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The School Teacher and His Family Take A Summer Holiday

by the Sea by Harry Soiberg

Translated by Ann R. Born

Never before had Niels the Beachcomber seen such joyous faces as on the day he drove the strange visitors home to Beachcomber Farm, he felt an air of enchantment all around him that surpassed his comprehension, for he knew that more unpretentious districts than this land of sand dunes were hardly to be found. He sat awkwardly slumped in the driving seat, listening to the strange city dialect; he was familiar with the tongue of the county town, but these people were from the capital—and a learned man into the bargain. Several times, hearing their delighted outcries, he looked around him in surprise, believing something must have appeared which had slipped his notice until now...usually he recognised each little clearing or sandy hillock. This was the first time they were taking summer visitors, so many weeks of excitement had preceded this moment; how would such an insignificant spot strike these people? There had been moments when both he and his wife had thought of the old homestead as a poor place. Several times the wife had had it in mind to cancel the visit so as not to lure the poor souls all that way if the place didn't suit them- -and if they went away again, what a disgrace that would be.

But they were in raptures. He stole a glance at their faces; it was indeed joy, you might almost think that the loveliest things to be seen were nothing other than the clumps of heather and the straws of sea-grass shining in the sun, and what delight over the song of the lark, and each tiny peewit to be seen above the rushes.

He became pensive, pondering on the life there was in these people, the grown-ups were almost worse than the children. He could hardly get a word in edgeways for the shower of questions directed at him. The lady grasped his shoulder from her seat at the rear and asked him first about this and then about that. It was just like being out in a storm. The feel of her hand brought a lop-sided grin to his face, he had noticed at once how it was with her, that she was pregnant. And what about the girl who was sitting next to her, would she be a maid or a daughter?

When the farm came in sight some distance away, Niels felt his heart leap up into his mouth, he kept his face turned aside so that his tension and awkwardness might remain unnoticed. The old flaws and shortcomings which had almost been buried in oblivion, were suddenly so apparent to him that he felt they were bound to notice them at once.

But what was this...a thrill went through him, the children in the wagon had begun to clap their hands and shout with joy at the sight of the foal trotting beside the mare in the meadow close by the farm. The grown-ups too broke into raptures over the peaceful spot, lying there enclosed by heath and dunes, with its cultivated fields, and with the joyous song of a lark echoing over the barns.

Then Niels's features relaxed into a beaming smile, he shot a glance at his wife, who had shyly come to the door to greet them, so that she might know that the guests he brought were pleasant ones.

The minute the children had hopped down from the wagon they scattered like chickens, and the guests had hardly entered the living-room door when the whole place was shattered by shrill shrieks, as if an accident had happened, and everyone rushed out again. The children were running towards the door with the gander at their heels, the youngest lay where he had tumbled down in the grass, screaming in direst terror. But a moment later they were laughing and clapping about it all.

The teacher's wife remained standing out in the yard with her face turned towards the wind, Niels and his wife both felt quite embarrassed, her skirt wrapped itself around her knees so that it was evident that she had hardly any clothes on. Mrs. Niels glanced towards the stable-door and the scullery, from where the farm-hand and the girl announced their presence...never before had she seen a woman so obviously letting the world know she was going to have a child. Quietly she led them in through the living-room and the rooms they were to occupy; her heart was beating despite her outward composure. Where the lady and gentleman were to sleep stood the bed-steads piled high as haystacks with quilts; it was a sign of prosperity for the strangers' eyes, bedclothes and linen it would take more than a lifetime to wear out. In her heart he was proud to be able to offer them that anyway and she glanced expectantly at their faces.

The teacher slapped his hand down on the tightly packed down quilts, whose solid feather contents filled out again as if he had struck a ball, and laughed good-naturedly.

"You've certainly got some weighty ones here," he broke out, "but I can only sleep with one blanket over me."

Mrs. Niels retained her composure in spite of her disappointment, she seemed hardly to gather what he said. But the lady made haste to explain courteously that they were accustomed to blankets at home.

And before Mrs. Niels realised what they were about, they began to carry the mountains of bedclothes out of the room. But otherwise they thought it all delightful.

You might have thought that the farm was deserted next morning, all was so still when the guests appeared in the hall ready to go to the beach. The teacher had only a white robe thrown over his shoulders, and it flapped around him so that Mrs. Niels and the maid drew back in a flurry from their hiding-place behind the window-frame. The children went leaping out into the garden in a garb which involuntarily made you think of savage peoples in the tropics...but when Mrs. Niels caught sight of the lady and the young girl in similar airy garments, it seemed as if all order in the universe was suddenly demolished before her eyes...that women could make such an exhibition of themselves! If she hadn't seen it with her own eyes, she wouldn't have believed it possible.

With the wind wafting their clothes the family danced across the green, so that it was hard to distinguish in the sunlight between naked skin and clothes; involuntarily she glanced towards the stable door, where the farm-hand and the young herdsman had appeared a moment before...for young folk to see such sights! But their heads had vanished too.

Suddenly the girl burst out giggling, scarlet and spluttering, as if she had stumbled on some great knowledge unawares. Not until then did Mrs. Niels regain her tongue.

"Gracious heavens," she exclaimed, "So that's the sort of folk we've got at the farm—bathers!"

Her face revealed that she was outraged, she said nothing further but remained thoughtful, as if she had incomprehensible things to occupy her mind.

Later in the morning Niels came driving home along the beach after his daily beachcombing expedition, he walked beside the wagon with the rein in his hand in his usual phlegmatic manner. Several times a smile played about his lips at the thought of the strangers at home. Now and then he glanced along the beach, he had a feeling that a singular kind of day was in store for him, he was filled with curiosity and a desire to see more of these odd people. Suddenly he became aware of something on the beach, his gaze became fixed and sharp, as if he had caught sight of something drifting out at sea, but then he jerked at the rein and stopped the wagon.

What was that—it looked like naked people!

He passed his hand across his eyes as if he doubted the truth of their vision. By heavens, it WAS somebody...there were big ones and little ones, they ran along the beach in the sunshine, so that their white skins flashed like fire in the light.

They were just near the way up from the beach, he glanced nervously back to see if he could possibly go by another way, but it was impossible to drive a loaded cart over the dunes. He kept the horses still for a while so that they would discover him and put on some clothing, or else hide themselves. Now he could clearly hear both voices and laughter...and see, there was the man, running along with one of the children riding astride his shoulders.

Dubiously he made the horses start with the thought that they would soon get out of the way when they saw him coming; he pretended not to have noticed anything, but still he kept his gaze fixed on them, and he drove as slowly as it was possible, to keep the horses moving... but there was no sign of their having seen him.

There stood the lady, outlined against the blue sky, he dragged at the rein, and suddenly he felt a strange, heavy, still feeling inside him.

Bashfully he drew back behind the wagon and occupied himself with this and that so no one should know he had been a witness to what he had seen...those crazy folk. But he soon realised that if he went on waiting for them he would have to leave his horses and cart.

You would almost have thought they didn't reckon him for a human being at all.

When he slowly drove on he kept himself out of sight behind the load. When he came to the way up the children came rushing to meet him, wanting a ride, but he shooed them away more brusquely than he really intended, and urged on the horses so that they broke into a trot along the soft sandy road from the beach.

A little while later he tramped into the farmyard with a clouded countenance, so that his wife, catching sight of him through the kitchen window, noticed at once that something had happened to him. Suddenly he came through the scullery and went into the living-room, where he slumped down on the settle and fell into a muse. His wife passed the door a couple of times on unnecessary errands before she made up her mind to go in to him.

He kept his eyes on the floor, as if there were something shameful in the news he was about to communicate, and she closed the door resolutely so that they could talk in privacy. She too wore an embarrassed air, as if she was confronted with things unmentionable even between married folks.

Niels had experienced more on that journey along the beach than in the whole previous course of his life...he had never even seen his own wife clothed in less than her chemise. A glance at her told him that she too had something to impart.

"The way those people rushed off," she began. "In full view of the hand and the girl...they had hardly a stitch on them. Terrible for the young folks to see such sights."

She stood there with flaming cheeks.

"Did they go off like that?" he asked.

"It seems shameful to talk of it," she answered.

Then he too told of what he had seen. The lady had been standing in full view of his eyes down there on the beach, with no more shame in her than a pregnant ewe in the field.

They both kept their eyes on the floor while they talked, if this got round the neighbourhood it would bring both gossip and shame on them, taking suchlike folks in.

Then she had a brainwave.

"You must collect some empty fish boxes and build them up down on the beach so they can have a place to stay in and use as a bathing hut," she said.

At midday, while the visitors were indoors, Niels went down to the beach and dragged the boxes together and erected a building he was quite proud of...if they wanted to they could get very good shelter there.

In the evening, when the school teacher was sitting enjoying the peace and quietness outside the farmyard while the children were being put to bed and the sun was just going down, Niels approached him, having for some time hovered about in his neighbourhood. The school teacher at once began to chat enthusiastically about the sea and the beach and the heavenly surroundings, overjoyed to be in a place they could have to themselves.

Niels listened attentively, trying to make out the gist of what he was saying. But it puzzled him a bit, you would almost think the strangers were the only folk alive on the farm.

Finally he came out with the reason for his approach.

He had built up some fish boxes down there, he said, so that they had somewhere to undress...for there were no bathing huts here.

The school teacher interpreted his words as purely innocent, that wasn't necessary, he answered, there was room and to spare here, and as he smiled his face already reflected new freshness from the sun and the sea.

It was plain to see that there was something amiss at the farm, everybody seemed bashful as if they each carried the knowledge about with them of things they must not mention. A week after the arrival of the strangers the shepherd boy came leaping home from the dunes one day, scarlet-faced and distraught, as if he had been witness to some unholy sight. Both the farm-hand and the girl tried to make him talk, he stood there and grinned, but they could get no explanation out of him.

It was the girl who showed herself most sophisticated.

"Talk about Adam and Eve," she laughed, but she turned scarlet all the same. And the hand sneaked a stiff glance at her as if she were forbidden fruit herself.

Over in the cow-shed the hand made the shepherd boy talk. He had gone up to the summit of a sand dune to look for the sheep, and he suddenly saw the whole school teacher family lying before him, their bodies as pink as newly born piglets—at first glimpse he had been so startled he hardly recognised them, he thought only barbarians and heathens went about in such fashion.

Rumours of the goings-on at the Beachcomber Farm spread quickly about the neighbourhood. Nothing was discussed openly, but all the same people got to know about this and that. A peasant who had been among the dunes gathering turf, had seen sights...At first they didn't know quite how to take it, although of course they had heard descriptions of seaside life from other places on the coast. Among the older people disgust was aroused at the idea of naked people running about the place. But chuckles soon became audible among lads and girls, though each word held in its own way contempt for these strange people who could allow themselves to behave like this. Many of them went to the farm on some pretext or other, they kept behind the barns so as not to be seen by the farmer or his wife, for they didn't want to upset them. And if they happened to catch sight of any of the school teacher family they kept out of sight behind doors or walls as if the reason for their presence there was written all over them.

The hand and the shepherd boy behaved like people who possessed knowledge which would annihilate the whole world if they really cared to break silence about it.

Then it happened one morning that Niels's wife had to go into the drawing-room to look for something in the chest of drawers which stood in there; she listened at the door to make certain no one was up yet. She had needed the article she was going to fetch for some days, but had continually put off going in there for fear of disturbing...She laid her ear against the door panel, she had heard a noise from within, but now all was quiet again. So she grasped the door handle, she had just crossed the threshold and turned towards the chest when she halted, rooted to the spot with a kind of horror—for a moment she was utterly flabbergasted and didn't know whether to advance or retreat.

The teacher was sitting by the window bent over the table writing, completely in the nude. As the door opened he turned his gaze smilingly from his papers and made a welcoming gesture towards the farmer's wife.

"Come in, you won't disturb me," he cried; in his preoccupation he took her confusion to be fear of disturbing.

He sat in the middle of a bar of sunlight slanting in through the window-panes; it seemed to Mrs. Niels as if she could see the sun-rays passing right through him. With a half-smothered shriek she flung up her arms and staggered back through the door right out to the scullery where she sank half-swooning on to a chair.

"Lord above, Lord above," she groaned with her arms hanging limply down, never had she seen the like.

A hectic flush suffused her cheeks. The girl, who was standing right in front of her, did not know whether to laugh or be frightened.

"Heavens above," she said, in a tone meant to show that whatever the case she was in sympathy with her mistress.

"Sitting in there writing in the blazing sunlight, he was, with never a stitch on him," she brought out at last.

The girl turned away abruptly, bent over and burst out laughing.

"Was he sitting there writing in his birthday suit," she reiterated. "You must have given him a good scare, then."

Niels's wife stared up at her with a disgusted and yet somewhat milder expression, as if a feeling of comedy was also beginning to dawn on her.

"Given him a good scare...he waved his hand, as friendly as you please. Come in, you're not disturbing me, he said, and he was just about to get up, the raving lunatic."

Then the girl laughed even more heartily and pictured the whole scene with a vivid imagination.

A few minutes later Niels appeared in the doorway asking what was going on. Whether or not he understood his wife's horror and shared her disgust, the description brought an amused quirk to his features.

"You certainly chose the right moment, old girl," he said with some humour.

When this story spread over the neighbourhood, gossip began in earnest about the farm, this was a situation they could understand, and ever afterwards great amusement was caused by the description of the farmer's wife's horror when she went sneaking in to her chest of drawers.

The school teacher sat in the drawing-room staring in amazement at the door through which Mrs. Niels had vanished. Only then did it occur to him what was the matter, and smiling he walked across the room. It was clear enough that the good woman in her innocence had been terrified, but that was just something to laugh about.

He stood by the window in the sunshine, filled with happiness and a sense of well-being. A year of strenuous school work lay behind him, he had left home tired and worn out, and it was chiefly for the purpose of gathering new strength that they had chosen this isolated and lonely spot by the sea. He looked down at the table, where a pile of closely-written sheets bore witness to the persevering work of several years' leisure time from teaching. This very day he had chosen to rise early to take advantage of the peace and quiet while the children were still asleep.

Niels and his wife stayed home from church two Sundays in succession. As a rule church was a regular weekly event. They usually set off in good time so as to have the opportunity for a chat with their fellow parishioners while waiting for the vicar and often the waiting time was full of gaiety. But it could also happen that if anyone had offended against law or custom in any way it was at this time that they felt the sting of official censure. And Niels's wife had only to look into her heart to know what public opinion would have to say about the happenings at Beachcomber Farm.

It was quite natural for the mistress of a house full of guests to stay away from church for once. But when the second Sunday came round they both went about with preoccupied expressions. At church time Niels went and sat down at the table in the living-room and read from the old family book of sermons, once or twice his wife came to the door and peeped in at him, it was as if he sat there and read for her too. But a strange unrest moved in Niels's heart, all the time the image of the beach and the blue sky rose up before his eyes, filled with shining white bodies which came dancing up between the words as he was reading, as if the world around him was possessed by a wicked witchcraft.

When they drove away from the farm on the third Sunday, they were both sitting unnaturally still on the driving-seat, he held the horses in to a walk nearly all the way to avoid arriving too early. From a long way off they could see the congregation standing about in groups by the church wall, and they were soon aware that their approach had been observed. Faces were turned towards them, and an immobility fell upon the groups, as if there was something peculiar about them.

Niels the Beachcomber drove quietly up alongside the ditch by the churchyard where the vehicles were left. People usually gave each other a hand down, but this time he was left to get down from the wagon by himself. He glanced up at his wife, who remained seated on the driving-seat with her fringed black scarf tied so tightly under her chin that only a portion of her face was visible. Her heart was beating as it had only done once in her life before on the drive to church, and that was the time she had been driven there as a bride, but to-day it beat with humiliation and shame.

Not until he had finished dealing with the horses did he help her down, she stayed beside the wagon wheel and smoothed her dress, while he drew the great prayer book with gilt edges from his pocket as if it were both their guardian and their weapon. Then they looked at each other and went side by side to the churchyard gate.

The gathering too seemed to be overcome with embarrassment, they had turned their backs on the advancing pair or kept their eyes on the ground, so there was no occasion to give any greeting. Niels and his wife stopped at the far end of the path, keeping close to each other. She blushed and turned pale by turns, she felt as if it was she herself who had been in the forbidden situation. She seemed to expect to be the object of mirth herself. But within her a deep, outraged pride at being treated in such a way by old acquaintances made itself felt.

"Well, Niels," suddenly came a voice that was both bantering and mocking. "How d'you like playing bathing attendant?"

Every face was immediately visible, they all stared at the speaker, a little peasant well-known for his gibing tongue, and then the communal gaze shifted to Niels, who answered with a good-humoured grin. Laughter was heard at once, and the groups relaxed into movement.

"It's getting too dangerous to go down to the sea, what with all those Indians among your dunes..."

Suddenly it seemed as if joviality was going to get the upper hand, a note of coarseness came into the laughter, even the women began to smile, when an excitable voice broke in.

They should think of the young people.....

In a trice all trace of amusement vanished from their faces and they saw only the scandalous aspect of the affair.

"Oh yes, we've all heard there's been a run on the beach," said the mocking little peasant again. "But there had been others besides young folk who had had business in that direction."

Amusement broke out again, though now several of the men retained their stiff carriage and demeanour, uncertain who was being scoffed at.

At last the vicar appeared and everyone immediately took on their accustomed expression for church. But even during the service Niels and his wife were reminded time after time of their guests at home, as if both the vicar and the word of God were aware of them.

While the village people were at church, the school teacher and his family were basking on the warm sand above the dunes, letting the sun bake them through and through, they had already taken their first dip of the day, down on the beach the children ran and played with seaweed and stones. Now and then a pair of seagulls came drifting along the coastline, searching for food, but as soon as they noticed the presence of people they flew out to sea, afraid of danger. Sometimes the whistle of a dunlin could be heard, gliding along the edge of the beach, visible in the sunshine like a piece of feathery down blown about by the breeze. The only other sound was the noise of the breakers on the beach which seemed to fill all the space around them with each breaking wave.

The teacher sat upon a sandy slope reading aloud from the book in his hand, so sunburnt that there was not a pale patch on his body. Both his face and his voice reflected happiness. Just below him lay his wife and the young girl, refreshed after their bathe, equally sunburnt, listening while he read.

Beside the teacher lay a rucksack full of books, a selection from the pearls of the world's literature, which he bore out to the dunes with him daily, as if something additional was needed to give the happy natural life real content and atmosphere.

A little way away behind the summit of a sand dune lay a half grown lad hidden in the sea-grass gaping at them, he had sneaked up unnoticed from dune to dune to get a look at them. He lay there ready to leap up and flee at the slightest sound.

"I'll be damned," he mumbled and a bashful sneer crossed his face, but the next moment he ducked down behind the top of the dune and looked about nervously for fear anyone should see him.

Suddenly he rolled himself down the slope and remained prostrate. Over on another dune a lad had come in sight, in spite of the distance he had seen a grinning face. For a moment they both seemed most impelled to rush off in opposite directions. But then the first one began to wave to the other to come across, here was something to see.

You should crawl up there and take a look, he grinned to him when he got there.

For a while they both lay side by side, behind the top of the dune and stared down at the family.

"I think he's reading the Bible," whispered one of them to the other. An expression of indignation and outrage appeared on their faces, and completely unexpectedly one of them gave vent to a shrill bellow, which sounded like somebody shouting at an animal to scare it—they tore each other down the side of the dune, lay for a moment in confusion over what had happened, then leapt up and raced away.

Both the teacher's wife and the girl gave a shriek of fright, the teacher threw down his book, ran up the dune and reached the top just in time to see the two lads vanish over the dunes. He came back wearing a serious expression.

"It was a couple of boys," he said. The ladies had grabbed their clothes, suddenly startled out of their happy paradise. They looked at each other uneasily while he tried to reassure them. "They were just having fun," he said.

On the afternoon of the same day, when they were sunbathing on the beach after the second bathe of the day, a piece of wood came flying down among them from somewhere up in the dunes.

The teacher rushed up there indignantly, but there was no one to be seen...only when he reached the top of the next dune did he see the attackers—this time a whole gang of them, fleeing amongst resounding laughter.

In the evening he went to the beachcomber and had a chat with him about it.

Niels stood there very ill at ease, with his gaze rooted to the ground, not knowing what to say.

"They threw sticks at you?" he repeated.

Despite his serious expression his face took on tones of pleasure, although he understood that this was a serious matter.

"We are not aware that we have harmed anyone," said the teacher.

"No, that was true enough," answered Niels, with some hesitation in his voice. They were decent folk enough in that way...

He fought hard with himself to come out with what had been painfully on his mind for so long, but he seemed to be getting more and more shy. He could not even fix his eyes on the stranger.

"Nobody in the neighbourhood is used to having guests like you," he said. "If only you would wear just a bit more when you are down on the beach." It was as if he tried to put a mildly joking tone into his voice.

The teacher laughed confusedly, unable to answer, it had never occurred to him.

When Niels went in to his wife to tell her what had happened, his whole being was animated, he laughed so much that his wife had to hush him in case the visitors heard him.

Those lads had certainly scared them...and with increased humour he repeated what he had said to the teacher. It was funny enough that it should be the young folks who had taught them a lesson.

About the neighbourhood too Niels's reply to the teacher caused both pride and amusement when it got around. He had shown himself to be both master of his house and a good beachcomber.

 
 
 

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