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The Tailor's Summer by Knud Hjorto

Translated By J. F. S. Pearce

Kirsten came right down to the garden gate with me. "Well, you're going anyway, you say, so that'll save me the trouble of writing to them."

I squeezed my old nurse's hand for the third time. "I'll see to that, Kirsten. The funeral's on Thursday, then—"

"Yes, tell them Jens died yesterday, and the funeral's on Thursday," Kirsten said, hastening to amend my former statement.

"That's right, he died yesterday, and the funeral's on Thursday—" I looked into Kirsten's eyes, and I still seemed to see in them that air of authority that I remembered from twenty-five or thirty years ago. I was more than four when I had left her charge, and she had been not quite eighteen, but she had been a strict nurse, very keen on cleanliness, and heavy-handed too. She wiped my nose as if she were squeezing the matter out of a boil. When she washed my ears, she used to twist them as if she were trying to screw them off my head. A wash by Kirsten left my cheeks feeling as if they were on fire. Kirsten's strong point was cleanliness; I would not care to repeat some of the things she did to me to keep me clean, but she was highly successful.

"That's all right," repeated Kirsten, "if you're going anyway; I'm not too good at writing. What a wind—against you, too. Do you really think you can do forty miles in a wind like this? It's right in your face." Kirsten looked at me kindly. Her blue eyes seemed strangely young, but the lines round her mouth betrayed her age.

"The road turns before long," I said. "And the sun'll keep me warm." I wheeled the bicycle on to the road, and stood behind it, ready to jump on. The three youngest children stood by, watching.

"Remember me to them, and tell them Jens died quiet and peaceful. What do you think you're up to, Hans, interfering with the gentleman's bike?" Kirsten led off at him, and the expression in her eyes was just as familiar to me as it was to her own children. Hans, who had been pointing to a cut in the front tyre was dragged through the gate. I saw his red wrist marked with white stripes, as Kirsten let it go.

"Good-bye, Kirsten," I said, and jumped on. "I'll have it all squared up in four or five hours."

"Thanks, Knud. Good-bye," she called out from the gate, but her words were half-drowned by the fresh April wind rushing past my ears.

The weather during the past fortnight had been unusually varied—grey skies with rain, then quiet, warm days, which brought out the flowers and the bushes, then clear days, when the sun was really hot, yet with a cutting wind. It is like that to-day. The sun warms up one side of you, whilst the other side freezes in the wind. This was just the kind of weather that old Jens, the tailor, could not stand. The sun would shine in through the window, and he would think summer had come. He would go outside, and it would be all right by the house wall, and he would bask there, and then round the corner would come that treacherous wind that you get with the sun at this time of the year. One day Jens went out cutting firewood in the sun and wind, and came in again, sweating, yet frozen; one side of him in winter, and the other in summer. That was too much for old Jens. He hobbled off to bed, and stayed there. Summer and winter joined forces inside him, and between them they killed him.

The wind cut me like a knife as I cycled into it; I had to lean forward so as to avoid it as far as possible. It would be a good five hours before I had carried out my errand.

Kirsten always saw that I was well wrapped up, and it never mattered to her that I hated being too hot. She stayed on at the farm after I grew old enough to look after myself, but she always kept an eye on me, as there was no-one else to do so, and she performed her duties with a watchful eye and ready hand. If I happened to be absorbed in some childish observation of something—or nothing—in a draughty corner of the farm, Kirsten would be there with hand and eye, and she would have me out of the wind: "What're you standing there in the starving cold for? You get in the yard, it don't blow there."

Kirsten's blue eyes, like the clear, cold winter sky, dominated my early childhood. I never got my own way with her, oh no! Whenever I tried to dig in my tender heels, and be stubborn and stiff-necked, I could count on a keen head-wind of quite unique strength from Kirsten.

Later it occurred to me that her eyes were not so cold, after all. She had had her troubles with the farm-hands when she was younger. I remember an incident at a north-eastern corner of the farm. It was a cold spot, and I had no intention of staying there, but there were two people standing talking just round the corner, and one of them was Kirsten. They were talking loudly and angrily, particularly the farm- hand, and it seemed to me that it was Kirsten who was taking the orders that time. Kirsten was in the habit of giving me orders, so I knew what they sounded like. Well, I turned round the corner carefully, and was met by a gust of cold wind. At the same moment, Kirsten's eyes fell on me, but there were tears in them. She walked up to me and took my hand. "There you are, then, Knud," and she took me indoors. She settled down to do some darning, and, for want of anything else to do, I sat on the peat-box, swinging my legs. I kicked the box with my heels, so that the noise might help to pass the time. Suddenly Kirsten asked me if I would like her to tell me a story. I listened to it, but do not remember any of it. I do not suppose it was very interesting. But I do remember that Kirsten was very kind to me. I sat with my head on her knee, and she patted me. My mother had died a few years before.

A lot of the hands wanted to walk out with Kirsten, but either she would not do as they wanted, or they would not do as she wanted, or something of the sort. Three times I was there when Kirsten and one of the men quarrelled. I remember one who said, "What's tha want to start owt for then?" Kirsten never spoke like that. She was a town girl, and did not speak dialect. Whenever Kirsten appeared, the men turned up at once. They approached her with their eyes screwed up, and a twisted smile on their lips, as if there was a strong wind blowing in their faces. One day old Niels said, "Tha'll not get rahnd 'er in a 'urry." The hands, who had no doubt expected to make rapid progress with her, were offended. Kirsten was not shy, but after all, she was young, and did not like people having too much to say to her.

Then Kirsten became engaged to a labourer whom I never saw. All I know about him is that one of the maids told me one day, "Oh, Niels isn't so bad." That left me as wise as I had been before, and so I am still. But Niels got drunk once or twice, and that was the end of him. I can just imagine the cold blast that met him from Kirsten's blue eyes and wide, handsome mouth. So it was not to be Niels and Kirsten. Another of the maids, who was not engaged, said spitefully, "Who does she think she is? She don't deserve to get no-one."

Then Kirsten left us, and I was free to walk about and fall over wherever and whenever I liked, until I was seven, and had to go to school.

The ruts in the road are new, and quite dry, and they are as hard as concrete. They are always on the look-out for a chance to catch my front wheel. The constant head-wind is tiring, but the road turns about five miles further along, and later on it turns again, so I can look forward to an almost following wind.

In front of me there lies a village—a tangled cluster of houses and farms, of manure-heaps, trees and so on. The road seems to be blocked by a tall poplar, and, behind that, two houses. But I bear down on my pedals, the tree recedes to one side, the houses separate, and settle themselves on their proper sides of the road to let me through. A manure-heap, that seems right in my way, slips off to the left. Even the winding road straightens out, and lays itself smoothly before my front wheel. I have disentangled the whole of the village, but when I look back a few moments later, it is spread out again like a tangled cluster of houses and trees.

The road does not turn much, but still, it is a great improvement, and the sun seems to be ten degrees warmer. The wind is quieter, too; only when I ride past the old poplars can I hear a short, harsh rush of wind. How old and decrepit they look; most of them are leaning, some of them look as if a good puff of wind would blow them over into the ditch. There is no sign of leaf on them, and in a month's time, they will be just as bare. They miss spring altogether, and do not come out until summer.

Kirsten returned to us four years later. She looked just the same to me, but the farm-hands did not run after her as much as they had done. "They know her," somebody said, and that may be the explanation. Apart from that, Kirsten looked well, and she and I got on wonderfully together; after all, I was too big to be ordered about.

We had a tailor named Jens in the village. He used to go to people's homes and do sewing there. In that respect, he was one of the old-time tailors, and he was like them, too, in the fact that he was hump- backed, and limped, but he got along all right. There was nothing actually wrong with him, it was just that the length of one of his legs had been worked out wrongly. It was an inch, or even less, short. Jens, the tailor, walked along quickly, with a pump-like action.

I can only remember Jens as an old man, just as I remember my father and a lot of other people whom I have always known. He was about forty-five when I was ten. I had no idea of his age then. As far as I was concerned, he had reached that age when it becomes difficult to keep the space between nose and mouth dry. He always said good-morning to me in a friendly voice, but that was all. He was a bachelor, so he was not used to domestic small-talk.

Kirsten was in service at the farm, and Jens came there to do some sewing, and so they happened to meet, with their every-day tasks as common ground between them. Jens sewed, and Kirsten darned. She gazed at him with her great blue eyes, and Jens' glance, so used to looking downwards, tailor-like, was forced up from his needle, to meet her eyes. I did not stay in the room for very long; it was winter, and the yard was thick with snow, but nevertheless, I had to go in there from time to time to dry my mittens, and as they hung on the oven door, smelling first of dampness, and then of scorching, I heard a little of Jens' and Kirsten's conversation. Jens' voice was placid, and he spoke with the flattest of Zealand intonations. Kirsten had a clear, strong voice, which could easily reach an ear-splitting pitch, but she was keeping it soft then. I suppose she had got her eye on Jens straight away, and Jens, who was a silent man, felt he had to follow her example. Jens was, indeed, the owner of a house, and was well established. It may seem strange that he was not married, but it must not be forgotten that at that time, especially in the country, all the girls got married, except occasionally a priest's or teacher's daughter here and there, so there was no one left over for men who were constructed on incorrect geometrical principles.

I do not know how far they got that time; my mittens dried, and I ran back outside. But Jens and Kirsten were married about six months later. That was Jens' summer, and he had missed his spring.

Then one Sunday afternoon, a month before the wedding, a farm-hand paid us a visit. He had a red face and staring eyes. I was sitting by the first tree in the avenue, with a bag of buttons, and the man asked me, in an aggressive tone, whether Kirsten were at home. I took a step back, and I had to look at him for a moment before I could answer that Kirsten was at home, and was in the maids' room. In fact I had just been in there to have a tear in my button-bag sewed up. The man went a few steps towards the gate, but then he asked me whether I would go and call her.

When I described the man to Kirsten, the look in her eyes gave me thoughts far in advance of my years. But she did not say anything, just "Yes," and crossed the yard and through the west gate. I went out by the east gate, and I happened to hear their voices along by the south corner.

"You're mad," said the man's voice. "What do you want him for? I've been teetotal for two years now, and all."

"You're a bad 'un," Kirsten answered. "If we got married, you'd beat me."

"Beat you! There ain't no-one can get top hand of you."

I could not hear what Kirsten said to that, but then I heard his voice again: "If I did beat you, it'd be you as drove me to it. I'm a bad 'un, you say. What do you think you are, then?"

I ran away, so as not to hear any more. I was so worked up that I was nearly crying. I was sitting some way up the drive, playing with my buttons, when I heard footsteps down by the farm. It was the man again, but when he saw me, he went through the field, in order to avoid me. I thought he was going to a lot of trouble for a boy of my age, but I drew myself up and had a good look at his back. There was really nothing to see, except that his ears were very red. But still, they were the ears and back of a farm-hand with a terrible voice, which had filled my imagination with thoughts of murder, like the people in the old ballads did, and it did me good to stare at him. Suddenly he turned round, and I saw his ugly, dark red face. He did not move for a moment, as if he were considering whether to come back and hit me. I glanced down to the farm, to judge how far off it was; I was quite safe. Then he turned away again, and I went home, trembling.

I was sitting alone with my buttons at the big table when Kirsten came in for something. When she saw me, though, she came up to me and sat down. She asked me how many buttons I had, and whether the shiny policeman's buttons were really worth eight ordinary trouser buttons. I could not say a word, but looked down in silence at my buttons. The atmosphere was becoming a little too tense for me, and I wished she would leave me alone. She did so, and laid her hand on my arm as she got up. She went out without another word, but she did not forget what she had come for, a pair of scissors that were in the table drawer.

That was a great relief. I left my buttons, and ran up to the hay- loft. It was in semi-darkness, but the light from the western sky shone in through the gaps in the boards. I curled up in the hay, and soon fell asleep.

That evening there was only a man and a boy, Kirsten and myself on the farm. I sat beside her with a book, and asked whether I should read her a story. I had read it twice, and knew it well. Kirsten said she would like me to, and I read the story of the man in the seven league boots. Kirsten praised my reading, and talked to me about the story, but when the other two had left the room, she looked at me, and I happened to look at her.

"Did you hear what Niels and I were talking about this afternoon?"

"No," I said, shaken by the impression I had received, and terrified at the thought of discussing it.

I think Kirsten understood me all right. "You mustn't tell anyone."

"No," I said.

But yet it was a great relief to have talked about it. I could not bear to meet Kirsten's eyes; they were kind, but not happy.

"You'll be a grown-up lad yourself, one day," said Kirsten.

"Yes," I said, feeling very solemn at the thought of it.

Kirsten married, and went to live up in the town. A few years later, Niels got married, and came to live next door. Niels became another of my childhood acquaintances. I came to know the look he gave me when we met. It was full of that rude indifference which young men sometimes feel towards boys of about ten. That look was more marked in Niels than in anybody else—perhaps there was still some ill-feeling left from that day when I had gazed at him from the back. It is embarrassing for a little boy to meet a man like that alone. If you say "Hullo", and you cannot always get even that out, you get a grunt by way of answer. You really feel quite ill inside, until you meet an old lady, who stops and says: "Hullo, Knud. Just out of school? Did you do your lessons all right?"

Niels had a bad reputation. He did not drink, but he had his way with as many of the girls and young wives in the town as he could. They said he was after Kirsten, too.

One day, as I was passing Jens' house, Kirsten called me in. It had occurred to her that she had a lot of old buttons, and I collected buttons. I was to go in and see them. By then I was twelve, and button collecting was done with; I was a botanist now. But I went in. Kirsten pushed open the kitchen door with a peat-basket she was carrying. The door swung open and hit a man, who got out of the way with a growl—it was Niels. I looked at Niels, and he looked at me, but neither of us said a word. Then I realized that I did not like the man, but I was no longer afraid of him. Niels clearly did not like my being there. Kirsten gave him a look that made him scowl. Then he said good-bye, and left. I was twelve years old, and knew quite a bit. Niels' visit made me think, but Kirsten took me into the front room. "Look at these, now."

Both my trouser pockets were filled with buttons. Kirsten went to the door with me. "Niels is a bad man. If you tell anyone you met him here, tell them I said so."

"I will," I said. "Good-bye, and thank you for the buttons."

The buttons were fine. There were a lot of brass ones, and some strange old ones made of a white metal. I was moved by them as one is by a stroke of luck that comes just too late. I put them away in a drawer, and thought of Niels. The next time I saw him, I would say good-day to him loudly, as if I were a grown-up man.

Jens stayed at home to do his sewing now. Instead of going out to his work, he could be seen going for walks with his children. At first they held his lower hand, then, as they grew, they held the other hand, which was a little higher. The children shot up, straight and well-built. They liked their father, and respected their mother. Jens respected her, too. I had all my clothes made by Jens, and I used to think that Kirsten had rather a cold air about her, but apart from that, she seemed not to be displeased at having had children. She had six, the youngest of which was born when Jens was a good sixty. Kirsten always talked to me a lot when I came to be measured. She began to look older, but her eyes did not change. Jens only talked about the matter in hand, and he used to cough—Hrm, hrm—very harshly. Kirsten explained: "Father's got a cold to-day." But it was not a cold. His cough was the internal symptom corresponding to the dampness between his nose and mouth.

Jens, the tailor, did not betray many feelings, not even happiness. But he had his summer, and his harvest was six children. That did not alter him much. He grew old, but that was an internal change; he had always been old outside, but his hrm, hrm, became more long drawn out. He grew thinner, but it was hardly noticeable. He was like a crooked tree, that had been lopped, and which had very little foliage left. One day, a puff of wind came, and blew him over into the ditch.

I have not seen Jens for many years, and now I am on my bicycle, doing his last errand.

I would be very interested to know whether Kirsten really would not have preferred Niels, and whether all her common-sense quite reconciled her to having Jens instead. But if I were to ask her that now, it would embarrass her just as much as she used once to embarrass me.

It feels quite still, now that the wind is at my back. I can hear the ball-bearings going round in the hubs, and I can hear the cyclometer catching its stop on the front wheel. It is collecting up the miles as I ride along, storing them up in its little steel brain. I only need to get off to read them.

I reach the town towards evening. There are soldiers quartered nearby, and as I pass the first house I hear a familiar sound: the laughter of a delighted girl in the company of a man in uniform. I jump off, and walk past them until I meet someone sensible, whom I ask where a certain Hans Jensen may be found, then I carry on according to his directions. The streets are almost empty—a few young apprentices smoking cigarettes, with the pavement at their feet spattered with what look like splinters of glass, where they have been spitting on it. Outside a bookseller's there is a big dog, putting to a most improper use some bright-coloured wall-paper which stands outside, and which would seem to have aroused his aesthetic instincts. Elderly people are meeting, and talking about the weather. They all say the same: "What a nice day it's been. A real nice day."

 
 
 

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