live if she lived to be as old as Weie, he added.

The boy was a mathematical genius! Was there a match for the child. The teachers said he was very gifted.

"But Weie could very well have lived longer," said Hartvig in an accusing tone, "if only—."

She looked at him sharply.

Hartvig was a tactician. He said threateningly: "Why can't I go to the funeral when I'd like to so much?"

Jane repeated still once again her reasons—he was not old enough, "the family" would prefer to be alone, there was no room...

"You're lying, you are," he muttered.

She was not going to let herself get heated that day. She quietly kneaded the dough for the bread with steady hands, her face immobile as though she slept. She had a gaily-coloured scarf on her head—a typical, elderly peasant woman. "You will do as I tell you."

Offended he went off to Weie's parlour. The stove was already blazing merrily. The house was so damp that patches of mould showed through the wall-paper. He sat himself in Weie's chair near the window. On the window shelf stood a photograph of the old man—a snapshot taken in the garden the previous year. The boy stared at it, and again a cold shiver crept down his spine. To Hartvig, Weie had been immeasurably old—like that Methuselah. His hair was completely white and his beard, too, though rather grubby from the food he spilled in it. He had greyish, bloodshot eyes and a thick lower lip that was burning red. Hartvig could not help staring at it. "What are you staring at, boy?" Old Weie would ask, without getting an answer. And then there were his trailing legs and a back that was badly bowed. Methuselah...

Hartvig had never before considered whether he liked Weie or not, but he now knew that he did. Just after he had come to "Journey's End" it had seemed to him that Weie was a nuisance because he was continually correcting him. Not that he had taken any notice of Weie; he did not count for much; it was Aunt Jane who ruled the roost. Now and again, Hartvig could almost be sorry for Weie, particularly when Aunt Jane got angry with him for spilling food down himself. Oh, those trembling hands! Or when Weie shouted that the house was his and Aunt Jane only his housekeeper, storming away in one of those sudden attacks of what she called "refractoriness". It always moved Hartvig when Weie was "refractory", for it was absolutely true that the house was his, although there was not much evidence of it.

The years passed quickly. Hartvig began to read the newspapers, and when he took the "District News" in to Weie in the evening, he had a glance through it before handing it over, which made the old man cross. But it came about that Weie's eyes became weaker and weaker, and, almost as a matter of course, Hartvig offered to read aloud to him. It was pleasant to show how clever one was. Moreover, it must surely be regarded as a good deed. Occasionally, Weie gave him something to buy fruit drops at the corner shop or he treated him to chocolate from a little silver box he carried in his waistcoat pocket. But it also happened that Weie would say that his aunt should take him to the cinema. Then she would seize the opportunity to sing Hartvig's praises, how clever the boy was, and if only one could see him through his education, and how Weie ought to bear him in mind with a little help when the time came. Hartvig was curiously embarrassed by all this.

Weie had been a farmer; but he had lacked both skill and energy. Times were bad—and so the former gay bachelor was stranded at "Journey's End" on a meagre annuity and a subsidy from his rich sister, Mrs. Jelk. The masterful Jane Olsen became his housekeeper. All this was not what he had been accustomed to—the one-time fine landowner was reduced to a frail old man in narrow circumstances. He could not look back on a life that had achieved anything and his feelings were not softened by the younger end of the family being enterprising and prosperous. Among his nephews were a chief accountant and a dentist. The dentist paid Jane Olsen's wages. It was humiliating and Weie found it hard to thank anyone.

When Olsen had been with him about six months, she began to talk of her little nephew, her brother's son, who was an orphan and not well cared for at all. Hartvig came on a visit one Sunday. He was pale and lanky. Weie felt a strange tug of sympathy in his stony, old heart— the little fellow was so oddly silent and suppressed. "We've got room enough and a little puppy like him won't eat much," said Olsen, and so it came about that Hartvig was allowed to come, just as Olsen had planned. The hollow eyes and the repression quickly disappeared. Weie frequently regretted that he had been so compliant, for Olsen had never really paid him, as he had thought she would; but he consoled himself with the thought that it was truly a good deed, and that was a field in which he was, perhaps, a little in arrears.

Mrs. Jelk had only once before been in "Journey's End". That was when the tenancy contract was signed. She had not liked the house; it was not well-appointed; the elm trees in the front garden made the parlour gloomy and damp; the district was dull. But the rent was very reasonable, and Ludvig was tired of travelling round as a perpetual guest, so they took "Journey's End". The name alone was discouraging to Mrs. Jelk's mind.

She had not managed to visit Ludvig during the six years he had lived at Knagelse—not before today. She had paid him the monthly allowance- -nobody could expect more of her, she who hated dreary provincial towns.

On the way out to Knagelse she continually assured herself that she certainly had no cause for self-reproach.

She had lost contact with Ludvig; they had grown away from one another. Life had coarsened him, in her opinion, and they no longer had anything in common. He never would talk of their childhood and of himself hardly at all. When he came on his regular six-monthly visit to Copenhagen and she asked him how he was getting on, she got for reply an ill-humoured: "As you see." What she saw was distressing—a bent, old man with a chalk-white face, who could not be persuaded to take a little course of artificial sun-ray.

And now she stood with the rest of "the family" in Ludvig's parlour. Jane Olsen, in a black wool suit and squeaking, new, patent-leather shoes, told them the details of Weie's death. Outside the dreary, grey house, a miserable, little Dannebrog waved at half-mast (Why had Ludvig not got a national flag of the usual size, thought Mrs. Jelk), and inside the room it was so hot that the dampness was unnoticeable, but it would surely mean arriving home with a chill.

Mrs. Jelk was determinedly friendly. They had to get through this unpleasant day.

"It's comforting that Weie didn't have to suffer long," said Jane Olsen, and she wiped her nose with a black-edged handkerchief.

Wonderfully discreet, thought the dentist's wife (who was a miracle by Arden), but a little more feeling in the voice would not have come amiss.

They had to brace themselves up with a cup of coffee before the funeral, and Miss Olsen went into the kitchen.

"It's clean here, at any rate. It positively reeks of soap," said the dentist's wife, looking at herself in the bright mahogany top of the cabinet. "This Empire sofa's not too bad, if it's repaired, but the rest is certainly pretty poor..." ("Now, now, Lissen," murmured die dentist.)

"Who's he left the furniture to?" asked Lissen, very practically.

"We'll ask the lawyer after the funeral," said Mrs. Jelk.

"I tip Olsen for a sure winner. Uncle Ludvig was always a lady's man. Did you notice that she has a princess-style hair-do with a pad. Her dentures fit badly, but, for the rest of her, she's got all the curves she needs." ("Now, now, Lissen". The dentist used his patient, chairside voice.)

Mrs. Jelk had seated herself in a decrepit easy chair. Lissen was tactless. Nevertheless, Mrs. Jelk was thankful they had come. It would not have been possible to endure the day alone. "Inger!" she cried as a grey-haired woman came smiling towards her, "I'm so glad you're here." Inger, who was a hospital sister, had allowed herself to be persuaded at the last moment "to follow Uncle Ludvig". "I can't bear funerals," Mrs. Jelk had said in her most pitiful voice.

 When Jane Olsen came to set the table after the funeral, she found that they were thirteen. That was the hospital sister's fault, coming without notice. To have thirteen at table was just about the worst thing that could happen, particularly at a funeral. Jane had generations of peasant superstition behind her, and she had great respect for it. The boy must be fetched, was her immediate reaction; it was the only way to ward off trouble. But what would he say? He was always worst at table, talkative because he was such a small eater and he had to use his mouth for something. She flew over the path and reached the neighbour's garden. "Hartvig!" she screeched.

The boy was usually very pernicketty, but today, of all days, he had rooted about in the earth like a pig. He had been playing at funerals, he said. She did not let him off lightly, but, contrary to habit, he put up with it in silence. He was excited. He did not even ask why, after all, he was to join them at table. All he said was: "My jersey— those stains!"

Jane Olsen rubbed and rubbed at the dirty jersey with benzine and a cloth. If only she could have foreseen this she would have got the boy some new clothes. Hartvig scrubbed his hands and cleaned his finger nails with a wire nail. Jane rubbed away at the last stains, not very successfully, speculating on what they were talking about in the parlour, and the set of her lips hardened. They had come back from the lawyer's. The trouble would certainly be starting.

"What did I say?" Madam Lissen asked triumphantly. "'Furniture and contents to go entire to my faithful housekeeper, Christiane Bothilde Olsen'. She had him in her pocket."

"She certainly has a terribly hard face." Mrs. Jelk shook her head. "I'm afraid that poor Ludvig—yes? and hard eyes." Mrs. Jelk was becoming more and more distressed. Ludvig had really wanted only to be left in peace or she would have tried to see more of him.

Before Jane Olsen released Hartvig on the family, she took him into Weie's bedroom. Her voice was low and unrecognisable. "Now hold your tongue and don't you say a word at table. If you say anything (and in that 'say anything' lay all that gave Hartvig bad dreams) I'll lock you down in the cellar tonight." Jane's eyes pierced deep into his, like spears. He ground his teeth in terror, bringing an almost imperceptible smile to her sunken mouth. She went without waiting for an answer. The boy stood there deeply distressed; but defiance quickly awakened. She frightened him all the time; it was her method of bringing up children; but her threats were never carried out.

"Ah, here is my nephew, little Hartvig," said Jane when he came into the room, and the boy greeted them all round with a moist and flabby handshake. "Now. Would you care to be seated."

Mrs. Jelk gazed wonderingly at this elderly-looking child. He was so out of place in his stained, grass-green jersey which stank of benzine. He did not go well with the pungent, soap-smelling cleanliness. There was something inappropriate about it all. It came to her mind that he had been dragged in at the last moment. She counted the company. Yes, fourteen at table.

For most of the meal Hartvig sat silent and scared. He hardly touched the food, overawed and repressed by the unaccustomed company. Chewing painfully, opening his mouth too wide, and breathing hard, he stared relentlessly at "the family".

Mrs. Jelk asked coldly about the housekeeper's earlier posts.

"I've been a housekeeper—housekeeper to elderly people—widows" (at the last moment she had corrected 'widowers' to 'widows') "and unmarried misses..."

Hartvig, full of book learning, was always on the watch for his aunt's mistakes and he could not restrain himself: "A miss is never married."

They laughed, and Jane Olsen smiled at him with anger in her eye.

Ludvig came painfully closer to Mrs. Jelk with every moment. Here in this parlour he had lived, in this dismal, tasteless hole—oh, the dark green walls with plaques that were advertisements for beer, the rocking chair with its embroidered Mecca plush and its cabinetmaker's flourishes, the gigantic grapes in HAUT-RELIEF on the oaken sideboard- -he lived here with this staring, ill-brought-up child and a doubtful woman as his only company.

"What did the doctor really say, Miss Olsen?" she asked.

"Heart failure. And there was also influenza, of course." Jane Olsen got up from the table and passed the trifle round again. She had told of Weie's last illness once before. Mrs. Jelk ought to have listen. The boy's eyes were almost starting out of his head and his hands trembled with agitation. He was getting ready to cackle. "Will madam not have a little more trifle? Oh, the sun's coming out. Perhaps you would all like to see the garden afterwards."

"You were with my brother when he died, of course?" Mrs. Jelk stuck to her subject. If only she could have comforted his last hours; but he had had no one except this woman with him—perhaps not even her, just alone. She looked at the housekeeper with a mounting uneasiness, and she perceived clearly that her questions were received with dislike and distrust—a distrust that her own tortured forebodings had inspired.

"Yes, I sat with Weie the whole time, I certainly did."

The boy's restlessness increased. He could not keep still. He pulled at the tablecloth. He wanted to say something, but the words stuck in his mouth while his jaws ground away at the same piece of macaroon without ever really meeting.

"What is it, little man?" asked Mrs. Jelk in an encouraging manner.

"He's very nervous—anaemia," explained Jane.

Her voice brought the words to Hartvig's lips. "It isn't true what she says. She was out all the evening—and the night too. Weie lay in the middle of the floor dead when she came home. It was then we went in. I didn't dare to go in when I was alone. He just lay and groaned almost from when she went. I heard him clearly, but I was frightened, and she always locked the house up when she went out, so I couldn't fetch anyone."

The icy clamminess of the house seemed to paralyse them all in spite of the heat from the stove. Only Jane, who was accustomed to it, had something to say: "How CAN you say such a thing, child. That's wickedly untrue," she said drily, and the hard mask of her face did not change in the least. This in itself shook Mrs. Jelk terribly. Poor helpless Ludvig...

Hartvig's cheeks flushed with temper. She accused him of lying in front of the whole "family"—he, who knew the Ten Commandments, which said "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour". But SHE was the liar. She had lied to Weie when she was going out in the evening with that commercial traveller. She had lied to him when she put most of the housekeeping money in her savings bank account and then had to give him porridge for his meals, saying that everything had got so dear. SHE was the liar.

"I lay there and heard how he groaned, and I prayed to God for him, but it didn't help at all. Before she went she'd given him those powders that make you sleep—in elderberry juice. And when she came home with the commercial traveller, Weie had stopped groaning—and we went in. He was lying on the floor all curled up, and she said it was a good job he wasn't cold or it would have been hard to get him laid out properly. When they'd laid him on the bed—as if he'd died like that—she went into the kitchen and made some coffee. And that commercial traveller man shook me and said I'd better not dare to say anything—he's called Mogensen."

Jane Olsen did not attempt to stop Hartvig. She just sat and looked at him with her hard eyes, as unshakable as a mountain. The others stared at the child; the women almost breathless, the dentist ready to take a hand in appeasement as he had been all the time.

Jane Olsen was going to say something, but Mrs. Jelk forestalled her. She rose and announced, suddenly very composed: "I think we'll go."

They went slowly into Weie's parlour, Mrs. Jelk last. Jane Olsen stopped her on the threshold. "I should like a few words with you, madam."

She closed the door and they were alone. She was apparently unmoved. It did not appear to trouble her that they had all left the meal she had prepared before they had finished.

"I must excuse Hartvig. He ought not to have behaved like that. He's a very nervous child. The doctor says it's a kind of hysteria, and when he has an attack he lies. He also has nightmares, and what he dreams he believes really happened. Well, Weie's death—he liked him so much- -hasn't made things any better. Besides, he's angry with me because I wasn't able to buy him new clothes to go to the funeral."

She spoke very composedly without any seeking for words, and her eyes bored deep into Mrs. Jelk's.

"Yes, yes, I see," said the old lady. "Hartvig looks hysterical. One wouldn't like to believe all that he said."

She stopped and thought over what she had said. Because the boy was hysterical, he might well speak the truth, and she had herself suspected just that ever since she arrived. But it was no use. Nothing could be done about it now.

Jane Olsen followed "the family" out through the garden gate. They parted very politely. This painful episode must be forgotten. They were all thankful that they had got through the day and all was over.

Hartvig was standing in Weie's parlour when Jane came back. He was waiting with the defiant face of a martyr.

"You very nearly spoiled everything for us, you did." She pushed off her shoes. "But it went all right in the end. They were so puzzled they forgot about the will...I won't put you in the cellar."

"Why not?" He stared at her.

"It'll be frosty tonight, and I don't want you down with pneumonia. You've to go to school in the morning. Have you done your 'prep'?"

"I don't need—I know it."

He had big, dark shadows under his eyes and she said gently: "You haven't had your cream today, Hartvig."

Old Weie had had to make do with export cream, thought Hartvig, who always drank the best whipped cream with his luncheon.

"And you shall go to the seven o'clock performance at the cinema."

"Is the commercial traveller—Mr. Mogensen—coming?" he asked promptly.

She smiled. How bright the boy was. No fooling HIM. Yes, he would be her support one day and earn money for her—to pay the debt his father owed. Her smile grew bitter as she thought of the penniless student who went and died before Hartvig was born.

"He'll have gone before you get home."

"Will you tell him anything—anything about me at—at table." He was afraid of the commercial traveller.

She shook her head. "That's no concern of his."

It was no concern of his either that she had had an antique dealer out to see the furniture and the silver. They would be worth more than she had expected. There were some collector's pieces among the silver. She was not ill-pleased with the way things had turned out. Weie had not been a great prize, but she had put quite a bit away during the years she had been with him...

"Remember, Hartvig, whatever I do, I always do it for your sake," she said.

 
 
 

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