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The Boundary by Marie Bregendahl

Translated By W. Glyn Jones

I

"Now listen, children, I do want to impress it on you that you may run about where you like on your father's fields! And you may go out to the King's Mound and the marsh, too; but don't go beyond the boundary- -that is the one thing you must not do!"

The old grandfather stood with his hand raised and a threatening look in his eyes, and the sight of so much severity in the face which was normally so mild amazed his grand-daughters as he spoke to them.

"A lot of ruffians they are living out there in the 'Shack'—you musn't have anything whatsoever to do with those people!" he went on. "I can't think of anything they haven't done; a lot of vermin and thieves and drunkards they are—in other words they are the real scum of the earth." He thumped his clenched fist so heavily on the table- top that his book—which was furnished with a metal clasp—jumped into the air.

"Do you mean Elsie and Malvine, too?" asked Elsbeth in amazement. "Can even little girls like that be—what you just said?"

"Yes, indeed they can! As long as anyone can remember there have only been ruffians living in that hut—no one else CAN live there!" he declared emphatically. The two lasses might not be more than children yet; but it was all the same. When thistles and stinging-nettles had been sown, you could not expect to find corn and flowers growing. There was no arguing about that, and it could not be altered!

Grandfather helped himself to a fresh twist of tobacco, and chewed away at it with great zeal; then he sat down to plait osiers for a little sewing-basket he was working on.

The little girls looked at each other in silence and sighed. It was so tiresome to have this pleasure denied them.

What was the use of being able to go out to the King's Mound, when the most attractive thing about it was to walk to the top and then roll down the very steepest part, only to end without fail just by the doorstep of the Shack—in other words, on the OTHER side of the boundary.

And what fun was there in being able to go out to the marsh, when the boundary was right on the edge of it, and when the real marsh—the one with rushes all along the edge, with peewits' and terns' nests, bees' nests filled with honey and a clump of osier so big and dense that you could nearly get lost in it—when THAT marsh was on the forbidden side of the boundary, right outside the windows of the Shack?

And INSIDE the hut—why, it was indeed full of strange things of which you never saw the likes elsewhere: rabbits with long ears, a goat which went into the house through the same door as everyone else, a rocking-horse which was certainly a little bald, and the legs of which were perhaps slightly out of place, but which you could probably still have a ride on if you were careful.

There was a big box there, too, with a handle on its side rather like the one on a grindstone, and it made the most wonderful noises when you turned the handle round. Yes, there was indeed a lot to look at and amuse yourself with!

What a lot of surprising treats you were given as well: rye bread with treacle on it—or potatoes which you had to hold in your fingers, dip in a big bowl of salt and eat without either meat or gravy! But the tastiest of all the things you might be offered were fried peewit and tern eggs which you yourself had helped to find in the nests out in the marsh.

So now there were to be no more of these delights.

It was a serious scolding they had received because they had not asked permission before running out to the place where these delights were to be found. In fact it had been more than a scolding. Those were cruel pinches Grandfather had given their arms a short while ago when he had found them out in the marshes again and had dragged them back across the boundary in his fierce grasp. On the way home across the fields, too, he had shaken them time after time to add weight to his stern admonitions:

"Don't you dare go into the Shack any more! NEVER GO BEYOND THE BOUNDARY!"

Not even when they had reached their father's farm had Grandfather let them go. No, they had to do as they were told and go with him into his room! And although he had begun on his work now, the little girls still had the feeling that he intended them to stay on the bench where he had put them, and that he was turning new harsh words over in his mind, and that they might—at any moment—pour forth in the form of warnings and prohibitions.

The clock on the whitewashed wall struck eleven. Were they really to sit here until lunch? And such a wonderfully fresh and clear morning it was, too. How were they to pass away all that time?

"Grandfather, where do 'scum of the earth' like the Shrike's come from?"

"From other 'scum'!" answered Grandfather.

"Oh?—Are there more people like that, then?"

"Oh yes, there are plenty of that kind." Grandfather gave a couple of grunts and turned up the corner of his mouth. "But you'll find that out all right if you live long enough."

"Yes, but—?" Elsbeth wanted to ask another question, but did not quite know how to put it. Then Greta interrupted.

"'Scum of the earth'—well then, it's no one God has created, is it?" she asked.

"H'm." Grandfather turned his tobacco over once and gave the osier plaiting a sudden jerk.

"You would hardly think so!" he said then.

And at the same time he popped his head down over his work.

II

Several months passed.

Grandfather's admonition, and the shaking and scolding they had received from him had really made such an impression on the little girls that they never forgot that they were not allowed across the "boundary." Indeed they remembered so well that they thought about the marsh and its wonders every day—about the mound and the times they had rolled down its steep slope—about the Shack and those who lived in it, animals as well as human beings.

And not only did they THINK about it, but they talked about it as well. They asked the farm servants all about it, and their playmates from the neighbourhood, and they heard many strange things:

Michael Shrike had a wooden leg; his REAL leg he had broken so badly in a fight with a gang of "other drunks" that it had to be taken off...

And one day many years ago a couple of men from the market-town who were hunting found a stick and a hat in the rushes at the edge of the marshes, and when they began to fish around a little in the swamp they found a dead man there as well...It was soon discovered that it was a wool merchant who had been in the district the day before on business. Michael Shrike was immediately suspected of having robbed the merchant of all the money he was known to have had on him, and then of having pushed him into the marsh. He was "locked up" and remained in prison for months on end; but no one could persuade him to confess it, and the evidence was not clear enough to convict him. So no "result" had ever been reached; but otherwise no one seemed to doubt that it was an obvious case...

The woman who lived in the house and called herself Michael Shrike's wife had gypsy blood in her—that ought to be enough to put that big- boned, coarse woman in her place! Her skin was dark brown like the water from the marsh; and besides, she was called SIDSEL! No one was called that nowadays, except as a nick-name...

The two little girls were not Michael Shrike's, but his daughter's. And the daughter herself and her husband were in prison for breaking into an old woman's farm, gagging and binding her, and robbing her of all her money...

All this the children learned, and more besides.

Some of it they understood, but most of it they did not. But the tone of aversion and horror which was to be heard when people talked of the folk from the Shack did not fail to have its effect. The little girls were persuaded once and for all that Grandfather had been right: the people from the marsh were "scum", that is to say a sort that nice people did not mix with. In short, they must not go beyond the boundary.

III

They did not go beyond the boundary.

But how they longed to! More and more at every strange thing they heard! More and more with every day that passed! If only they dared risk going out there once more—just once!

Before long they discovered a mound in their father's fields where, just like Moses, they could stand with their hands to their brows and look down on the "Promised Land." Here they stood on bright summer days and gazed out across the marsh, across the swaying rushes and reeds at its edge, amongst which their former playmates frisked about in bare feet and with their skirts tucked up high. It was indeed hard to have to stand there and look into the Land of Canaan without being able to reach it, without EVER being able to reach it!

So strong was the attraction of the forbidden land that they gradually ventured right out to where it began. It was mostly in the afternoons, while people were having a sleep after their lunch, that they crept out to the Mound and the marsh, in the corner of which the strange BOUNDARY was marked by a steel wire stretched between four posts. Well, Grandfather had said they might go TO the boundary. But they must not go beyond it.

It was on such an afternoon that they saw their small friends, Elsie and Malvine, come running towards them, not, as they expected, surprised or full of joy at seeing them, but occupied with quite different thoughts, full of wonderment at something strange which was taking place at home in the hut.

Michael Shrike, their grandfather, was "going away".

Where he was going, they did not know. But it must certainly be a long journey he was going on, for Grandmother had given them to understand that he was never going to come back any more. Actually, however, it was not that which was so remarkable. But how splendidly he had been dressed for this journey! The clothes he was to travel in were simply magnificent!

"Just come up with us, and then you can see for yourselves! You've never seen anything like it, NEVER!"

They gave no thought to the fact that it was forbidden. There was no time for that. Elsie and Malvine pointed up towards the hut both with their legs and arms, shouting and gesticulating:

"Be quick and follow us! Do be quick and come!"

And they WERE quick.

And what they saw was indeed remarkable.

Standing in the middle of the floor in the only room in the hut, with its ends resting on two chairs, was a long black bed, box or chest— the children were not quite sure what to call it. In it rested Michael Shrike on an immaculate, white sheet of perforated, waxed paper; but it was difficult to imagine it was supposed to be he. Not only had he been thoroughly washed and shaved—better than the little girls had ever seen him before, as far as they could remember—and had his hair done with a fine, white and very straight parting on one side; but the strangest thing was the suit he had on. My word! It was white from top to bottom, and made of the same material as the sheet. It was scalloped and perforated all along the edges, and had pleated cuffs and fluting on the chest. Of all the fine clothes the little girls could think of—brides' dresses, priests' robes, soldiers' uniforms— none equalled the solemnity of Michael Shrike's finery. In addition a wreath of flowers of almost bewildering colours had been laid on his chest. Surely those flowers had not been gathered in a garden!

Elsie and Malvine had certainly been right: there was indeed something to look and marvel at.

Not least was it the thought of how all this finery would behave when Michael Shrike started to move that occupied them. For if he was to go on a journey he could certainly not lie there in the black box in his fine clothes all the time. And whether he was to ride or walk, sit at a banquet table or whirl in the dance, it would in truth be a great marvel to see Michael Shrike.

Here was something for the imagination to wrestle with. Fascinated, and with wide eyes, the little girls tiptoed round the corpse of Michael Shrike. Now and then they let their fingers stroke along the crisp white cloth; now and then they were bold enough to touch the strange, hard flowers in the wreath; but they did not touch his hands; they did not know why, but they dared not do that.

If Sidsel had not come in and said that their grandfather was standing over on the other side of the boundary, asking where they were, there is no knowing when they would have gone away.

IV

More time passed—about a month.

The fresh admonitions the girls had received that day on their way home as well as the way in which they had had their arms shaken at the same time, had had the desired effect: the people in the Shack were "scum"; and they had to keep away from them!

Nor, however, did they forget all they had seen there—the splendid, airy dress Michael Shrike had on, the long journey he was about to embark on and the air of great solemnity which had surrounded him.

Amazement at all this continued to occupy the minds of the children. Oh, how they would have liked to pop over for a few moments to see what had happened since, whether Michael had left, and whether he had stayed away...

But one day they were given something else to think about.

One morning as they were dressing their mother came into their room. She looked very serious and seemed to have been weeping.

"Your dear old grandfather has passed away," she said, and stroked their hair in her emotion. Once they had put their clothes on they might go with her into the drawing-room to see him.

They were soon ready and went with her.

Just look—what could all this mean? They opened their eyes wide as they entered the drawing-room. They could see Grandfather lying on a white cloth in a black bed, and he looked exactly like Michael Shrike.

Yet—he was really not quite so fine as Michael had been. Washed and shaved he certainly was—and dressed in white, too. But the clothes were not of the same crisp, airy materiel as those of the other man, and the wreath he had lying on him they soon saw to be made of cuttings from the box-hedge, and it was nowhere near so magnificent as the shining, many-coloured wreath of flowers which Michael Shrike had had lying on his chest.

For a long time they stood in silence beside their grandfather. Their amazement was great indeed, but mingled with disappointment.

"Is Grandfather going to go away now, as well?" asked Elsbeth.

"Yes, dear, Grandfather is 'going away'. He is going so far away that he will never come back to us."

Both the little girls nodded. They both understood.

"Is he going with Michael Shrike?"

"Going with Michael Shrike—?" Their mother seemed amazed at the question. "Oh, my dear children, God alone knows whom we shall go with on this journey. But it may well be that Grandfather and Michael Shrike are going together."

"Oh."

The little girls looked at each other, peeped at Grandfather and looked at each other again. They were both thinking the same thing, but hardly knew whether they dared express it.

After a while Elsbeth plucked up courage.

"Then Grandfather is going to go beyond the boundary himself now?"

"Good gracious, my dears, what do you mean? The boundary Grandfather has crossed is one we must all cross," said Mother. She stroked their hair tenderly. But Elsbeth and Greta ducked and avoided their mother's gentle caresses. They exchanged some very meaning glances and then crept out of the room.

They went together out to the peat-shed where they were fairly sure of being alone. Here their thoughts found ample expression.

Many things had been turned upside down for the two small girls in that short time—their conception of the true distinction between "Springhill Farm" and the "Shack", between "nice" people and "scum".

When the day could come after all when they might accompany each other on a journey—was it really worth making such a fuss if they were to see each other once in a while in their ordinary daily life?

 
 
 

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