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Peace On Earth, Goodwill to Men

Translated by R. H. Bathgate

Nowadays things are peaceful in Jutland, and especially round about Christmas it is too peaceful for words. Yet only two generations ago Christmas meant a brief period of peace in a none too peaceful year. Was is not strange, then, that this very time around Christmas was often so disturbed in days of old? Again and again we hear of outbreaks of old quarrels, of reckonings between deadly enemies, of crimes; and they all took place on Christmas Eve, or on Boxing Day in the church itself! Some people seem to have thought that they would take advantage of the opportunity while everyone was thinking of peace and none of danger; and others GOT their peace, when it was denied them, made sure of a peaceful Christmas by violent acts.

There lived a man on Sonderup Heath who was called Christen Peat. People were afraid of him, though he was harmless enough: he was a decent peasant who owned a miserable little small-holding out on the heath and earned the rest of his bread as a hired labourer. But he was a murderer. Christen Peat killed the Tinker one Christmas Eve. He was completely acquitted, it is true, but all his days there remained a fringe of silence about his name: there was blood on his hands.

The Tinker was a thief and an old lag who lived in the neighbourhood: they talk about his misdeeds to this very day. They say that he was one of the knackers from Hole. Although he was clearly a bad lot, and people were afraid of him, yet there hangs some of the rough warmth of yesterday about his renown: he amused people, he was a thorn in the flesh, many times he committed a crime for the sheer fun of it; he was a real joker. He seems to have been one of those crazy birds who are perhaps at bottom nothing but distorted and wasted talents. There were many tales about the Tinker. His strong point was breaking out of prison; he thought of the most incredible ways—they just could not keep him. Tradition has it that he had unusually slender hands and feet, and that the jailor never noticed that he could squeeze out of the chains. However he managed it, and whatever new tricks he discovered, he was at large in the district regularly every year; for his wife and daughter lived in a hovel on Sonderup Heath. Christen Peat's house lay not far away.

There lay an unfathomable social gulf between the two families, though there was little to choose between their conditions. And moreover, for years the Tinker had nourished a deep personal hatred for his neighbours. And one can hardly blame him. Year after year, when he had broken out of prison under unspeakable difficulties and come home to his own ones like a wild animal with the dogs on his heels, all he could see from his own wretched windows was Christen Peat's dwelling, shining with insufferable innocence for all its poverty. There lived Christen Peat, the penniless saint, who never at any time sought conflict with the well-to-do, who in his scrupulous and blameless life never did anyone any harm, could never live peacefully enough, and preserved an unshakable contempt for dishonest people! There were the three little children he had acquired, toddling about the hut looking like God's own angels, while Christen Peat worked himself double with a spade on his heath-plot. The Tinker could never rest from his longing to tar and feather the noble pauper and set a light to him and turn him into a blazing martyr. Whenever he was home he tried to bring Christen Peat to blows, but the cautious small-holder minded his own business and had no wish to match himself against the Tinker in any kind of accomplishment. At last the Tinker longed to come home as much for Christen's sake as for his own family's, he hated him and longed to get at him. And the day came when he could no longer restrain himself.

One grey gloomy Christmas Eve Sonderup village was frightened out of its wits when half a squadron of Randers Dragoons thundered through the village, just when everybody least expected any trouble; darkness was just falling and the simple sweet peace of Christmas was beginning to settle over the village. All sounds became muted, every thought of an outside world had disappeared, when a countless horde of horsemen in blue with helmets and cold sabres rushed into the village! Slush and dirt splashed up about them from the road. They came galloping in like a frightful vision through the wintry mist. Old folk began to shake at the knees for fright. It brought back memories of another Christmas when they had seen the dragoons in Sonderup.

That was many years ago now. Then the reason for their visit was that the sheriff himself and four other men had gone out to the heath, where there lived rascals at that time too—a man with a wife and two sons, who had clipped sheep in the fields at night for a long time, and made the district unsafe in other ways. Now the people of Sonderup wanted to be free of them over Christmas, and to this end they forced their way into the hut and killed all four occupants with axes. But it was a misunderstanding on their part: it could not be excused as self- defence, and they were all five executed themselves in their turn.

But they soon found out what the dragoons were here for this time: the Tinker had broken out again and under worse circumstances than usual, as he came to give the jailor a knock on the head from which he had not recovered. That was why it was so essential to recapture him, and now they thought they would surprise him in the bosom of his family on Christmas Eve.

The dragoons split up when they reached the heath, galloped to both sides of the Tinker's hut and surrounded it in a moment. But the Tinker was not there. They searched the hovel right up to the roof, they cross-examined his wife and daughter, they left no straw unturned, but they could not find him. When they had ridden away with their task unaccomplished the Tinker crept out of a hole in the clay floor, which had been trodden well down and disguised with a sprinkling of peat. He was too clever for them.

Two hours later the church bells in Sonderup rang in the holy season. It became so still, so sensitive in the darkness. Only the bell in the church-tower spoke, it babbled in its strange voice through the thawing night over the low, diffident village, lying all alone in that wide landscape. The wind came and went, the water seeped and dripped through the clotted snow in the ditches. The church bell spoke, now tired, now in a singing mood, disheartened and happy, up and down like an old man who has seen life. And at last it became silent with nodding emphasis, like an old, old man. The night sky cleared, the stars were lit in the wide sky, they hung and sparkled, chill and small. Brittle sounds were cast out over the earth, the water dripped more quietly, the cold rose up to the night. Then even the frightened icy sound of the water ceased, with a few faint creaks as in its sleep; it froze, and the frost held.

Now everyone was at home in his house. Only one man from Sonderup, who had been compelled to leave the village, crossed the heath that evening. And to his unspeakable terror he met the Tinker walking with a can of tar in his hand.

"Good evening," said the Tinker, in excellent spirits as it seemed. "Don't be afraid, Knud, I'm not going to harm you. I'm just going to set light to Christen Peat's hair. God bless you and a merry feast!"

In Christen Peat's room Christmas had begun. It made itself known by a growing silence. Christen's wife made ready as if to receive guests. The three children had to take it in turns to spend a painful minute before the tripod with the washing bowl and the soap. Jeppe and Laurine, the two eldest, let themselves be washed with great fortitude, they understood the deep significance of the approaching holy evening. Jeppe was five years old and Laurine was four, and they already knew about many things. They had been into Sonderup village once, where they had been seen walking hand in hand. That was the richest experience of their lives. They had inspected the gate in the churchyard fence and the other mysteries of the village, a big deep garden where a tree towered up with fat pears on it; they had seen a cage full of squabbling ducks somewhere by a grand house, and when they had breathed the air outside the vicarage gate and glimpsed wonderful flowering plants through the clear windows far inside, they wandered out of the village again, hand in hand, and arrived back home as it was growing dark. Karen Marie was only two, and too little in every way, and therefore she cried as she was being washed. Jeppe and Laurine were far beyond her in every respect. They knew about the outside world, in which they had wandered: they knew the plants and flies of the heath, had an understanding of the value of rushes and the shiny seed of the sedge, of round red stones and coloured pieces of pot. They plucked the tiny cones of the bog-myrtle and played cows with them, they made pies from the mud outside the house and sailed wooden chips in a puddle. All summer long they played in the winding sunken roads where the fine black sand in the ruts warmed and ran through their toes. Now winter had shut them inside, time out of mind. They had been able to stretch a cautious hand out of the door to catch drips from the roof, they had tasted the bitter water that ran down the window-panes when they thawed. The window-seat was their winter abode: at night it opened its familiar, warm eiderdown-embrace to them, and they spent the day on its shiny worn top. They kept their belongings on the window-sill, Jeppe's collection of excavated treasures, pretty stones and the like, and Laurine's precious woollen thrums and chicory paper. Karen Marie, who was so little, had of course no possessions.

Then when the children had been washed, and their hair had been combed, and they were dressed in their fine blouses, their mother began to lay the table with its fine white cloth, and they had to be so good that you just couldn't imagine it, so as not to upset anything. The porridge, which today was quite white, of a different, finer and more expensive kind of meal than the everyday barley-broth, bubbled so richly in the pot and said Pooh, as if it were making the utmost efforts to be good. And their mother was so silent and gentle. When Christen Peat came home from his work and bent his long stooping figure in under the low ceiling, he saw his three offshoots sitting in a row on the window-seat behind the white table, three pairs of tiny clogs sticking out straight in front of them, three faces shining with soap and solemnity, three shocks of yellow hair in the dimly lit room.

Silence descended over the room. While the food was being got ready, the three children witnessed their father's washing himself, he even washed his face: he had to suffer for the occasion too; he prepared himself for the indescribable. Then they ate, first the fine porridge and then pork and potatoes. They were very contented. Somewhere, high or low, something had happened that affected everyone, so that light entered every room, no matter how cramped it was. Christen Peat's share had been three children with diamond-clear eyes, who sat each with its piece of sizzling pork in its little fingers and ate like anything. The room was cosy. Mother had a surprise waiting behind the closed door of the oven, they could hear it seething and singeing in there. The candle on the table scattered gold about the room, so full of honest peace.

Then one of the windows crashed in. The pieces fell in Laurine's hair. Her mother screamed in terror. Christen Peat looked up and caught a glimpse of the blade of a peat-spade through the shattered pane. He got up, with his long stubbly face as pale as death. Outside, the Tinker's loud, quite off-hand voice could be heard: "Now you're bloody well going to be tarred, you holy Boniface..."

Christen Peat had made a spear long ago, because the Tinker had threatened his life. He took it down from the rafter and went to the door.

The battle took place outside in the little porch. The Tinker had got the passage door open and wanted to get in, but Christen Peat threatened him with the spear through the door. The Tinker covered him with a hail of abuse but could not get near enough to reach him with the peat spade. For a long time that was all. Then the quick little Tinker saw his chance and struck a blow at Christen with the sharp spade. It was wickedly meant, and Christen Peat, who was a heavy, clumsy man, only got out of the way by the skin of his teeth. He really had not thought the Tinker was serious. He began to tremble.

"Look out," he said tearfully. And when the Tinker looked as if he was going to lunge out again he warned him sadly: "Look out! Or you'll get this in your guts!"

"You daren't, you little saint!" the Tinker egged him on. He swore on, but his eyes had become strangely hot, and his tongue played him tricks so that he had difficulty in speaking. Suddenly he became silent, and instead of swearing and using foul language he drew sideways nearer, with his spade at the ready...and then Christen Peat felt that the Tinker was a danger for him. It began to rush and boil in Christen's head. The clear frosty sky out there, the door besieged by a malicious man with eyes of blood; the room behind him, a confusion of terror and wailing children, it all spun round, it boiled up through him. And when the Tinker with the face of a butcher suddenly came into motion and sprang forward, Christen Peat bent his heavy weight forward and stuck him clean through the chest. The Tinker's heart blood spurted out like hot soup along the handle of the spear and scalded Christen's hands. After a sharp fierce death struggle, during which he growled like a sheep and grasped the shaft of the spear with his hands and even tried to get his feet up to the cutting iron as he lay on his back, the Tinker was dead.

When it was over, Christen sighed and blinked tears out of his eyes. After a moment's thought he dragged the corpse a little way from the house before he went in to the others. An hour later he stood before the sheriff's door and gave himself up. He was taken to the county town and set in prison. But after an examination he was acquitted, of course.

 
 
 

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