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The Tin Boxes by Harold Herdal

Translated by J. F. S. Pearce

The clear July day was so hot that the air above the road seemed to dance, and the dark figure of a man could be clearly seen coming along the road. Like a black silhouette, against the bright mid-day light. He had adopted a strange gait all of his own—a sort of skipping step, which carried him briskly on his way.

A small parcel, wrapped in newspaper, and tied up with over-much string was tied to a cord round his waist, and swung just below his hip. This same cord served to keep closed his enormous coat, which blew out round his slight body like a wind-filled sail. He was like a tent which had grown feet, and was walking along the road. His trousers were short and ragged, and his bare legs could be seen, with his feet slobbering along in a pair of worn-out boots that were many sizes too big for them. His seedy, frail and puny figure was quite swallowed up in that faded, tattered coat.

Yet, strange to say, there was a light-green soft hat perched firmly on his sharp little head, and beneath it appeared two grey pig-tails of hair, bound up with coarse string, finished off with a pair of bows. His face was smothered in brownish beard, from which there stood out a shiny red nose and alert little hedgehog eyes, which glittered like the glass eyes of a stuffed animal.

He was a peculiar little man, with an air all his own. As he dashed along with his queer gait and undiminished speed, he mumbled to himself continually.

The broad high-way between the open fields and wide heathland was empty but for him. There was no reason whatsoever for his haste, and he knew it, too—indeed he often remarked to himself that there was no hurry. But he had adopted that style of walking—almost of running— once and for always, and stuck to it—probably he could do no other— and he only changed it when passing through towns.

There he went about with great care, shy and nervous, with an uneasy expression on what little of his face could be seen, and with anxious eyes. There he would walk extremely slowly, and he always kept close to the walls. Always cautiously, warily—and fearfully. You never know! Dogs and so on!

Only on the open road did he skip along freely and merrily, his eyes keen and happy, and full of tenderness for flowers, worms and the song of birds.

He was frightened almost to tears by dogs, horses, cows and, most of all, by sheep, and he hated them.

He had a feeling of humility, of self-effacement, almost, in the presence of chickens; he always used to bow to cocks.

He would quickly and carefully doff his hat, which was held on by elastic, as if he were excusing himself for being so busy that he could not stop, and had to hurry on. His soul filled with a vision of paradise, and was transfigured.

Oh, how wonderful! To see chickens!

To hear cocks crowing! Wonderful!

What a lovely world!

And the clouds, too!

His soul trembled with joy; he smiled, and his grey eyes were bright and sparkling.

He was deeply touched by the flowers on the roadside, especially those that were a bit battered and dusty. He mumbled something to them, and went his way.

And there was the sun, shining down from the clear, blue sky of summer.

This, too, made him happy beyond words.

So he repeated the law; he mumbled the words solemnly, as if it were some religious chant:

Never by refuse tips, manure heaps, rubbish dumps;

Never near farms and houses, or in towns.

Only on roads, in fields, in woods.

But never in the outskirts of towns, or by fair-grounds.

That was the law.

His soul filled with solemnity as he recited it. Little tears forced their way into his inflamed old eyes, and he nodded with blissful sentimental emotion, as he dashed along the edge of the road, near the ditch, mumbling all the while.

He trotted along to the rhythm of a little song.

He scratched his head vigorously, just above his left plait, continued his pace, wrinkled up his little nose, which looked, indeed, just like a small, solid, purple rose, smacked his cracked and colourless lips under his beard, making little sucking noises, as if he were tasting something, uttered a strange gurgling sound,—glanced to either side, took a quick look behind, found himself alone, and could see no one, and suddenly set off running like mad...

He stopped, out of breath and sweating, drew a deep breath, was seized by a fit of coughing, panted for breath, and stood still, with an almost wild look in his eyes, and quite breathless. Then his little face took on an expression of satisfaction, he uttered happy sounds, and looked round earnestly. There was neither man nor beast in sight— only fields, open country, and the empty road.

The baking sun blazed down from above.

Then he seemed to become frightened, or else just uneasy, again.

Then he looked around again.

All right, then—he jumped into the air, came down again, up again, floated for a moment in space, in the sunshine, flying with the insects—down again, up, down, up, down, up, down...

He seemed to be intoxicated with joy.

Then he raised his arms, the wide coat-sleeves fell back, and little dirty hands appeared, with delicate, slender fingers, hooked like the thin claws of a bird, and they made gestures as if trying to find something firm in the air, which they could seize. He waved his arms like wings, and made faint squeals of delight.

His eyes shone out quietly from the tangle of hair, he became breathless and tired, and had to stop...

He heard the larks singing high up in the shimmering blue heavens.

Now he seemed to see something special. He walked towards this with small dancing steps—his eyes fixed themselves upon it, he approached, withdrew, seemed to be playing some game—appeared bold, then timid, brave, then fearful, made as if to flee, attacked, then fled...

And glanced suddenly round as if afraid of being taken unawares by someone.

And this was all happening on the broad, dusty road, between fields of oats and rye, beneath a blue sky, with the white furnace of the sun up above.

He stood still, like a cat watching for its prey. This notion entertained him vastly—he put on an air of great ferociousness, showed his teeth, growled—and then in a moment, he was gentle again, and peaceable—he had only been acting savagely for fun—only for fun, and now he seemed almost to be apologizing. Then at last, with a little howl, he threw himself down, with his hands grasping, on to a small shiny tin box, which lay sparkling in the grass right on the edge of the rye-field. He stood with an oblong sweet-tin in his hands, quiet, silent, solemn; his hands caressed the tin, and he stroked it.

He was a happy man.

A torn newspaper lay by the roadside. He picked it up, turned the pages as if he were looking for something—the pages were stuck together—it had laid there some time, but then he found what he was looking for—the date:

Wednesday, the 27th of June.

Further along was a clump of bushes. He sat down in the shade of them, and gave himself up to intense and possessive absorbation in the tin he had found. His life had a very real object, his existence was not meaningless, he had achieved something, and was happy. He was surrounded by the peaceful fields of the manor, the corn was perfectly still, not a breath of wind swayed its ears, which were not yet filled; the sun was high, and its midday heat streamed down; and there were the larks, the insects and the ants...

He sat there in his huge coat, under which he was half-naked—he sat happily looking at the tin box.

He had tin boxes over the whole of Zealand—scores of them—he had collections of them hidden on the edges of moors, beside little lakes, and in other peaceful spots. It filled him with joy when thought of it. HIS existence was not meaningless; he had something to live for!


He sat with his back to the corn, and gave himself up to thoughts. He did, indeed, think. People might not think so. But he was, indeed, a thinking man; no ordinary tramp—most certainly not!

His life had an object, a meaning, a point; he lived a life that was BY NO MEANS—he nodded to himself—by no means empty and meaningless. Indeed no.

Indeed no, he repeated, in his small, thin and dispirited voice, which, nevertheless, now and then took on a more energetic note. He beat the grass with his delicate little hand, but stopped, as if he were committing some offence. The others—the others whom he met on the road, they made fun of him, pulled his leg, called after him, and laughed. Blimey, fancy collecting tin boxes—any fool can do that! What for, anyway—what good does it do?

He gloated. They were right—they did not know how right they were. Any fool can collect tin boxes. He nodded. Then his face was lit up by the knowledge of something that he alone knew. To collect them according to the law—according to the law!—That's different, quite different!

Indeed it was.

He nodded, and looked very firm. He was a man with an aim in life, and he was prepared to fight for it.

Then he laughed.

Ha ha!

What did they know of the law?


Nothing whatsoever.

Indeed no!

And here he was, sitting beside a rye-field, in the summer sunshine, holding a beautiful, silvery sweet tin in his hand, and in his heart was—the law.

His eyes sparkled with triumph.

He caressed his find both with hand and eye. He held the box up high, and saw it shining in the sun's light. It still smelt of sweets. That reminded him. He quickly pulled out his flask and swallowed rapidly— once, twice, thrice—coughed a little, and took a deep breath...

The whole thing was quite clear, as clear as crystal.

Take the flowers...or the animals...Don't they have to care for their kind? Has their life no meaning? Can you not see that for yourself?


Let me then ask: must there not be a meaning to one's life? Why else are we here? He raised his head in all humility, and looked around provocatively, as if expecting an answer, or a refutation.

Then he made a concession:

It may well be that life as a whole has no meaning, and that people just exist, live and must die. But that is no good. In that case, one must ONESELF create a meaning for one's life and existence. One cannot go around just aimlessly.

He was so happy that—carefully, most carefully, for it was somewhat complicated!—he took off his hat. His hair was red, and greying, neatly parted down the middle, and plaited at the back...

His eyes were shrewd and humorous, and were set in the same hairy wilderness from which his red nose shone forth. He happened to catch the parcel which he always carried with him, and which he was always so careful about, although it was quite empty.

Time after time he was asked what was in it.


It gave him a feeling of pleasure when the others gaped at him.

What the devil do you go around with it for, then?

He just laughed kindly at them—not proudly, at all, but humbly rather, as people laugh, who know something the others cannot understand—for they cannot help their ignorance.

The sun was shining; he lay back, and gazed contentedly up at the sky. He was at one with nature, and he lay there a long time, picking his nose solemnly, and looking pensive.

Suddenly he sat up and nodded.

So he collected tin boxes, then.

That had become his object, and that gave meaning to his existence.

What do other people do?


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