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Indomitability by by Jakob Knudsen

Translated by V. Elizabeth Balfour-Browne

I walked through the waiting-room of the little country station in Jutland, with my head and body aching from the journey: the rumbling of the train, the warmth of the compartment, the hot unpleasant smell of the waste steam, the vibration of the engine which still stood grunting at the platform. I had had a poor night and my head still felt dizzy. I passed out through the main door, which, being fitted with a spring, fell to behind me with a click. Out in the cold, misty December rain a little one-horse gig was waiting in front of the station. The driver was the well-known small-holder who had got the driving for the Lecturing Union by offering the lowest terms. I was about to climb into the vehicle by stepping on the corner of the swingle-tree and the left-hand shaft since there was no step to the gig, but the driver, doubtful of the bar's bearing my weight, warned me against that. I managed by putting my foot on the hub of the wheel but in so doing I badly smeared my fur coat with grease. The driver gave me half of his ragged horse-cloth to put over my knees and at last we set off at an amble in the steady rain. It was not heavy but was unrelenting and my neck and shoulders were soon soaked.

At one time I imagined that for the rest of my existence I had no other prospects of making a living than by undertaking reading and lecture tours, and so I took very seriously—as being interminable— the discomforts which might accompany them. Today, too, burning nephralgia gave me no peace. The driver was very entertaining considering the circumstances, but I am convinced his conversation was intended to distract my attention from the slow progress we were making. The horse was of Russian stock and for this reason its pace became so slow as to resemble that of a snail. The man never used the whip as the creature seemed likely to shy at it and a flick of it might really have caused it to bolt. On the other hand he kept repeating "Hup! Hup!" without intermission until the words sounded more and more as if he were turning a quid in his cheek.

After two hours of this we stopped in front of the village school where I was to stay for the next twenty-four hours. By this time I was quite out of humour—not least because my fur coat was wet through, for I knew by experience how difficult it was to get such a thing dried when away from home without its being spoilt by being put too near the stove. It didn't appear that anyone within had seen the gig arrive. The driver tried to attract attention by cracking his whip but it gave only a wet cloop.

Well, it was a good thing, I thought as we waited, that it was one of Holberg's comedies I was to read that evening. His humour is an excellent antidote to gloominess. Reading aloud from his work when I myself have been depressed, I have often thought I could feel how much indisposition he himself had to overcome while he wrote the plays.

The master now came out onto the steps, a man of about 30, with fair hair and a moustache which drooped well over his mouth and was stained at the ends with tobacco. We were complete strangers to each other.

Briskly, with a touch of the dashing pedagogue about him, he said, "Good afternoon," but thereupon was seized by a fit of coughing and spitting while I crawled down from the gig. When I was on the ground I was prepared to shake hands but he was unable to do so for coughing. It was the deep, hollow, unmistakable cough of a consumptive in an advanced stage of the disease. I felt a horrible certainty that the man who now stood and blocked the doorway in front of me would be carried out of it within a few months.

At length the attack passed. He took a few hasty puffs at his pipe which was on the point of going out and put out his hand with a swinging, rather exaggerated movement.

"Rain! Rain! It rains every single day," he said with a peculiar intonation on the last word. "Come in, Jakob Knudsen, and warm yourself. You look like a drowned rat!"

We hung my fur coat on a nail near the stove and put my suitcase close to it. His wife, who looked tired and over-worked, brought in coffee; several children appeared in the room and stared at me.

The school-master offered me one of his pipes, but I refused it with the excuse that I had a cold.

"By the way, I have a bone to pick with you, Jakob Knudsen," he said at once. "It is better not to beat about the bush, but—well, let me tell you straight out. I have read your last book and the character you have drawn of a Danish, as I take it a Jutland, teacher is absolutely unfair—"

I attempted to defend myself. He was not intended to be typical, and so forth.

"No, no, the mistake is that you have drawn him both stupid and self- important, and those are two bad faults."

"Of course, but I have surely not suggested they are not?"

"I didn't get that impression at all. On the contrary it would seem rather as if you really meant what you wrote there."

"Well, you have misunderstood me...."

During this conversation, which, by the assistance of frequent misunderstandings, continued for a long time, the children in the room began to play with my fur coat. They set it swinging towards the stove.

I became anxious for my valuable property and unresponsive to my host's conversation. At last in a pleasant, joking tone I asked the eldest boy to leave my coat alone.

"You are no pedagogue, Jakob Knudsen," said his father. "Your words will have no effect that way. Explain to Thorgrim WHY he must not play with your coat and then you'll see."

"The reason is that I don't wish it," said I in a rather less pleasant tone.

"That is no reason—no pedagogic reason. Thorgrim," and he turned to the boy, "do you think it would be good for your bottom to touch the stove?"

The boy grinned and began to approach the stove backwards in a crouching attitude.

"No, no, Thorgrim. Answer me. Of course you don't think so. The stove is too hot. Well, it isn't good for Jakob Knudsen's coat either. Do you understand now?"

The children again took hold of the coat.

"See, that's the way—a little joke, just a joke, yet it is instructive, and it is so easy. There must be an appeal to the understanding."

Thorgrim now hung on my coat and swung to and fro. I took it down and laid it on the bed in the room where I was to sleep that night.

"Yes, caution is thought a virtue among the middle classes," said my host, "but it is not my intention to make leaders of the bourgeoisie out of my children. Would you like to see the church, Jakob Knudsen, before it is quite dark? It is only two steps off."

We rose and donned our coats.

"Father, what are you going to see up at the church?"

"What are we going to see? We are going to see what there IS to see."

"But what is there to see, father?"

"I can't tell you that in one word. We can talk about it later."

"May I go to the church with you?"

"No, Thorgrim, certainly not."

"Why not?"

"It is cold and wet and you'll get a cold. Do you understand?"

"No; I won't, father, so may I come?"

"Well, yes. Come with us if you really want to. But you must put some other shoes on. You can't come in those gym-shoes."

Thorgrim rushed out of the front door and into the church-yard in his thin tennis shoes.

"Oh, well. All right," said his father, following him. "I consider that children have to learn that they have wills too, and that will has a meaning. I think their wills should be developed," he said to me.

I could not answer. At the moment I was feeling life in general utterly distasteful.

"I believe that if there is to be a future," the school-master continued, "it depends on children's having vigorous, healthy and powerful wills."

The rain had stopped but the weather had got much colder. The teacher had wrapped a long, knitted muffler round his throat. He coughed and smoked as we walked up to the church.

"We had his Grace the Bishop in church a fortnight ago. Children and young people filled the body of the church—the whole jing-bang; a big to do there and in the school."

I had heard—from other school-masters—something of the stories he was going to tell. But I was too spiritually numb to take part in any argument with this man—moreover my host's bearing scarcely invited it.

"He is a drivelling old fool, the bishop, with his two fingers held out when he shakes hands with a teacher, and the endless talks to them at dinner at the vicarage."

"H'm," I said.

"Well, don't you agree, Jakob Knudsen? Don't you know him?"

"Not well enough to be able to express myself so forcibly about him."

"Everyone in the parish here is agreed on it since the visitation. I said so to the children in the school after he had gone. I said, 'The bishop is a drivelling old fool, children,' I said. And there wasn't one who contradicted the statement, ha! ha!"

"Now, you'll have to see that you keep in with the children in the future. Otherwise there'll be trouble."

"Oh! I don't think there will be any trouble. And I believe that children's respect for authority must be broken sooner or later. I think there are many relationships they will have to see rationally. I am really a heathen."

"Indeed? But you didn't need to be so to call the bishop a drivelling old fool."

"No, probably not. But I am really a heathen—or rather a pagan. I am Greek through and through."

"That is difficult to understand."

"You mean that that doesn't go with being teacher in a Danish school?"

"Not only that; you don't give the impression at all of having a Greek outlook."

"H'm, you don't know of course my views on Socrates. I have read absolutely everything that man wrote."

"But he wrote nothing...."

During the exchange of views on literary history which followed we had entered the church. Thorgrim remained outside. He was examining a number of wreaths lying upon a new grave.

Inside the church, my host's cough began again, so booming and hollow that one could almost believe that the sound came from the vaults of the old squires underneath the aisle. At the same time he changed the subject of conversation and began to extol the Danish sanatoria.

"They are the salvation of Denmark, the sanatoriums. They have a real mission. They are a benefit to the whole race of Danes. You have no idea how many of us in this country there are with consumption—full of bacteria and bacilluses. Well then, a spell at a sanatorium and they're away—not a germ left! I have been at Herning Sanatorium three times. I came back perfectly well. That is a great satisfaction and a great encouragement."

"But are you quite fit at present? You seem to be coughing a good deal."

"I'll take another spell there in the Spring and get a proper Spring- cleaning. One naturally accumulates some germs during the Autumn and Winter."

"I wonder if you ought to smoke so much?" "I don't think it can do further harm. Besides it is so refreshing. Tobacco smoke is refreshing..."

I stood looking at an old grave-stone of the sixteenth century. It had been taken from the floor and built into the wall of the chancel. The surface was black and showed a bas-relief of an armoured knight with folded hands, and his wife in a farthingale. It was getting dark in the church and it was bitterly cold; it felt almost as if there was an icy current of dead days and nights between us and the vanished age to which the old stone belonged. I took my pocket-knife and made a scratch on the edge of the slab. I wanted to see what the stone was like under its four hundred years old surface. Slate-grey it was, and as fresh where it was exposed as a fruit which has just been cut open. As fresh as it had been four hundred years ago, as indeed it had been thousands and thousands of years ago before the little moment of time began when it had come into man's service. In the life of the stone it was really only a few days ago that the knight and his lady had lived, and in a few days we ourselves would have passed away...The teacher's cough was racking him. He stood and propped himself against one of the front pews. As soon as the paroxysm was over he pulled at his pipe to prevent its going out.

When we emerged from the church he was in the middle of an argument of which I must have missed the beginning.

"Denmark's children are Denmark's hope. It is the only one we have," I heard him say aloud. "We older ones cannot live for ever. We retire and the youngsters start where we leave off. And so it is of importance that these young people have a straight back, a firm will, wide understanding, a fearless step and no hobbles round their ankles. That is my philosophy of education. But I have a suspicion that that is not quite your point of view, Jakob Knudsen?"

"Well, I scarcely know. But in any case I am against hobbles on the ankles."

"H'm. But oh! Jakob Knudsen I was sorry, I was heartily sorry, to hear you speak so to my boy, that he must not touch your coat because you did not wish it. Yes, it is the MOTIVE, the motive that is so wrong, so horribly unpedagogic. We must explain, and again explain and never be tired of explaining to children the great WHY, WHY they must not do this or that. I think it was so utterly primitive of you, so antediluvian, that BECAUSE I DO NOT WISH IT."

I has to defend myself and we entered upon a discussion which lasted— misunderstandings and fits of coughing included—right up to the time of the reading, and after that again until bed-time. And then my host had so violent a paroxysm that I was really afraid it would lead to a haemorrhage or to his choking.

He got over it at last however and quickly got his pipe going again, but for a while after it he sat in his rocking-chair with closed eyes, utterly worn out.

"It will be interesting to talk to Dr. Biedermann at Herning in the Spring," he said and opened his eyes. "I can see him before me when he comes and puts his stethoscope to my chest. It is a pleasure to talk to that man, and to get a really scientific insight into the state of one's own constitution. And then to come home, well and cheerful, to one's little, accustomed job."

The indomitability of so empty a soul, I thought to myself.

Thorgrim was rocking the chair in which his father was sitting. I thought that now and again it looked rather risky but I did not feel myself justified in saying anything.

"You know, Thorgrim, what we are discussing, don't you?" said his father when the chair seemed at one moment as if it had nearly tipped over backwards.

The boy grinned.

"We are in agreement, aren't we, Thorgrim?"

The boy rocked the chair more violently.

"Come now, Thorgrim, not so hard! You know that I don't like—that it is not good for me."

I could not bear to watch the spectacle so I said I would take a stroll before I went to bed.

I put on my overcoat and went out.

Underfoot the ground was frozen hard. Over my head the stars formed a dense canopy. The firmament was hardly visible—everywhere there was the silver glitter of stars or the silver haze of starlit mist.

What peace and orderliness! Here was no silly, empty jargon but unshakable dependability, omnipotent purity, powerful enough to drown the world's watching eyes in eternal blindness!

By earth's nocturnal blackness I was then reminded of the proximity of Christmas. And I felt that Christmas had the same origin as the starry heavens, since God's love and his omnipotence flow from the same source. In him is the same unshakable dependability, the same remoteness from vain and transitory jargon; the same purity as that of a child who has never been in love, or of a girl who loves for the first time, yet omnipotent, the purity of omnipotent love which however much it is gazed upon and praised remains for ever pure, as if it were eternally unseen.

Until now I had been troubled in mind, unsettled and depressed—the whole day until now.

When I came in again, Thorgrim had gone to bed.

"Yes, he upset me, the little monkey, he tipped me right over," said his father, "but now I've talked to him seriously about it, and I think he understands better that he must not do that kind of thing."

"It is freezing hard," I said without sitting down. "You can feel it is near Christmas."

"Yes, so it is," said my host and stood up too. "A week today will be the 23rd. Yes, Christmas is a beautiful feast—The festival of the home. But there are too many holy days, time one must waste sitting in the parish clerk's seat. By degrees I have really got tired of the message of dear old Christmas. I am more interested in the message of the Sanatorium, for without it I would have been on the list of candidates for Death. Don't you think so?"

"I think it is possible."

"And so Good Night, Jakob Knudsen, if you think we have been awake long enough for the present."

"Yes, indeed."

"Well, the message of sleep is one of those one doesn't easily get tired of."

 
 
 

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