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Spring by Agnes Henningsen

Translated by Ann and Peter Thornton

In 1893, at the early age of 23, Vilhelm Thorsen took his Master of Arts Degree. He spent the first part of his holiday with his lonely mother and her family at their small farm on the Island of Lolland, and on the First of August he went to Funen where his fiancee was learning housekeeping in a doctor's household, where, as was the custom in those hospitable days, he had often been asked to stay. At this stage of his holiday he felt fully recovered from the years of hard study; quite the triumphant young man, full of vague dreams and aspirations. But the day after his arrival, during the first outing alone with his fiancee, he regretted that he had not resisted this trip to Funen. Life again seemed full of responsibilities.

In the first place it was getting damnably hot. He wasn't used to walking; at the farm in Lolland there had always been a horse and cart, and here in the hillocky Faaborg country one seemed to be forever going uphill. How he wished that he were homeward bound on board the ferry, crossing the Great Belt, with Copenhagen only a few hours off.

He was slight and fair-haired, and wore a light-coloured suit. He was generally considered ugly, with his small rather dim eyes set too close to an outsize nose. As a rule the consciousness of this ugliness made him exceptionally affable. He liked people, and was always trying to win their approval.

The same could be said of his companion, the daughter of an important business man, the seventeen year old Emilie Hahn, generally known as Milli. She took a great interest in everyone and, in return, expected people to be immediately interested in her. She was small, dark, and very pretty—a little too conscious of this prettiness. Self- satisfaction betrayed itself as she walked in her billowing skirts, briskly yet with great elegance, the little white leather boots tripping along as if to say, "was there ever a more charming sight?"

She walks like all her class, thought Vilhelm, she's never had anything to do but think of clothes. I can just stagger along; what an old stick I've become. How could he move naturally in his present sulky mood?

He had made a fool of himself. He had behaved stupidly towards little Emilie Hahn from the very day her brother, his school-friend, had dragged him home to their large villa in Copenhagen. He had behaved most stupidly of all, however, on this accursed walk.

There seemed to be something wrong with him as regards women. Many gave him pleasure, but none for long. For this reason he had decided, from the time he had thought about these things at all, never to marry. And then he had found himself playing the part of a suitor the moment he had met this lovely girl who now danced along beside him. Well, what of it? They had all been suitors, all the young men who had buzzed about her in those days. Everyone dreams of winning the big prize, and surely he had been the very last person she would choose; an ugly student with no money at all, the son of a humble farmer. But then—he tore off his new grey hat, groaning with the heat—she had chosen him, in spite of it. The very same evening that the sensational news of her father's bankruptcy resounded through the city she had sent a messenger to him with a note saying that he was now the only one of her friends she wanted to see. He had actually treated himself to a hansom cab, so great had been his eagerness to assure her that at any rate his feelings were unchanged, that if anything, they were stronger than before. He remembered how that hansom cab had jogged along at a snail's pace.

However, he had quickly been jerked out of this chivalrous mood. "Of course such a disaster is bound to bring people closer to each other," she had said, with her customary self-possession. He would have preferred a modest question: "Am I now too poor for you, an only son, with a mother to support?" He would have appreciated a little intelligent suspicion of his noble gesture. But, he thought, rich girls have no imagination; they believe blindly whatever one tells them. Those born with money are fools.

He pulled down his hat to hide the angry flush that came to his face at these thoughts. Here he was being mean about little Milli when it was all entirely his own fault. Even what had happened today. The worst thing of all was that now he would have to keep it up and be bound forever by this false chivalry.

No, the worst thing of all was—he started to bang the dust off his clothes with his fist—the worst thing of all was that he who, almost entirely by his own efforts, had raised himself above his class, that he, a university man, should have behaved in such an uncivilised manner. Only a boor would seduce his fiancee.

"Don't bang that dust all over me." Her voice was lighthearted. "Let's rest for a moment." She stepped carefully over the ditch—carefully so as not to tread on the flowers and sat down at the edge of the field, very artfully, so the pleats in her skirt showed to advantage. "How you do sigh and groan and puff."

Vilhelm Thorsen spread a large, worn silk handkerchief on the ground and sat on it, staring straight in front of him. On the other side of the narrow road was a strip of land planted with new fruit trees. They must belong to the farm where they were going. He thought of making some remark about being nearer their destination than they thought, but this seemed too much of an effort in his present mood. Instead he lay back and stared up at the sky.

Milli Hahn didn't even turn her head in his direction; she needed no further proof that something was wrong. But what? And when had it started? That morning he had set off in high spirits, delighted with the weather, the countryside, delighted with her. This sudden depression was something she would have to think about. But she was no better at mastering herself than he was. She just sat there wearing that silly half-smile which she found so irritating in others. It was always like that, she could never really keep down her high spirits. Enthroned here in the sun with that dear old grouser, Vilhelm, stretched out beside her, what worries could she possibly have? Grass- stains? She sat up. She had recently made serious resolutions to be more economical, and grass-stains would ruin her pink muslin dress. However, she flopped back without even bothering to investigate. Wasn't it wonderful when such trifles presented themselves as one's only worries? No, it was really rather sad. How she longed for some violent emotion, and instead every experience she ever had was just "water off a duck's back". When her father went bankrupt and they had all stood there in tears, she had just felt excited that now at last something had really happened, and earlier today, up there in the forest when she had thought for a moment that disaster had struck her personally...

A solemn expression clouded her face. Yes, there had been something magnificent about it, something fateful. She had rushed away from him, down the glorious smooth slope of pine needles, without even wanting to slide down it as she usually did. She had to be on the move, as always when she was very excited. But now it was as if she were someone else, someone with a responsibility. She had been stricken, that was the word, stricken, with responsibility, only it had been such a pleasant sort of responsibility. She knew that at home they would all be in tears again when they found out, and she felt it was a pity to bring this new shame upon them. But this feeling was only momentary. What had really struck her was the vision of a tiny face in a frilled bonnet. She had sensed for a moment the peculiar sweet smell of babies.

It had been so wonderful that she had started to sing, out there in the silent forest. When Vilhelm, quite out of breath, had caught up with her, she had chattered away about nothing in that unconscious way one does when suddenly overcome with 'joie de vivre'. She had sworn she would keep this secret happiness to herself. Even at school she had noticed that with the secret gone, the happiness soon goes too. But of course she had behaved just as she used to as a schoolgirl. At his first question she had let it all out. Vilhelm had asked why she was so above herself, he had actually used those words: "Why are you so above yourself?" In reply she had chanted to the tune of one of her favourite hymns: "l l-o-v-e disaster, l l-o-v-e fate.." and this hymn of rejoicing had ended with a line that even took her aback by it's daring and lack of modesty, "—To us a child shall be born."

One could hardly blame Vilhelm for looking alarmed.

He put on an expression not unlike that of the new doctor at home when a lady's stomach was upset; had looked aside and made embarrassing explanations. "She had no need to worry,...she could rest assured...," and so on.

Of course she was not at all pleased to hear, after this wonderful disaster, that she had no need to worry. For a second she had just stood there drawing deep sighs of vexation and wonder. But of course only for a moment. She had rushed off again to be alone to think over this new state of affairs and, incredible as it may seem, this new development—which had in fact brought her back to where she had started—filled her with new happiness. I am still myself, I am unchanged, I am still young—water off a duck's back.

Actually, she was sometimes very serious. For instance, when she was alone under a sky strewn with stars or by herself on a moonlit night, she could feel an ache of sorrow that she had never met anyone she really admired. Vilhelm? He was certainly superior to the other young men she knew; unusual, so rough, and yet so sensitive. And then he was bold. Twice in the past she had been secretly engaged, first to a young business man who spoke three languages but couldn't spell in his own, then to a handsome cadet. Both, in their fear of losing her, had 'respected her', and never dared to kiss her. Vilhelm Thorsen on the other hand, with his cheap ready-made clothes, had snatched her in his arms the very first time they had been alone together. She had stamped her foot and threatened to hit him if he dared do such a thing again, but he had done as he pleased. She loved people to be reckless when occasion demanded. But as for admiring him, and wanting to be like him...?

She glanced in his direction. He was lying with his eyes shut. She was tired too, so tired that she preferred to think of the past rather than of what was to come. Sleepy thoughts...

Long ago there had been two people she had looked up to. Only two throughout her whole childhood—her mother's parents, a charming old clergyman and his wife in Jutland. But as for admiring them or wanting to be like them? She couldn't help comparing them and their strong faith to the donkey with the carrot always just out of reach. Somehow they seemed beneath her.

Look at those fruit trees over there, how big the apples were already. Soon this summer in the country would be over, she would return to Copenhagen, to a new home of her own. She was to be married to this freakish young man.

"I've found a nickname for you," she explained, excited by the thought of her new existence. "I'm going to call you 'Freak'." She threw her parasol at him and hit him on the leg. He winced at the blow and lay for a few seconds with his eyes open, then reluctantly got up and flung the parasol back to her.

"Shall we go on?"

Now she was the one who did not reply. A ridiculous idea occurred to her. Did he regret what had happened? She pondered over this, sticking out her lower lip, as if she had been alone. Did he have regrets, like a girl? Or was he like the men in historical novels whose feelings changed once they had 'had their way'? Surely that was impossible? She could never have become attached to such a wretch.

She noticed that, to protect his best suit, he had seated himself on the big red silk handkerchief which he carried for that purpose. He had many such unbecoming habits. The effects of a childhood spent in poverty marked one for life, he had once said; that was probably why he looked so dejected now, like a candle which had just been snuffed out. Poor thing, he couldn't bear one to behave at all unconventionally. One thing was certain—she slapped her leg in her excitement—she had no regrets! She had felt for the first time that she had a heart, had felt that she was after all not always entirely self-centred.

That mysterious physical experience which she had just been through for the first time, held no attractions for her; she had expected that, and she was pleased as she would be ashamed to have succumbed to that sort of thing. Anyway, it was ridiculous to make such a fuss about it, giving it an aura of mystery and terror and hopeless embarrassment. It had seemed to her no more unnatural than the mating of the doves at home at "Villa Pax". No, the surprising, wonderful thing about it was the spiritual ecstasy which had swept over her. She had felt a surge of tenderness towards him, Vilhelm, her Lord and Master—a strange, wild urge to humble herself, to serve him and die.

She had kept a sprig of pine as a keepsake. She took it out of her pocket and held it under her nose. Oh, that scent of pine! They had made their nest on the moss amidst the pines on one of the lonely hillocks in the forest, so high up that they seemed nearer the sky than the earth. Oh, that smell of pine! She saw his face as it had been then—his ruthless face...

All at once a peculiar shiver ran down her spine, sweet, sugar-sweet, disgusting. Physical sensations after all! The whole thing was beastly if one felt like that oneself! She sat there for a moment, astounded, then rolled over to conceal her face, breaking the brim of her straw- hat. The noise it made embarrassed her—everything became embarrassing when one felt like that oneself. The scrunch of the straw-hat made de Vilhelm sit up. What was she destroying now? At the sight of her lying there on her face he found his voice.

"What's the matter, Milli?"

The white hat did not stir. The sight of someone else in a bad humour soon brought him to his senses. He edged himself towards her, still keeping the silk handkerchief between himself and the ground.

"But my dear young Lady," he began jocularly, "what a picture of despair. I've never seen you like this before; this is not like you at all." He tried to pull her towards him but she rolled away, still hiding her face. "You've been so gay up till now," he went on; "what's come over you?"

"Oh well," he continued, "go on and sulk," and he relapsed into his bad mood.

"This heat is unbearable." He got up and shook out the handkerchief. "Come on, let's go on."

Milli sat up and took off her hat in order to straighten the brim. The hat seemed to have lost its elan, just as she had herself, she thought. Gone too were her better feelings. Vilhelm had stirred up these nasty sensations so he deserved some unpleasantness in return.

"Are you coming or not?" he said irritably. "There's no shade here."

"No, wait," she cried, jumping to her feet. "Tell me, do you regret what has happened?" He looked away and started to fold his handkerchief meticulously. He had often admired Milli's skill at reading one's thoughts but she oughtn't to be allowed to be so blunt; she should realize he couldn't answer that question. A man doesn't beg his beloved for favours one moment, and then admit he's had too many the next.

So he wouldn't answer? She flushed in anger. She must have an answer! She couldn't imagine anyone would actually confess to such pitiful regrets. All right then, he could suffer the humiliation of lying! She must have an answer!

"Do you regret what has happened today?" Thorsen shook out his red handkerchief again, waving it before her eyes as if she were a bull to be teased, before putting it back in his pocket; then opening his small dim eyes very wide he looked intently at her.

"Yes, I do."

Her bitterness melted away as rapidly as it had come. How wonderful to get such an honest answer. She had chosen her husband well. With the aid of two hatpins she put on what remained of her hat. She didn't care now if she did look a sight. She went on, still in a serious voice in order to get a proper answer. "Why do you regret it?"

He increased his pace and mumbled in an embarrassed way, "Because... I think that there is some sense after all in the good, old-fashioned conventions."

"Surely we proved that one should break away from those conventions?"

"No, not people like us who...but it's rather late in the day for such an admission," he interrupted himself, "so I shan't say any more."

"No, no, it's terribly interesting. Do tell me what you really feel about it."

But how could he tell her? It would not sound very nice if he were to admit that his desire was always too easily satisfied. He had sworn that, were he to make the mistake of becoming engaged, closer intimacy would have to wait for the proper setting—their own room, their own furniture, and so on. No, it would not sound very nice.

"Go on. Why not people like us?"

"We shall have a home of our own in a few months; some things seem... to need a background of peace and beauty."

She saw in her mind's eye this 'home of their own',—four rooms in some dreary street...IN A STREET! She compared it with their nest on the lonely hillock where, through the tree-tops, she had caught a glimpse of tiny white clouds floating in a blue sea of sky. If that wasn't peace, if that wasn't the most perfect beauty...? "But Adam and Eve, and all the others who didn't have a front door to slam behind them, do you think they missed peace or beauty? Why should we be so unnatural?"

He very nearly bellowed at her to shut up. All at once he realised that he had tired of her—even before this afternoon. It was her arrogance, her superiority, her eternal lighthearted chatter. He had imagined that any innocent woman would have been slightly subdued, quieter, more humble, after what had happened today, but he was damned if this one didn't still behave as if she owned the earth.

"Nowadays, one cannot afford to be too natural," he said. "Civilised people need...four walls...shaded lamps, and..."

"Yes," she mocked, "you may well stammer, and you who approve of good, old-fashioned conventions, do you believe at all in good, old- fashioned love?"

"Well, you certainly don't either," he answered and pushed past her.

They had arrived at the farm; a watch-dog, still out of sight, barked desperately at the sound of their footsteps, and tugged at its chain in vain.

"No, I only believe in love that comes and goes," she shouted to make herself heard above the barking, "and one thing I know for certain—I should detest a chained house-dog and I refuse to have anything to do with one."

 
 
 

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