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The Evening Prayer by Nis Petersen

Translated by Eileen Macleod

Carl Trostrup's job in life was to sink wells for people and when I met him he was working near a village in the heart of Thy. We lodged at the same small temperance hotel and as is the custom in these places, we took our meals at one long table. He had disappeared, however, long before I sat down to my breakfast at 7.30 and as he took a packet of sandwiches with him for lunch, we did not see each other until supper at 7 o'clock. His workmen came in first and as a rule they had to wait a few minutes before he appeared. He was a man of middle height, with a face the colour of roasted coffee beans, a somewhat uncommunicative and very even-tempered man, upon whom stormy events appeared to make no more impression than a slice of bread, but he was a man possessed of a convenient and practical memory. This showed itself sometimes when there was a dispute about the details in connection with some question or other; usually he could settle the matter with one courteous, relevant and clear remark. Moreover, he not only had his opinion and facts neatly bottled and corked ready for decanting, but he did so, not only with the silent, but also with the strong man's determination to be heard. Carl Tostrup was an exceedingly strong man, and it was a joy and an edification to see him at table; there was not that tough and gristly steak which could cause his teeth the slightest inconvenience, nothing daunted these exceptional bone formations. If by mistake the dish had contained a stew of the leather thongs of a hand flail, he would hardly have noticed it—in fact it is doubtful whether he ever noticed what he put into his mouth. He seemed to be the kind of man to reduce one kind of woman—the good housewife and cook—to despair, whilst others regarded him as a model of easy-goingness.

Carl Trostrup was also something of a character in other respects. For instance, he demanded of his workmen cleanliness and tidiness, and when one remembers how exhausted workmen can be at the end of a hard day's work, it is easy to understand one or other of them giving in to the temptation to sit down to table without a proper wash and brush up. One of the first things I saw him do was to fire one of his best men. This man had appeared, bold as brass, in torn trousers covered with oil and held together in the most essential places with tacks and rubber patches, and his shirt matched the trousers so well that he might have been rigged out from a theatre wardrobe. After it had been suggested a couple of times that he might at least tidy himself up a bit before sitting down to a civilised table, one rainy evening about Easter time he was handed his final pay-packet and he seemed like a man doubting his own eyes.

Generally we did not talk to each other, but sometimes the well-borer remained sitting at the table after the men had gone outside to smoke their pipes or court the girls. Then he would go through his correspondence, making a cross here and a monosyllabic note there; his letters were no doubt models of objectivity and conciseness like the man himself. Meanwhile he smoked a cigar and when it was finished he would collect his letters and papers, bid us a brief good-night and, with his easily recognisable heavy tread, go up to his room. But very occasionally before leaving he began a short conversation about something or other he had on his mind—but never about the wind, the weather, the coming festivity or the difficult times; from him there was nothing to be found for the salvage collectors.

One evening he astonished me by asking without any explanatory introduction:—"Have you ever said evening prayers?" A strange question to ask a virtual stranger. It had fallen to my lot several times in my innocent youth to come into contact with missionaries who wanted to know whether I had made my Peace with God, but Trostrup was certainly not a missionary. Therefore the question caused me some confusion and I said:—"What do you mean—evening prayers?"

"Just that," he said. "Did you say your prayers at night as a child?"

Well, that was easy to answer, my brothers and sisters and I all said our prayers, until we were left to do so alone and after that— probably about the age of twelve—it gradually faded out. I told him this.

"What prayers did you say?" he asked, and as the question really seemed to interest him, I replied that we had a formula which remained basically the same; we prayed for our sick and sorrowing relatives and friends by name, for those who were in prison or who might die during the night, for "China's hungry millions", and for other lost and presumably unhappy heathens such as Santals and Afghans, and finally for the Royal Family. The prayers ended with Our Father, and in our very early childhood we sang that dear little goodnight song: "I know a lovely garden"—you know the one—"where roses grow and bloom..."

"Were you happy as a child?" he continued, and when I answered briefly, yes, because a child really never feels 'happy' in the emotional meaning of the word, he nodded and said: "I was happy also, until I was fourteen."

People are queer in many ways; if you say to them, "You must at least be able to recount one strange or moving or exciting experience of your early years", you are almost sure not to get so much as a commonplace anecdote out of them, but if you give them time, a week or a fortnight, and quietly watch them daily without directly approaching them, they will almost invariably come of their own accord. There was no doubt of the well-borer's intention; he was about to relate his life's history. But he found it difficult to get started. First he absolutely had to ring for some cigars, and after that he had an errand outside—infallible symptoms, signs without which the story might even have lacked something. However, at last he sat down again, looked at his hands which were criss-crossed with cracks and hard as pig-skin, and cleared his throat. When he spoke he stumbled and hesitated at first, but he soon got into the swing, and when he came to the end it was obvious that he was satisfied at having covered all the important points. He said:—

"You noticed perhaps that I said I was happy until I was fourteen; it does seem rather strange, of course, to be able to fix that sort of thing so exactly, but when I have told you what happened then, you will understand. You have possibly guessed I grew up in the country, but my father, like me, was a well-borer and was therefore often away from home for weeks on end, although he did his best to be home on Sundays at any rate. The place we had could just be run with the help of an oldish farm hand, a lad and maid of all work. And it was only when my childhood was long behind me that I came to the conclusion that he really kept the farm for my sake. It was one of his ideas that it was best for children to grow up amid nature; I am carrying on that idea myself and I too, have a little farm.

"The relationship between my father and mother was really lovely and I don't think he ever came home without some little present for her— sometimes quite a trifle, but often something for the house or perhaps a silk shawl, the sort of thing which pretty women appreciate because it makes them still more beautiful. And my mother really was very beautiful, a fact which was generally agreed. Therefore, although my father was not himself very well known in the parish because his work kept him away so much, we were often invited out, but Mother hardly ever went except when Father was at home, so our social life was mostly during the winter. I want to make it quite clear that Father didn't in any way prevent her from going out, either she just did not want to go alone, or she stayed at home from a kind of feeling of loyalty. And so I naturally became very closely attached to my mother, so much so that during the two years after my twelfth birthday we were really like brother and sister—a well-worn cliche, but still—. We collected mushrooms and botanised together, we gardened together, we built castles in the air together, and when I did my school homework, it was not so much that she helped me, as that she also did her homework ready to be heard in school next day, and perhaps she felt it like that too. And last but not least we always said our evening prayers together, up to the time I was fourteen—when it stopped with one blow. And then everything else somehow stopped also."

Although the well-borer must have been a man of about forty and therefore the incident should have had plenty of time to have faded, or at least partly faded, from his memory, it was painful to watch his struggle to keep his feelings under control. However, he continued after a short pause:

"The things that happened were in themselves shattering for our intimate little circle, but it was that evening prayer, or evening song, which made it unbearable and turned it into a crime. Of course you know that little song, 'Now I close my eyes...' which ends with the lines:

    'From sorrow, sin and danger
     Thine Angel keep me safe,
     Who guided all my steps this day.'

A hundred times, many hundreds of times had I said that verse, and always I had lain down to sleep with a feeling of invincible sentries outside my door and window...and when everything went to pieces it was as if the sentries had been withdrawn for ever and I was left to my own frailty and weakness.

But to return to the point—before my father went off on a job, then far away into a remote part of the country, he sometimes said jokingly to my mother that now she must be careful with the men-folk, for it was common knowledge that when a young and beautiful woman was alone at home the fearless pioneers of love were not far away, as sure as the Pope would go to Heaven. When he said this Mother turned up her nose, stuck out her jaw and replied that they might as well come, as it really wasn't altogether amusing to be there alone for weeks on end, and hear the whistling of the wind in the poplars outside the window. And then they both laughed and she added that she had me and Karo and that she couldn't wish for a better bodyguard.

'Yes, that's right, and you have Jens too,' he said—Jens was our middle-aged farm hand, and there had been talk of fixing a bell out to his room beside the stables, but each time the idea was dropped because Mother pointed out that as it was quite likely that he would be in the maid's room when he was needed, it would be necessary to have a connection fixed there too. Then they laughed again to each other, and Father started up his motor bike and rolled off across the courtyard whilst Mother stood watching him and waving because she knew he would look back at us when he reached the bridge over our little stream.

The spring of my fourteenth birthday was more full of events than any previous one, even if I don't count being moved up into the middle third, which was really quite good considering that it took me an hour and a half to cycle to school and back, and that I had various duties at home besides the voluntary occupations with Mother. The first event was that Jens shot an eagle, for which he was fined; Mother paid it on the quiet, because Father held that one should not encourage people to break laws. He applied the same strict rules to himself, a fact which we did not perhaps appreciate enough until it was too late. It was so like him—once I had solemnly promised Mother ten young pigeons for her birthday, which was very early in the year, and on the day before her birthday, when I climbed up to feed the birds for the last time they had all disappeared except two, which lay dead in the pigeon house. Before I got on my bicycle to ride into the village where I knew I could get the ten birds I needed, I told the farm hand to keep quiet about it, but of course he didn't, so when I got home late in the evening, Mother had coffee and doughnuts ready and she kissed me and said that she was proud to have a son who made it a point of honour to keep his word.

'What do you say?' she asked Father, and he didn't answer just then, but a little later he said, 'In my house we didn't get any praise for keeping our word.' That made Mother angry, and when Father turned to me and said 'Isn't that right, Carl?' I naturally said 'Yes,' but I didn't really mean it.

As I said, many strange things happened that spring—one of our horses ran amuck and crashed through the fence into the stream—it was an unusually good old horse with a light mane, and we had had him ever since I was born, so we were all very sad about it...and the bees kept on swarming from the very beginning of the spring, and when at last they quietened down only half of them were left. There was something bewitched about everything, it seems to me now. And then Uncle Polycarp began to visit us at short intervals. Perhaps it was really he who made us feel that everything had become strange and hectic. Uncle Polycarp was as different from Father as a cock from a drake. Whilst Father was deliberate, thoughtful and honest to an almost morbid degree, his brother was just the opposite. Those who came into contact with him must inevitably have felt that they had met an advertisement for health salts. He was always busy with something or other, always full of stories and completely untrustworthy. Father warned him now and again to stick more closely to the truth. Uncle Polycarp promised he would, but added that of course the advantage of telling the truth was that you didn't have to remember exactly what you had said, and then he immediately plunged into a new story of how, when he had once been travelling in Iceland, he had been so ill that he had had to write his last will and testament on a piece of dried codfish, or even worse nonsense than that. Then Father would shake his head and go away, and Mother would laugh and say that he would never learn sense, but he amused her all the same, and she probably secretly thought it would not have done any harm if Father had had a little of Uncle Polycarp's gaiety. Eventually, the tragedy happened. As so often before Father had to go off on a job which would keep him away for the whole week, and hardly had he passed the gate when Uncle Polycarp drove into the courtyard. This surprised and bewildered us all because he had visited us only the week before. At that time he was travelling round selling seed to those of the larger farms prudent enough to secure supplies nine months ahead, and he had told us that he had "vacuum cleaned" the district, and by that he meant there was nothing more for him to do here. However, he was always welcome and I remember that we all three went for a walk in the copse which lay at the end of our garden. In different circumstances I should hardly have remembered what we talked about, but later happenings made every detail stand out clearly. Several times during the walk Mother and Uncle nearly started a quarrel, and I thought:—What a pity that he has come and spoilt the afternoon for us. It was a pretty little wood, our copse, even though it could hardly be called a wood,—even though it was really only a few half-tame trees, still they were trees and it was fun to walk between them, though there was not much room. And so I noticed that Uncle tried several times to take Mother's arm, and that every time she pulled it away. Once they very nearly had a row, because he had made some silly compliment to her, and she said sharply, 'Do you think I don't know that you are one of the sort that asks a married woman whether she hasn't a younger sister just like her. We have heard of Mary Something or other'—I didn't catch the name—. He laughed at that, it amused him. Later on, on the way home, Mother said that once there had been things which people couldn't talk about, but that now, thanks to men like Polycarp, they could hardly talk about anything else. If he had not laughed before he certainly laughed now and he said: 'That's what you love to talk about really,' but Mother replied, 'That's where you're mistaken, my friend, and in any case you can keep your mouth shut whilst the boy is about'. That hurt me because I was fourteen and I thought I knew all about the things one didn't talk about. Luckily this turned out later to be wrong.

During our walk a heavy thunderstorm had been gathering and just as we reached the hall door, the Lord put the earth in soak, as Polycarp described it, and after having seen to the animals, I said 'Goodnight', and went to bed.

What comes next is nearly impossible to relate, but I feel somehow that it helps me to tell someone about it.—In the middle of the night I woke up with a feeling that something was wrong, and immediately after I heard noises and screams coming from my parents' bedroom below. I shakily pulled on some clothes and rushed down. What a sight met my eyes. In my father's bed lay Uncle Polycarp, dreadfully knocked about, with blood streaming all over his face and Mother was running backwards and forwards in the room, moaning as I have never heard anyone moan. Like Polycarp she was in her night garment, and she had obviously been lying on the other bed when the attack took place. It soon became clear that burglers had broken in and had attacked Polycarp, thinking that he was Father.

Just imagine a fourteen-year-old boy in that situation. Mother moaned incessantly. 'Oh, Carl, my poor boy, what is to happen to us all—and Father...poor Father.'

At last Jens was there in the doorway. He was oldish and confused, but he managed to think of telephoning for help, which I had not had the courage to do because my immature brain was pondering about how we could get out of this terrible position with the least possible harm. I did not go to school for a few days, of course, and they sent over to the field the next day to tell me that my father had come home and wanted to speak to me. When I went into the room, Mother was leaning with her head on her arms over the long table where we always had our meals with the farm workers. She kept on repeating: 'Well, hit me then, beat me, kill me. What have I got to live for after this?' But Father spoke calmly, almost in his usual way. 'Did you say prayers with the boy before you went to bed?' he asked, and Mother moaned— 'Yes, oh yes, I suppose so.' 'Supposing won't do', said Father, and Mother sobbed that she had done so. 'The last lines as well?' Father asked, and as Mother didn't answer, he repeated it louder. Mother again answered yes, she had said it all, the last lines as well. 'From sorrow, sin and danger—Thine Angel keep me safe,—Who guided all my steps this day.—Those lines as well?' He said this as if he hoped that she had skipped the last lines, but Mother only replied with a tired nod. His face became so queer—almost pallid I think—it is difficult to say because his complexion was brown, as I am now—and he said hoarsely: 'Before—you defile our house—you say prayers with him'. He said no more. He lifted his hand to strike, but I got in first. I drove my fist into his face, and then in my terror I ran out, out of the farm—out of the place—away—and four days passed before they caught me and sent me home.

"I did not go back to school again," said Carl Trostrup objectively. "I was apprenticed to a blacksmith for a couple of years, and after that I became a well-borer. It's a good profession which can keep a man, there is always work for good well-borers; they won't be able to do without us, until there are no more people left in the world."

 
 
 

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