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Off For the Day by Jeppe Aakjaer

Translated By W. Glyn Jones

What a fine household it was living in Mudwood Farm on the particular summer morning with which we are here concerned. Stephen, the fifty year old owner of the farm, came dashing out of the scullery door, tripped over a zinc bucket which had been thrown down on the flagstones, turned on it in his temper and, to the accompaniment of a stream of meaningless oaths, flung it at the house, so that one of the kitchen-windows fell clattering in the dust. The next moment Stephen's worthy wife was standing threateningly in the doorway:

"Heaven preserve us, has the man gone mad?"

Mary was on the point of weeping.

"Do ye not think, Stephen, that ye're a man much to be admired, the way ye're acting against y'r ain interests? Two of the best window- panes smashed to smithereens! Oh Lord!" Mary began laboriously to gather up the broken pieces in her apron, while she continued to give vent to her feelings.

Stephen kept his distance. In actual fact he was rather ashamed of his action, and furious about the expense he would have to have the window-pane replaced. It was the very Devil, the way he had lost his temper!

Of course, he had not aimed at the window-panes, but at the wall of the well nearby, and the whole thing was intended to create a bit of a scene and give those damned women-folk a scare—it would do them good, too!

Mary continued to grumble; Stephen growled in his defense:

"H'm, those damned sluts," (this was aimed at the servant-girls), "why the Hell do they put things down so as ye fall ower them and break every bone in y'r body! They deserve a downright good hiding, so they do!

"Here they go, puffin' an' blowin', puffin' an' blowin'! They just canna get one leg past the other; but let them out, just let 'em out to enjoy theirselves, and Ah'll guarantee that they can get a move on, so Ah will. They dinna care a hang whether anything's done on the farm or no; oh no, it's a case of passin' away the time, of gettin' their wages out o' ye so they can gae an' hae a good time wi' their friends; that's all they're after; it doesna matter one bit whether the master's doin' well or no; he can gae tae blazes!—And ye're in favour of it! Ye think Ah must put up wi't! So the morn Ah'll no hae a herdsman again. Even if the beasts bellow their heads off, what does it matter, as long as the lad has a good time. Och aye; he's off for the day. He's off tae the woods when odier folks have to work. That's what teachers invent nowadays; it's a fine upbringing to give such a lad, Ah must say! It ought tae be put a stop tae!" And Stephen swung his arm wildly about his head.

But now Mary, who had been seeking a new excuse to attack him, had found it, and called to her husband across the broad, fresh-smelling midden, "Yes, by Jove, ye're the right man to talk of upbringing, the way ye behave y'rself and smash y'r ain windows in y'r temper! Should an old man no be ashamed of doing what one would hardly expect of an irresponsible servant. Goodness me!"

But before the last words were uttered Stephen had already scurried off through the door of the storehouse.

What had taken place before this scene was as follows:

After breakfast the cowherd had come forward with a message from the new school-teacher, saying that he intended going to Bedingholm Woods with the children the following day; the trip was to be by train and would cost but a small amount; the teacher hoped that not only the farmers' children, but the servant lads too, and preferably without exception, would be able to obtain permission to take part in the outing which had indeed been arranged a long time before, and which people had taken a great deal of trouble to organize.

The teacher knew well enough it was the first time anything of this kind had been tried in HIS school, while in other, less old-fashioned districts, it was an established custom that the children should go on a trip to some natural beauty-spot in the neighbourhood at least once every summer. All this the teacher had put to the parents one Sunday in church and had also gained the consent of most of them; but unfortunately Stephen had not been present and would, moreover, probably only have been converted to the teacher's point of view with the greatest difficulty.

Wee Jamie stood there now and stated his and his teacher's case before his strict and surly master; he felt that he was doing it inexpressibly badly, small and nervous as he was. His voice trembled, and his sentences tumbled from his lips in bits and pieces, while Stephen stepped on each little utterance separately and smashed it like an egg-shell; he raised his voice to the roof and let it rumble over Jamie's head, full of reproaches, while the little fellow was on the point of shrinking into his own cap from shame.

"To the woods! Did ye say to the woods? On a trip? YOU! Just when we're gettin' ready for the harvest! Oh no, that'd no be sae bad, would it! Then ye'd hae whiled away a bit more time!—And that's what the teacher puts into y'r heads. That's why we make gifts tae hims an' pay him an' do Lord knows what for him—so as he can teach you tae make demands on the master! Ye canna make it awkward enough on y'r ain! Aye, Ah've seen for a long time what sort of a person he is. If only we'd kept the auld one! He could hold a meeting in the kirk a damned sight longer as this here poor weakling, and Ah'll be hanged if this here fellow'll ever in his life put an epitaph together as good as auld Paterson's. An' then the auld man was a chap as a body could talk tae; he could get used tae the fact that when a body has a servant lad an' gives him food an' wages—an' this an' that—then it was no so as he could sit in the school an' waste his time, but so as he'd be able tae dae a wee bit o' good on the farm. But just gae tae this one an' ax HIM tae let the lad off school for a couple o' days, an' what'll he answer?—'I am afraid it is impossible for me to permit that, Mr. Stephen Mudwood.'—No, he canna permit it! Pompous wee blighter he is!—An' then he comes here now an' demands as Ah give up my rights ower the lad, an' just in the busiest time o' the summer, too; it'd hae been bad enough if it had been a—a—a winter day, so it would."

"Och, ye're a poor one, the way ye stand and carry on, I must say," interrupted Mary, and at the same time lifted a boiling pot of potatoes off the fire so that the water splashed down on to the flaming moorland peat. "Do ye want the teacher to take the bairns for an outing in the winter? How on earth can ye stand there and talk such a lot of blether; there's no a grain of sense left in what you say! I can quite see it's no easy to do without the lad for a whole day, but for the sake of the others you canna deny it him. I've heard that Wullie's lad's going—"

"Niel Cruikshank's goin', too," blurted out Jamie now—he had gained courage from his mistress' somewhat unexpected support. "He's goin' up tae drive wi' Jamie Vincent."

"Och, hold y'r tongue, will ye, ye wee de'il!" said Stephen, and made a threatening gesture at the little cowherd, who cringed so much that he almost disappeared under the table-leaf.

Mary continued, "As I say, we dinna want to have any bother with the schoolmaster on account of that, seeing as we'll soon have bairns of our own in the school. We'll find some way of managing without him." "Aye, Ah ken y'r 'ways', Ah do," retorted Stephen, wild with rage. "That means Ah can run after the beasts mysel'. For it's no tae be thought o' that ye an' the lassies'll—"

"Aye, but we'll manage that somehow;" said Mary in a soothing tone, "if only ye could stop your temper getting the upper-hand!"

Stephen turned towards the lad again, ready to pour forth more grievances. "It's a wonder Ah've no been commandeered tae DRIVE ye tae the station as well; MUST ye walk? MUST ye REALLY walk, ma weemannie? Shall Ah no get the sprung carriage out? Or the caleche—that'd be a lot more fun, ye ken.

"An' it's no but a case o' askin', ye ken; y'r master's only here tae- dae as his servants like tae ask him. Ye can hear that fra the mistress here if ye canna find it out elsewhere; she agrees wi't; she thinks it's quite a' right when a servant lad can demand—"

"Och, can ye no find something else to do besides standing here and carrying on?" replied Mary with a threatening glance.

"If Ah let ye hae YOUR way a' the time Ah'd soon be made a fool of in front o' the pairish."

"What do ye think folk would say if we were the only ones to stop their lad from going on the trip?—

"Och, go away from the table so as I can pour the water off the potatoes," concluded Mary authoritatively as she pushed up against Stephen, holding the boiling pan by the ears.

Accompanied by the loud noise of wooden clogs, Stephen backed away from the sink, and as he had really lost his temper now he grated his studded clog-soles loudly on the flagstones as he left the house.

It was shortly after this that the attack on the window-panes, which we have already heard about, took place and ended with Stephen's flight through the storehouse.

A little later he appeared on the green behind the white wall of the barn; there were a couple of animals tethered there, and he had to move them away.

The red colt was a long time before it recovered from its amazement when, instead of the patting to which it was accustomed, it received a furious jerk in its wooden halter; and the leading ram, which otherwise had been allowed to do as it liked everywhere, and whose cheeky, half-friendly thumps on Stephen's roomy trousers-seat had never before been taken the wrong way, was today rewarded with a vicious blow between the eyes and an angry, "Will ye get out o' the road, ye shaggy de'il!"

With his back bowed in rage and his arms bent as though he were about to administer a box on the ears, Stephen slid away across the meadows.

Towards evening the same day wee Jamie was standing down by the stream swilling his brown legs, while the swallows were chirping over the rushes and the peewit was calling across the spreading pasture land.— An elderly man with turned up trousers came across the marshes with a fishing rod bobbing up and down over his shoulder; he stopped in front of Jamie, showing his naked feet to be thin like those of an old man, and said elatedly, "Well, well, just look at the wee chappie. My word, I like to see ye getting y'r wee shanks clean. Ower yonder on Mudwood Farm ye usually gae about wi' enough dirt on ye tae take off wi' a fork; but how is't as ye're makin' y'rsel' sae fine this evenin'? Are ye goin' out?"

"Ah'm goin' on a trip tae the woods the morn. All the school's goin'. We're tae hae a fiddler wi' us, too, 'cause we're no comin' hame till the last train," said Jamie, and kicked about in the stream so that the water splashed up.

"Eh, what's this Ah hear!" exclaimed Thames, the fisherman.

"It's a bit better than sittin' at hame wi' a dish o' sour gruel, is't no!

"Will't cost ye onything?"

"Ye-es. For them as can afford it; but Ah've no tae gi' ought; the teacher's said sae, 'cause ma mither's been tae see him."

"Ah-sae Stephen's said ye can gae, then?" asked Thames.

"Yes, sort o'," replied Jamie evasively.

"H'm, Ah can just imagine ye've no had an easy job on," said Thames with a grin. "But ye dinna need tae worry now ye've once got permission.

"Och, Lord, but ye'll hae tae be up pretty early, will ye no?"

"Aye, we're goin' wi' the early mornin' train; an' we're no gettin' out until the third station!"

Jamie was dazed by the thought of such a long journey.

"My hat, nor ye are! Well, ma lad, dinna let me catch ye ower- sleepin'—the train'll no wait for onybody, ye ken."

And Thames sauntered off with his fishing rod.

The next morning Stephen Mudwood had scarcely opened the door to Jamie's room beside the stables and raised his cracked voice before the lad was sitting wide awake on the bed-end, reaching out after his best clothes which he had been careful to lay out on the box at the side of the bed the previous evening.

"Oh, so ye ARE goin' tae put on y'r new things straight away!" said Stephen. "Ah thought ye'd hae waited till ye'd got the beasts out."

This put the damper on Jamie. He had been hoping so fervently that he would be let off seeing to the cattle today; for if he had to struggle out to the most distant fields with THEM he could well forget the time—not to mention how begrimed he might get his new clothes.

Jamie sat a moment between his old and his new clothes, undecided which to put on; and in despair at the choice he began to snivel quietly.

"Oh, sae ye're goin' tae blubber about that, are ye!" yelled Stephen. "Aye, Ah ken. Ye're a crowd o' lazy blighters, the lot o' ye. Sae ye were goin' tae jump right out o' y'r bed an' intae the train; och aye, that'd hae been fine! Then someone else could hae took y'r place an' seen tae everything theirselves; so long as YE can get away!"

Jamie's tears fell more and more profusely, while Stephen became more and more angry; finally he turned towards the naked boy with a threatening gesture and shouted, "Will ye shut y'r mouth, ye miserable shrimp, or Ah'll teach ye a lesson! Must ye sit here an' snivel ower havin' tae take a couple o' beasts tae the meadows when there's mair as twae hours afore the train gaes!—Ye just get y'r trousers on an' make a start while there's still time. It's damned well about time ye realised ye're workin' for a livin' now and canna hide y'rsel' behind y'r mither's skirts ony mair."

At that moment the quiet shuffle of a pair of wooden shoes was heard on the stone flags outside the stable; Stephen turned round and saw the lad's mother, a little, bent woman with a pale, kindly face.

"Good mornin'," she said and peeped from under her shawl past Stephen at her son, who was still whimpering on the bed-end.

"Och, so ye ARE up; see, I've come wi' a pair o' new socks for ye; ye'd better look y'r best the day, I suppose."

She looked, smiling, up at Stephen's surly face; but when she had glanced a few times from him to her son she immediately understood the situation and said, "H'm, perhaps it's a wee bit difficult to do without him for a whole day."

"Ha, ye take nae notice o' that these days," replied Stephen and twisted his mouth sullenly.

"It's gettin' tae such a state as it's no but on pay-day as a man kens whether he's got ony servants or no.

"But Ah wanted him tae take a few beasts out tae the fields afore he started; Ah didna think that'd be asking tae much o' him when he's got the rest o' the day to fool about in.

"But the train's no goin' for a couple o' hours or so; an' even if he look some o' the cattle out and shifted a few pens o' sheep afore he set off—away fra it all—he'd still be able tae get what HE'S after. Ah'll no make unreasonable demands on the lad, indeed Ah'll no; but Ah would like him tae take the calves down tae the lower meadow—an' it'd no be sae far out o' his road, either."

"Aye, but all being well, he'll manage tae dae that—if he can be free THEN" said Annie quietly; "but ye'll hae tae get a move on, laddie!"

Stephen, who had achieved what HE wanted, disappeared from the stable without saying good-bye, while Jamie began to dress.

"Come on out tae the water-trough an' get y'rsel' nice an' clean—an' wash behind y'r ears!" exhorted Annie.

"What a lovely shine ye've got on them," she continued, pointing to Jamie's shoes which he had carefully brushed the previous evening and put beside the bed. "D'ye no think it'd be best tae hang them and y'r socks roun' y'r neck while ye're busy wi' the beasts; otherwise ye're goin' tae get them all dirtied wi' dew an' mud, ye ken."

Before many minutes had passed Jamie had the calves coupled together and was standing on the flagstones with his socks and shining little shoes tied to a string over his shoulder. He had really become quite fine in his best clothes, standing there freshly washed. A brand new tie which his mother had brought for him in her pocket caused him to squint down under his chin every other minute in pride. For the last time Annie went behind her son and jerked up his jacket collar.—

Jamie's mistress came out of the doorway with a neat packet of sandwiches in her hand.

The calves were dozing as they waited with the ropes round their necks, and only occasionally did they raise a foreleg to scare away the flies.

"Thank ye so much for letting the laddie go wi' the others; it's such a treat for him," said Annie.

"Yes," answered Mary, and rested her hand on her protruding abdomen, "servants have a good time of it these days; it's no like in our young days! They'll soon be gettin' the same treatment whether they're the farmer's children or the farm labourer's. And come to think o't, there ought to be a WEE bit of difference made between your ain bairns and other people's.

"That's what Ah think, anyway!

"Well, here's y'r sandwiches," she said, and changed the subject abruptly. "An' if ye dinna eat it all, ye bring it back wi' ye, remember.

"Now ye'd better be gettin' along wi' the beasts; and behave y'rsel', then nobody'll chatter about ye."

Jamie took the sandwiches and set off with the calves. His mother followed him in silence.

Outside the gate she flung her striped apron on one side and thrust her hand into the pocket of her skirt.

"Ah suppose Stephen didna gi' ye onything towards y'r trip, did he?" she asked, and began to unwrap a piece of newspaper.

"No-o!"

"No, Ah thought not sae.

"There's just one threepenny-bit your father gied me for ye.

"He's down at the marshes hisself; ye'll be goin' right past where he is! You should wave tae him fra the train; he'd be sae pleased!

"An' look after y'r money, laddie; for we've no got sae much o't.

"An' just let me see as ye've got some respect for y'r clothes!

"Well, cheerio son. See as ye get off all right!"

Jamie went ahead with his herd of calves.

The morning sky was a dreamy blue; flocks of pigeons were flying home from the fallow fields, beating their white wings in the air; the calves' tracks lay behind them like long, dark stripes in the dew.

People from the farms were already beginning to drive the children to the station. The horses, frisky in the morning air, kept close to each other, so that the carriages formed an unbroken row. The freshly painted bodies of the coaches shone in the sun; the farmers' small daughters in their light blue frocks and with coloured ribbons in their hats were sitting in the driving seats, whispering, full of curiosity like ducklings which have just come out of the shell. Behind them, holding fast to the backs of the driving-seats, were the servants lads, swaying to hold their balance when the wheels jolted down into a rut.

One of the parties had a clarinet in the coach, and the redfaced musician was puffing up his cheeks as he blew the shrill notes out into the dewy morning air.

When this coach jolted past the lazy calves in the herd, they suddenly woke up, made a rush to the side and jerked Jamie, so that his shoes bounced up and dealt him a blow on his ears. A couple of the little girls in the carriage leant over from the driving-seat, pointed at him and set up a shrill, mocking laughter; a servant boy dangling from the coach, who felt higher up in the world, turned his freckled face towards him and shouted, "YOU'll be late!"

Jamie had been thinking that himself all the time he had been walking. It was unbelievable how those calves could amble along and rub one ankle against the other; it was almost impossible to drag them out of the village.

Jamie took hold of the whip now and let it fall a few times on the knobbly backs of the piebald calves. But at that the good relationship between them was irremediably broken. The leading calf stood obstinately stock still.—Jamie went on ahead, put the reins over his shoulder and pulled with all his might; the calf's neck seemed to stretch to twice its normal size, and its eyes closed above the wooden halter, which dug deep into its flesh—as though it were deliberately undergoing this torture in order to do penance for its sins; a long, rainbow-coloured thread of saliva hung from its muzzle; only in a strict slow-march did it move forward, with its knees stiffened and its hooves turned outwards in order to resist.—Sweat poured down over Jamie's forehead; now the last coach had disappeared behind the hill leading to the station; this was going to be the complete ruination of him!

Exasperated and tired out he turned round with his whip in the air. But the calves, which had the very worst of bad consciences, dived now as though by common consent backwards into the ditch, tugged at the halters and jerked so hard that one of the tether-ropes snapped across the middle.

Two of the calves sprang away from the rest of the herd and buried themselves to the sound of scornful bellowings in a neighbouring oat- field.

Jamie howled in despair and anger.

A furious, old woman in a knee-length, parti-coloured under-skirt came gesticulating and grumbling out of a part of the farm nearby and sowed a great mass of oaths and curses over the wide fields:

"The De'il take ye, ye filthy scamp, can ye no keep y'r beasts under control!"

Her angry words were multiplied by echoes from the out-buildings.

Terrified, Jamie dashed after the calves in his bare feet, darting about on the white flint in the fields. The wet ears of the oats immediately forced their dew through his trouser-legs; only the calves' ears were to be seen above the top of the oats; with their long, greedy tongues they skimmed the ears from the straws all round them.

The old woman was on the point of bursting, so much was she shouting.

Jamie's eyes were popping out of his head in utter helplessness; then suddenly he saw Thames the fisherman going past on the road; Thames threw down his fishing rod straight away and waded into the oat-field; by their combined efforts the two of them gradually succeeded in getting hold of all the calves by the muzzle; Thames did not leave his small friend until they had all the herd safely in the meadow.

"Lord, how she carried on!" said Thames, and pointed in the direction of the short-skirted old dame who was now sulkily retreating towards the farm.

"It was the widow, by Jove! She's no exactly an angel tae greet ye in the mornin', Ah must say!"

A little later he added, "H'm, sae Stephen just couldna let ye hae the whole day off after all! Ah ken how it is! But Ah should THINK ye'll be in time if ye hurry!"

Thames continued his stroll along the river with his fishing rod bobbing up and down over his shoulder.

A few yards from Jamie he stopped and listened; yes, that was the engine whistling; it must be arriving!

"Jamie, laddie, Ah think ye'll hae tae run as hard as ye possibly can!——They ought tae be ashamed o' theirselves, making the bairn late when he only has a bit o' pleasure once a year!" he muttered to himself as he went on, shaking his head.

And Jamie ran off heartily; at first he seemed to be able to run up the slopes in two or three bounds; then the hollows of his knees became less steady; now and then he got a jag on his toes from a piece of flint, but it only made him draw in his toes to lessen the pain.

Now he had reached the long hill leading to the station; he was bent nearly double, so fast was he running. Here, where the view ahead was hidden, the fear of arriving too late lent him wings.

"Ah'll be too late! Ah'll be too late!" he whispered inaudibly at every step.

The green woods surrounded by the water, his merry companions, the games, the country dancing, the music, the steaming coffee and the delicious wheat-cakes—ALL that seemed to him to be disappearing in the smoke from the engine as it steamed out of the station.

Bewildered by lack of breath he reached the top of the slope; there was no train to be seen; it was so deserted and uninviting down there.

"'Ah'll be too late! Ah'll be too late!"—still these words pounded through his head.

But there was still a possibility that the train was hidden behind the red brick station building.—

Yes, my word, was that not smoke coming up over the roof?

Jamie ran as though he had fire beneath the soles of his feet, while his shoes, hanging loosely about his neck, clattered ceaselessly behind his head.

Now the road turned to the right and revealed that the smoke which had filled him with hope was issuing from a neighbouring house. "Ah'm too late! Ah'm too late!" he groaned tearfully as he turned into the platform with a red mist before his eyes.

Oh, how empty it was there! The hens were walking about between the shining rails; the clapper on the station bell was gently swinging to and fro in the morning breeze.

Jamie's eyes grew to an unnatural size as his gaze followed the empty track and was lifted higher and higher towards the vacant horizon.

The station-master, a thin man with a stern face, had come out on to the platform:

"Were you supposed to be going on the trip?"

"Yes," said Jamie, and sobbed as though he only now realised the full extent of his disappointment.

"Well if people want to catch a train they must take care to come in time," said the station-master as if he were reading it out of the rules and regulations.

"Yes, but Ah had tae take the calves out first!" sobbed Jamie. "Is it you who works for Stephen Mudwood, then?"

Jamie affirmed this.

"On the insistent demands of Mr. Petersen, the teacher, I had the train wait until five minutes after it was due out; they said they had seen you on the way—but as you had still not arrived—-"

Now the station-master's wife had come out to join him:

"Good gracious me, has he missed the train!" She peered down at his tear-lined face.

"Come into the house and have a cup of coffee."

The kind lady gave him some cake as well. Jamie sat on the very edge of the fine sofa and hardly dared look up for shyness, while, to the accompaniment of small hiccupping sounds, he noisily emptied the cup.

A moment later the kind lady's door was closed behind Jamie's naked heels.

 
 
 

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