DITTE: GIRL ALIVE!
BY MARTIN ANDERSON NEXOe
Translated from the Danish
NEW YORK HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920 BY HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
I DITTE'S FAMILY TREE 3
II BEFORE THE BIRTH 10
III A CHILD IS BORN 22
IV DITTE'S FIRST STEP 26
V GRANDFATHER STRIKES OUT AFRESH 33
VI THE DEATH OF SOeREN MAN 39
VII THE WIDOW AND THE FATHERLESS 47
VIII WISE MAREN 52
IX DITTE VISITS FAIRYLAND 69
X DITTE GETS A FATHER 79
XI THE NEW FATHER 87
XII THE RAG AND BONE MAN 103
XIII DITTE HAS A VISION 115
XIV AT HOME WITH MOTHER 124
XV RAIN AND SUNSHINE 138
XVI POOR GRANNY 144
XVII WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY 151
XVIII THE RAVEN FLIES BY NIGHT 163
XIX ILL LUCK FOLLOWS THE RAVEN'S CALL 172
I MORNING AT THE CROW'S NEST 183
II THE HIGHROAD 192
III LARS PETER SEEKS THE KING 203
IV LITTLE MOTHER DITTE 219
V THE LITTLE VAGABOND 230
VI THE KNIFE-GRINDER 239
VII THE SAUSAGE-MAKER 250
VIII THE LAST OF THE CROW'S NEST 267
IX A DEATH 284
X THE NEW WORLD 291
XI GINGERBREAD HOUSE 303
XII DAILY TROUBLES 311
XIII DITTE'S CONFIRMATION 320
DITTE'S FAMILY TREE
It has always been considered a sign of good birth to be able to count one's ancestors for centuries back. In consequence of this, Ditte Child o' Man stood at the top of the tree. She belonged to one of the largest families in the country, the family of Man.
No genealogical chart exists, nor would it be easy to work it out; its branches are as the sands of the sea, and from it all other generations can be traced. Here it cropped out as time went on—then twined back when its strength was spent and its part played out. The Man family is in a way as the mighty ocean, from which the waves mount lightly towards the skies, only to retreat in a sullen flow.
According to tradition, the first mother of the family is said to have been a field worker who, by resting on the cultivated ground, became pregnant and brought forth a son. And it was this son who founded the numerous and hardy family for whom all things prospered. The most peculiar characteristic of the Man family in him was that everything he touched became full of life and throve.
This boy for a long time bore the marks of the clinging earth, but he outgrew it and became an able worker of the field; with him began the cultivation of the land. That he had no father gave him much food for thought, and became the great and everlasting problem of his life. In his leisure he created a whole religion out of it.
He could hold his own when it came to blows; in his work there was no one to equal him, but his wife had him well in hand. The name Man is said to have originated in his having one day, when she had driven him forth by her sharp tongue, sworn threateningly that he was master in his own house, "master" being equivalent to "man." Several of the male members of this family have since found it hard to bow their pride before their women folk.
A branch of the family settled down on the desert coast up near the Cattegat, and this was the beginning of the hamlet. It was in those times when forest and swamp still made the country impassable, and the sea was used as a highway. The reefs are still there on which the men landed from the boats, carrying women and children ashore; by day and by night white seagulls take turns to mark the place—and have done so through centuries.
This branch had in a marked degree the typical characteristics of the family: two eyes—and a nose in the middle of their faces; one mouth which could both kiss and bite, and a pair of fists which they could make good use of. In addition to this the family was alike in that most of its members were better than their circumstances. One could recognize the Man family anywhere by their bad qualities being traceable to definite causes, while for the good in them there was no explanation at all: it was inbred.
It was a desolate spot they had settled upon, but they took it as it was, and gave themselves up patiently to the struggle for existence, built huts, chopped wood and made ditches. They were contented and hardy, and had the Man's insatiable desire to overcome difficulties; for them there was no bitterness in work, and before long the result of their labors could be seen. But keep the profit of their work they could not; they allowed others to have the spending of it, and thus it came about, that in spite of their industry they remained as poor as ever.
Over a century ago, before the north part of the coast was discovered by the land folk, the place still consisted of a cluster of hunch-backed, mildewed huts, which might well have been the originals, and on the whole resembled a very ancient hamlet. The beach was strewn with tools and drawn-up boats. The water in the little bay stank of castaway fish, catfish and others which, on account of their singular appearance, were supposed to be possessed of devils, and therefore not eaten.
A quarter of an hour's walk from the hamlet, out on the point, lived Soeren Man. In his young days he had roamed the seas like all the others, but according to custom had later on settled himself down as a fisherman. Otherwise, he was really more of a peasant and belonged to that branch of the family which had devoted itself to the soil, and for this had won much respect. Soeren Man was the son of a farmer, but on reaching man's estate, he married a fisher girl and gave himself up to fishing together with agriculture—exactly as the first peasant in the family had done.
The land was poor, two or three acres of downs where a few sheep struggled for their food, and this was all that remained of a large farm which had once been there, and where now seagulls flocked screaming over the white surf. The rest had been devoured by the ocean.
It was Soeren's, and more particularly Maren's foolish pride that his forefathers had owned a farm. It had been there sure enough three or four generations back; with a fairly good ground, a clay bank jutting out into the sea. A strong four-winged house, built of oak—taken from wrecks—could be seen from afar, a picture of strength. But then suddenly the ocean began to creep in. Three generations, one after the other, were forced to shift the farm further back to prevent its falling into the sea, and to make the moving easier, each time a wing was left behind; there was, of course, no necessity for so much house-room, when the land was eaten by the sea. All that now remained was the heavy-beamed old dwelling-house which had prudently been placed on the landward side of the road, and a few sandhills.
Here the sea no longer encroached. Now the best had gone, with the lands of Man, it was satiated and took its costly food elsewhere; here, indeed, it gave back again, throwing sand up on to the land, which formed a broad beach in front of the slope, and on windy days would drift, covering the rest of the field. Under the thin straggling downs could still be traced the remains of old plowland, broken off crudely on the slope, and of old wheeltracks running outwards and disappearing abruptly in the blue sky over the sea.
For many years, after stormy nights with the sea at high tide, it had been the Man's invariable custom each morning to find out how much had again been taken by the sea; burrowing animals hastened the destruction; and it happened that whole pieces of field with their crops would suddenly go; down in the muttering ocean it lay, and on it the mark of harrow and plow and the green reflection of winter crops over it.
It told on a man to be witness of the inevitable. For each time a piece of their land was taken by the sea with all their toil and daily bread on its back, they themselves declined. For every fathom that the ocean stole nearer to the threshold of their home, nibbling at their good earth, their status and courage grew correspondingly less.
For a long time they struggled against it, and clung to the land until necessity drove them back to the sea. Soeren was the first to give himself entirely up to it: he took his wife from the hamlet and became a fisherman. But they were none the better for it. Maren could never forget that her Soeren belonged to a family who had owned a farm; and so it was with the children. The sons cared little for the sea, it was in them to struggle with the land and therefore they sought work on farms and became day-laborers and ditchers, and as soon as they saved sufficient money, emigrated to America. Four sons were farming over there. They were seldom heard of, misfortune seemed to have worn out their feeling of relationship. The daughters went out to service, and after a time Soeren and Maren lost sight of them, too. Only the youngest, Soerine, stayed at home longer than was usual with poor folks' children. She was not particularly strong, and her parents thought a great deal of her—as being the only one they had left.
It had been a long business for Soeren's ancestors to work themselves up from the sea to the ownership of cultivated land; it had taken several generations to build up the farm on the Naze. But the journey down hill was as usual more rapid, and to Soeren was left the worst part of all when he inherited; not only acres but possessions had gone; nothing was left now but a poor man's remains.
The end was in many ways like the beginning. Soeren was like the original man in this also, that he too was amphibious. He understood everything, farming, fishing and handicraft. But he was not sharp enough to do more than just earn a bare living, there was never anything to spare. This was the difference between the ascent and the descent. Moreover, he—like so many of the family—found it difficult to attend to his own business.
It was a race which allowed others to gather the first-fruits of their labors. It was said of them that they were just like sheep, the more the wool was clipped, the thicker it grew. The downfall had not made Soeren any more capable of standing up for himself.
When the weather was too stormy for him to go to sea, and there was nothing to do on his little homestead, he sat at home and patched seaboots for his friends down in the hamlet. But he seldom got paid for it. "Leave it till next time," said they. And Soeren had nothing much to say against this arrangement, it was to him just as good as a savings bank. "Then one has something for one's old days," said he. Maren and the girl were always scolding him for this, but Soeren in this as in everything else, did not amend his ways. He knew well enough what women were; they never put by for a rainy day.
BEFORE THE BIRTH
The children were now out of their care—that is to say, all the eight of them. Soeren and Maren were now no longer young. The wear and tear of time and toil began to be felt; and it would have been good to have had something as a stand-by. Soerine, the youngest, was as far as that goes, also out of their care, in that she was grown up and ought long ago to have been pushed out of the nest; but there was a reason for her still remaining at home supported by her old parents.
She was very much spoiled, this girl—as the youngest can easily be; she was delicate and bashful with strangers. But, as Maren thought, when one has given so many children to the world, it was pleasant to keep one of them for themselves; nests without young ones soon become cold. Soeren in the main thought just the same, even if he did grumble and argue that one woman in the house was more than enough. They were equally fond of children. And hearing so seldom from the others they clung more closely to the last one. So Soerine remained at home and only occasionally took outside work in the hamlet or at the nearest farms behind the downs. She was supposed to be a pretty girl, and against this Soeren had nothing to say: but what he could see was that she did not thrive, her red hair stood like a flame round her clear, slightly freckled forehead, her limbs were fragile, and strength in her there was none. When speaking to people she could not meet their eyes, her own wandered anxiously away.
The young boys from the hamlet came wooing over the downs and hung round the hut—preferably on the warm nights; but she hid herself and was afraid of them.
"She takes after the bad side of the family," said Soeren, when he saw how tightly she kept her window closed.
"She takes after the fine side," said the mother then. "Just you wait and see, she will marry a gentleman's son."
"Fool," growled Soeren angrily and went his way: "to fill both her own and the girl's head with such rubbish!"
He was fond enough of Maren, but her intellect had never won his respect. As the children grew up and did wrong in one way or another, Soeren always said: "What a fool the child is—it takes after its mother." And Maren, as years went on, bore patiently with this; she knew quite as well as Soeren that it was not intellect that counted.
Two or three times in the week, Soerine went up town with a load of fish and brought goods home again. It was a long way to walk, and part of the road went through a pine wood where it was dark in the evening and tramps hung about.
"Oh, trash," said Soeren, "the girl may just as well try a little of everything, it will make a woman of her."
But Maren wished to shelter her child, as long as she could. And so she arranged it in this way, that her daughter could drive home in the cart from Sands farm which was then carrying grain for the brewery.
The arrangement was good, inasmuch as Soerine need no longer go in fear of tramps, and all that a timid young girl might encounter; but, on the other hand, it did not answer Maren's expectations. Far from having taken any harm from the long walks, it was now proved what good they had done her. She became even more delicate than before, and dainty about her food.
This agreed well with the girl's otherwise gentle manners. In spite of the trouble it gave her, this new phase was a comfort to Maren. It took the last remaining doubt from her heart: it was now irrevocably settled. Soerine was a gentlefolks' child, not by birth, of course—for Maren knew well enough who was father and who mother to the girl, whatever Soeren might have thought—but by gift of grace. It did happen that such were found in a poor man's cradle, and they were always supposed to bring joy to their parents. Herrings and potatoes, flounders and potatoes and a little bacon in between—this was no fare for what one might call a young lady. Maren made little delicacies for her, and when Soeren saw it, he spat as if he had something nasty in his mouth and went his way.
But, after all one can be too fastidious, and when at last the girl could not keep down even an omelet, it was too much of a good thing for Maren. She took her daughter up to a wise woman who lived on the common. Three times did she try her skill on Soerine, with no avail. So Soeren had to borrow a horse and cart and drove them in to the homeopathist. He did it very unwillingly. Not because he did not care for the girl, and it might be possible, as Maren said, that as she slept, an animal or evil spirit might have found its way into her mouth and now prevented the food from going down. Such things had been heard of before. But actually to make fools of themselves on this account—rushing off with horse and cart to the doctor just as the gentry did, and make themselves, too, the laughing stock of the whole hamlet, when a draught of tansy would have the same effect—this was what Soeren could not put up with.
But, of course, although the daily affairs were settled by Soeren Man, there were occasions when Maren insisted on having her way—more so when it seriously affected her offspring. Then she could—as with witchcraft—suddenly forget her good behavior, brush aside Soeren's arguments as endless nonsense, and would stand there like a stone wall which one could neither climb over, nor get round. Afterwards he would be sorry that the magic word which should have brought Maren down from her high and mightiness, failed him at the critical moment. For she was a fool—especially when it affected her offspring. But, whether right or wrong, when she had her great moments, fate spoke through her mouth, and Soeren was wise enough to remain silent.
This time it certainly seemed as if Maren was in the right; for the cure which the homeopathist prescribed, effervescent powder and sweet milk, had a wonderful effect. Soerine throve and grew fat, so that it was a pleasure to see her.
There can be too much of a good thing, and Soeren Man, who had to provide the food, was the first to think of this. Soerine and her mother talked much together and wondered what the illness could be, could it be this or could it be that? There was a great to-do and much talking with their heads together; but, as soon as Soeren appeared, they became silent.
He had become quite unreasonable, going about muttering and swearing. As though it was not hard enough already, especially for the poor girl! He had no patience with a sick person, beggar that he was; and one day it broke out from him with bitterness and rage: "She must be—it can be nothing else."
But like a tiger, Maren was upon him.
"What are you talking about, you old stupid? Have you borne eight children, or has the girl told you what's amiss? A sin and a shame it is to let her hear such talk; but now it is done, you might just as well ask her yourself. Answer your father, Soerine—is it true, what he says?"
Soerine sat drooping by the fireplace, suffering and scared. "Then it would be like the Virgin Mary," she whispered, without looking up. And suddenly sank down, sobbing.
"There, you can see yourself, what a blockhead you are," said Maren harshly. "The girl is as pure as an unborn child. And here you come, making all this racket in the house, while the child, perhaps, may be on the point of death."
Soeren Man bowed his head, and hurried out on to the downs. Ugh! it was just like thunder overhead. Blockhead she had called him—for the first time in the whole of their life together; he would have liked to have forced that word home again and that, at once, before it stuck to him. But to face a mad, old wife and a howling girl—no, he kept out of it.
Soeren Man was an obstinate fellow; when once he got a thing into his three-cornered head, nothing could hammer it out again. He said nothing, but went about with a face which said: "Ay, best not to come to words with women folk!" Maren, however, did not misunderstand him. Well, as long as he kept it to himself. There was the girl torturing herself, drinking petroleum, and eating soft soap as if she were mad, because she had heard it was good for internal weakness. It was too bad; it was adding insult to injury to be jeered at—by her own father too.
At that time he was as little at home as possible, and Maren had no objection as it kept him and his angry glare out of their way. When not at sea, he lounged about doing odd jobs, or sat gossiping high up on the downs, from where one could keep an eye on every boat going out or coming in. Generally, he was allowed to go in peace, but when Soerine was worse than usual, Maren would come running—piteous to see in her motherly anxiety—and beg him to take the girl in to town to be examined before it was too late. Then he would fall into a passion and shout—not caring who might hear: "Confound you, you old nuisance—have you had eight children yourself and still can't see what ails the girl?"
Before long he would repent, for it was impossible to do without house and home altogether; but immediately he put his foot inside the door the trouble began. What was he to do? He had to let off steam, to prevent himself from going mad altogether with all this woman's quibbling. Whatever the result might be, he was tempted to stand on the highest hill and shout his opinion over the whole hamlet, just for the pleasure of getting his own back.
One day, as he was sitting on the shore weighting the net, Maren came flying over the downs: "Now, you had better send for the doctor," said she, "or the girl will slip through our fingers. She's taking on so, it's terrible to hear."
Soeren also had himself heard moans from the hut; he was beside himself with anger and flung a pebble at her. "Confound you, are you deaf too, that you cannot hear what that sound means?" shouted he. "See and get hold of a midwife—and that at once; or I'll teach you."
When Maren saw him rise, she turned round and ran home again. Soeren shrugged his shoulders and fetched the midwife himself. He stayed outside the hut the whole afternoon without going in, and when it was evening he went down to the inn. It was a place within which he seldom set his foot; there was not sufficient money for that; if house and home should have what was due to it. With unaccustomed shaking hand he turned the handle, opened the door with a jerk and stood with an uncertain air in the doorway.
"So, that was it, after all," said he with miserable bravado. And he repeated the same sentence over and over again the whole evening, until it was time to stumble home.
Maren was out on the down waiting for him; when she saw the state he was in, she burst into tears. "So, that was——" he began, with a look which should have been full of withering scorn—but suddenly he stopped. Maren's tears moved him strangely deep down under everything else; he had to put his arms round her neck and join in her tears.
The two old people sat on the down holding each other until their tears were spent. Already considerable evil had fallen in the path of this new being; now fell the first tears.
When they had got home and busied themselves with mother and child and had gone to rest in the big double bed, Maren felt for Soeren's hand. So she had always fallen asleep in their young days, and now it was as if something of the sweetness of their young days rose up in her again—was it really owing to the little lovechild's sudden appearance, or what?
"Now, perhaps, you'll agree 'twas as I told you all along," said Soeren, just as they were falling asleep.
"Ay, 'twas so," said Maren. "But how it could come about ... for men folk...."
"Oh, shut up with that nonsense," said Soeren, and they went to sleep.
* * * * *
So Maren eventually had to give in. "Though," as Soeren said, "like as not one fine day she'd swear the girl had never had a child." Womenfolk! Ugh! there was no persuading them.
Anyhow, Maren was too clever to deny what even a blind man could see with a stick; and it was ever so much easier for her to admit the hard truth; in spite of the girl's innocent tears and solemn assurances, there was a man in the case all the same, and he moreover, the farmer's son. It was the son of the owner of Sands farm, whom Soerine had driven home with from the town—in fear of the dark forest.
"Ay, you managed it finely—keeping the girl away from vagabonds," said Soeren, looking out of the corners of his eyes towards the new arrival.
"Rubbish! A farmer's son is better than a vagabond, anyway," answered Maren proudly.
After all it was she who was right; had she not always said there was refinement in Soerine? There was blue blood in the girl!
One day, Soeren had to put on his best clothes and off he went to Sands farm.
"'Twas with child she was, after all," said he, going straight to the point. "'Tis just born."
"Oh, is it," said the farmer's son who stood with his father on the thrashing-floor shaking out some straw. "Well, that's as it may be!"
"Ay, but she says you're the father."
"Oh, does she! Can she prove it, I'd like to know."
"She can take her oath on it, she can. So you had better marry the girl."
The farmer's son shouted with laughter.
"Oh, you laugh, do you?" Soeren picked up a hayfork and made for the lad, who hid behind the threshing-machine, livid with fear.
"Look here," the boy's father broke in: "Don't you think we two old ones had better go outside and talk the matter over? Young folk nowadays are foolish. Whatever the boy's share in the matter may be, I don't believe he'll marry her," began he, as they were outside.
"That he shall, though," answered Soeren, threateningly.
"Look you, the one thing to compel him is the law—and that she will not take, if I know anything about her. But, I'll not say but he might help the girl to a proper marriage—will you take two hundred crowns once and for all?"
Soeren thought in his own mind that it was a large sum of money for a poor babe, and hurried to close the bargain in case the farmer might draw back.
"But, no gossip, mind you, now. No big talk about relationship and that kind of thing," said the farmer as he followed Soeren out of the gate. "The child must take the girl's name—and no claim on us."
"No, of course not!" said Soeren, eager to be off. He had got the two hundred crowns in his inner pocket, and was afraid the farmer might demand them back again.
"I'll send you down a paper one of these days and get your receipt for the money," said the farmer. "It is best to have it fixed up all right and legal."
He said the word "legal" with such emphasis and familiarity that Soeren was more than a little startled.
"Yes, yes," was all Soeren said and slipped into the porch with his cap between his hands. It was not often he took his hat off to any one, but the two hundred crowns had given him respect for the farmer. The people of Sands farm were a race who, if they did break down their neighbor's fence, always made good the damage they had done.
Soeren started off and ran over the fields. The money was more than he and Maren had ever before possessed. All he had to do now was to lay out the notes in front of her so as to make a show that she might be impressed. For Maren had fixed her mind on the farmer's son.
A CHILD IS BORN
There are a milliard and a half of stars in the heavens, and—as far as we know—a milliard and a half of human beings on the earth. Exactly the same number of both! One would almost think the old saying was right,—that every human being was born under his own star. In hundreds of costly observatories all over the world, on plain and mountain, talented scientists are adjusting the finest instruments and peering out into the heavens. They watch and take photographic plates, their whole life taken up with the one idea: to make themselves immortal with having discovered a new star. Another celestial body—added to the milliard and a half already moving gracefully round.
Every second a human soul is born into the world. A new flame is lit, a star which perhaps may come to shine with unusual beauty, which in any case has its own unseen spectrum. A new being, fated, perhaps, to bestow genius, perhaps beauty around it, kisses the earth; the unseen becomes flesh and blood. No human being is a repetition of another, nor is any ever reproduced; each new being is like a comet which only once in all eternity touches the path of the earth, and for a brief time takes its luminous way over it—a phosphorescent body between two eternities of darkness. No doubt there is joy amongst human beings for every newly lit soul! And, no doubt they will stand round the cradle with questioning eyes, wondering what this new one will bring forth.
Alas, a human being is no star, bringing fame to him who discovers and records it! More often, it is a parasite which comes upon peaceful and unsuspecting people, sneaking itself into the world—through months of purgatory. God help it, if into the bargain it has not its papers in order.
Soerine's little one had bravely pushed itself into the light of day, surmounting all obstacles, denial, tears and preventatives, as a salmon springs against the stream. Now she lay in the daylight, red and wrinkled, trying to soften all hearts.
The whole of the community had done with her, she was a parasite and nothing else. A newly born human being is a figure in the transaction which implies proper marriage and settling down, and the next step which means a cradle and perambulator and—as it grows up—an engagement ring, marriage and children again. Much of this procedure is upset when a child like Soerine's little one is vulgar enough to allow itself to be born without marriage.
She was from the very first treated accordingly, without maudlin consideration for her tender helplessness. "Born out of wedlock" was entered on her certificate of birth which the midwife handed to the schoolmaster when she had helped the little one into the world, and the same was noted on the baptismal certificate. It was as if they all, the midwife, the schoolmaster and the parson, leaders of the community, in righteous vengeance were striking the babe with all their might. What matter if the little soul were begotten by the son of a farmer, when he refused to acknowledge it, and bought himself out of the marriage? A nuisance she was, and a blot on the industrious orderly community.
She was just as much of an inconvenience to her mother as to all the others. When Soerine was up and about again, she announced that she might just as well go out to service as all her sisters had done. Her fear of strangers had quite disappeared: she took a place a little further inland. The child remained with the grandparents.
No one in the wide world cared for the little one, not even the old people for that matter. But all the same Maren went up into the attic and brought out an old wooden cradle which had for many years been used for yarn and all kinds of lumber; Soeren put new rockers, and once more Maren's old, swollen legs had to accustom themselves to rocking a cradle again.
A blot the little one was to her grandparents too—perhaps, when all is said and done, on them alone. They had promised themselves such great things of the girl—and there lay their hopes—an illegitimate child in the cradle! It was brought home to them by the women running to Maren, saying: "Well, how do you like having little ones again in your old days?" And by the other fishermen when Soeren Man came to the harbor or the inn. His old comrades poked fun at him good-naturedly and said: "All very well for him—strong as a young man and all, Soeren, you ought to stand treat all round."
But it had to be borne—and, after all, it could be got over. And the child was—when one got one's hand in again—a little creature who recalled so much that otherwise belonged to the past. It was just as if one had her oneself—in a way she brought youth to the house.
It was utterly impossible not to care for such a helpless little creature.
DITTE'S FIRST STEP
Strange how often one bears the child while another cares for it. For old Maren it was not easy to be a mother again, much as her heart was in it. The girl herself had got over all difficulties, and was right away in service in another county; and here was the babe left behind screaming.
Maren attended to it as well as she could, procured good milk and gave it soaked bread and sugar, and did all she could to make up for its mother.
Her daughter she could not make out at all. Soerine rarely came home, and preferably in the evening when no one could see her; the child she appeared not to care for at all. She had grown strong and erect, not in the least like the slender, freckled girl who could stand next to nothing. Her blood had thickened and her manners were decided; though that, of course, has happened before,—an ailing woman transformed by having a child, as one might say, released from witchcraft.
Ditte herself did not seem to miss a mother's tender care: she grew well in spite of the artificial food, and soon became so big that she could keep wooden shoes on her small feet, and, with the help of old Soeren's hand, walk on the downs. And then she was well looked after.
However, at times things would go badly. For Maren had quite enough of her own work to do, which could not be neglected, and the little one was everywhere. And difficult it was suddenly to throw up what one had in hand—letting the milk boil over and the porridge burn—for the sake of running after the little one. Maren took a pride in her housework and found it hard at times to choose between the two. Then, God preserve her: the little one had to take her chance.
Ditte took it as it came and could be thankful that she was with her grandparents. She was an inquisitive little being, eager to meddle with everything; and a miracle it was that the firewood did not fall down. Hundreds of times in the day did she get into scrapes, heedless and thoughtless as she was. She would rush out, and lucky it was if there was anything to step on, otherwise she would have fallen down. Her little head was full of bruises, and she could never learn to look after herself in spite of all the knocks she got. It was too bad to be whipped into the bargain! When the hurt was very bad, Grandfather had to blow it, or Granny put the cold blade of the bread-knife on the bruise to make it well again.
"Better now," said she, turning a smiling face towards her granny; the tears still hanging on the long lashes, and her cheeks gradually becoming roughened by them.
"Yes, dear," answered Maren. "But, Girlie must take care."
This was her name in those days, and a real little girlie she was, square and funny. It was impossible to be angry with her, although at times she could make it somewhat difficult for the old ones. Her little head would not accept the fact that there were things one was not allowed to do; immediately she got an idea, her small hands acted upon it. "She's no forethought," said Soeren significantly, "she's a woman. Wonder if a little rap over the fingers after all wouldn't——"
But Maren ignored this. Took the child inside with her and explained, perhaps for the hundredth time, that Girlie must not do so. And one day she had a narrow escape. Ditte had been up to mischief as usual in her careless way. But when she had finished, she offered her little pouting mouth to the two old ones: "Kiss me then—and say 'beg pardon'," said she.
And who could resist her?
"Now, perhaps, you'll say that she can't be taught what's right and wrong?" said Maren.
Soeren laughed: "Ay, she first does the thing, and waits till after to think if it's right or wrong. She'll be a true woman, right enough."
At one time Ditte got into the habit of pulling down and breaking things. She always had her little snub nose into everything, and being too small to see what was on the table, she pulled it down instead. Soeren had to get a drill and learn to mend earthenware to make up for the worst of her depredations. A great many things fell over Ditte without alarming her in the least.
"She'll neither break nor bend—she's a woman all over," said Soeren, inwardly rather proud of her power of endurance. But Maren had to be ever on the watch, and was in daily fear for the things and the child herself.
One day Ditte spilled a basin of hot milk over herself and was badly scalded; that cured her of inquisitiveness. Maren put her to bed and treated her burns with egg-oil and slices of new potato; and it was some time before Ditte was herself again. But when she was again about, there was not so much as a scar to be seen. This accident made Maren famous as a curer of burns and people sought her help for their injuries. "You're a wise one," said they, and gave her bacon or fish by way of thanks. "But 'tis not to be wondered at, after all."
The allusion to the fact that her mother had been a "wise woman" did not please Maren at all. But the bacon and the herrings came to an empty cupboard, and—as Soeren said: "Beggars cannot be choosers and must swallow their pride with their food."
Ditte shot up like a young plant, day by day putting forth new leaves. She was no sooner in the midst of one difficult situation, and her troubled grandparents, putting their heads together, had decided to take strong measures, than she was out of it again and into something else. It was just like sailing over a flat bottom—thought Soeren—passing away under one and making room for something new. The old ones could not help wondering if they themselves and their children had ever been like this. They had never thought of it before, having had little time to spend on their offspring beyond what was strictly necessary; the one had quite enough to do in procuring food and the other in keeping the home together. But now they could not help thinking; however much they had to do, and they marveled much over many things.
"'Tis strange how a bit of a child can open a body's eyes, for all one's old. Ay, there's a lot to learn," said Maren.
"Stupid," said Soeren. From his tone it could be gathered that he himself had been thinking the same.
Ditte was indeed full of character. Little as she had had to inherit, she nevertheless was richly endowed; her first smile brought joy; her feeble tears, sorrow. A gift she was, born out of emptiness, thrown up on the beach for the wornout old couple. No one had done anything to deserve her,—on the contrary, all had done their utmost to put her out of existence. Notwithstanding, there she lay one day with blinking eyes, blue and innocent as the skies of heaven. Anxiety she brought from the very beginning, many footsteps had trodden round her cradle, and questioning thoughts surrounded her sleep. It was even more exciting when she began to take notice; when only a week old she knew their faces, and at three she laughed to Soeren. He was quite foolish that day and in the evening had to go down to the tap-room to tell them all about it. Had any one ever known such a child? She could laugh already! And when she first began to understand play, it was difficult to tear oneself away—particularly for Soeren. Every other moment he had to go in and caress her with his crooked fingers. Nothing was so delightful as to have the room filled with her gurgling, and Maren had to chase him away from the cradle, at least twenty times a day. And when she took her first toddling steps!—that little helpless, illegitimate child who had come defiantly into existence, and who, in return for life brightened the days of the two old wornout people. It had become pleasant once more to wake in the morning to a new day: life was worth living again.
Her stumbling, slow walk was in itself a pleasure; and the contemplative gravity with which she crossed the doorstep, both hands full, trotted down the road—straight on as if there was nothing behind her, and with drooping head—was altogether irresistible. Then Maren would slink out round the corner and beckon to Soeren to make haste and come, and Soeren would throw down his ax and come racing over the grass of the downs with his tongue between his lips. "Heaven only knows what she is up to now," said he, and the two crept after her down the road. When she had wandered a little distance, in deep thought, she would suddenly realize her loneliness, and begin to howl, a picture of misery, left alone and forsaken. Then the two old people would appear on the scene, and she would throw herself into their arms overjoyed at finding them again.
Then quite suddenly she got over it—the idea that things were gone forever if she lost sight of them for a moment. She began to look out and up into people's faces: hitherto, she had only seen the feet of those who came within her horizon. One day she actually went off by herself, having caught sight of the houses down in the hamlet. They had to look after her more seriously now that the outside world had tempted her.
"We're not enough for her, seems like," said Soeren despondently, "got a fancy for the unknown already."
It was the first time she had turned away from them, and Soeren recognized in that something of what he had experienced before, and for a moment a feeling of loneliness came over him. But Maren, wise as she had grown since the coming of the little one, again found a way. She threw her kerchief over her head and went down to the hamlet with Ditte, to let her play with other children.
GRANDFATHER STRIKES OUT AFRESH
All that Soeren possessed—with the exception of the house—was a third share in a boat and gear. He had already, before Ditte came into the world, let out his part of the boat to a young fisher boy from the hamlet, who having no money to buy a share in a boat repaid Soeren with half of his catch. It was not much, but he and Maren had frugal habits, and as to Soeren, she occasionally went out to work and helped to make ends meet. They just managed to scrape along with their sixth share of the catch, and such odd jobs as Soeren could do at home.
Once again there was a little one to feed and clothe. For the present, of course, Ditte's requirements were small, but her advent had opened out new prospects. It was no good now to be content with toiling the time away, until one's last resting-place was reached, patiently thinking the hut would pay for the burial. It was not sufficient to wear out old clothes, eat dried fish, and keep out of the workhouse until they were well under the ground. Soeren and Maren were now no longer at the end of things, there was one in the cradle who demanded everything from the beginning, and spurred them on to new efforts. It would never do to let their infirmity grow upon them or allow themselves to become pensioners on what a sixth share of a boat might happen to bring home. Duty called for a new start.
The old days had left their mark on them both. They came into line with the little one, even her childish cries under the low ceiling carried the old couple a quarter of a century back, to the days when the weight of years was not yet felt, and they could do their work with ease. And once there, the way to still earlier days was not so far—to that beautiful time when tiredness was unknown, and Soeren after a hard day's work would walk miles over the common, to where Maren was in service, stay with her until dawn, and then walk miles back home again, to be the first man at work.
Inevitably they were young again! Had they not a little one in the house? A little pouting mouth was screaming and grunting for milk. Soeren came out of his old man's habit, and turned his gaze once more towards the sea and sky. He took back his share in the boat and went to sea again.
Things went tolerably well to begin with. It was summer time when Ditte had pushed him back to his old occupation again; it was as if she had really given the old people a second youth. But it was hard to keep up with the others, in taking an oar and pulling up nets by the hour. Moreover in the autumn when the herrings were deeper in the sea, the nets went right down, and were often caught by the heavy undertow, Soeren had not strength to draw them up like the other men, and had to put up with the offer of lighter work. This was humiliating; and even more humiliating was it to break down from night watches in the cold, when he knew how strong he had been in days gone by.
Soeren turned to the memories of old days for support, that he might assert himself over the others. Far and wide he told tales of his youth, to all who would listen.
In those days implements were poor, and clothes were thin, and the winter was harder than now. There was ice everywhere, and in order to obtain food they had to trail over the ice with their gear on a wooden sledge right out to the great channel, and chop holes to fish through. Woollen underclothing was unknown, and oilskins were things none could afford; a pair of thick leather trousers were worn—with stockings and wooden shoes. Often one fell in—and worked on in wet clothes, which were frozen so stiff that it was impossible to draw them off.
To Soeren it was a consolation to dwell upon all this, when he had to give up such strenuous work as the rowing over to the Swedish coast, before he could get a good catch. There he would sit in the stern feeling small and useless, talking away and fidgeting with the sails in spite of the lack of wind. His partners, toiling with the heavy oars, hardly listened to him. It was all true enough, they knew that from their fathers, but it gained nothing in being repeated by Soeren's toothless mouth. His boasting did not make the boat any lighter to pull; old Soeren was like a stone in the net.
Maren was probably the only one, who at her own expense could afford to give a helping hand. She saw how easily he became tired, try as he would to hide it from her—and she made up her mind to trust in Providence for food. It was hard for him to turn out in the middle of the night, his old limbs were as heavy as lead, and Maren had to help him up in bed.
"'Tis rough tonight!" said she, "stay at home and rest." And the next night she would persuade him again, with another excuse. She took care not to suggest that he should give up the sea entirely; Soeren was stubborn and proud. Could she only keep him at home from time to time, the question would soon be decided by his partners.
So Soeren remained at home first one day and then another; Maren said that he was ill. He fell easily into the trap, and when this had gone on for some little time, his partners got tired of it, and forced him to sell his part of the boat and implements. Now that he was driven to remain at home, he grumbled and scolded, but settled down to it after a while. He busied himself with odd jobs, patched oilskins and mended wooden shoes for the fishermen and became quite brisk again. Maren could feel the improvement, when he good-naturedly began to chaff her again as before.
He was happiest out on the downs, with Ditte holding his hand, looking after the sheep. Soeren could hardly do without the little one; when she was not holding his hand, he felt like a cripple without his staff. Was it not he whom she had chosen for her first smile, when but three weeks old! And when only four or five months old dropped her comforter and turned her head on hearing his tottering steps.
"'Tis all very well for you," said Maren half annoyed. "'Tis you she plays with, while I've the looking after and feeding of her; and that's another thing." But in her heart she did not grudge him first place with the little one; after all he was the man—and needed a little happiness.
There was no one who understood Ditte as did her grandfather. They two could entertain each other by the hour. They spoke about sheep and ships and trees, which Ditte did not like, because they stood and made the wind blow. Soeren explained to her that it was God who made the wind blow—so that the fishermen need not toil with their oars so much. Trees on the contrary did no work at all and as a punishment God had chained them to the spot.
"What does God look like?" asked Ditte. The question staggered Soeren. There he had lived a long life and always professed the religion taught him in childhood; at times when things looked dark, he had even called upon God; nevertheless, it had never occurred to him to consider what the good God really looked like. And here he was confounded by the words of a little child, exactly as in the Bible.
"God?" began Soeren hesitating on the word, to gain time. "Well, He's both His hands full, He has. And even so it seems to us others, that at times He's taken more upon Himself than He can do—and that's what He looks like!"
And so Ditte was satisfied.
To begin with Soeren talked most, and the child listened. But soon it was she who led the conversation, and the old man who listened entranced. Everything his girlie said was simply wonderful, and all of it worth repetition, if only he could remember it. Soeren remembered a good deal, but was annoyed with himself when some of it escaped his memory.
"Never knew such a child," said he to Maren, when they came in from their walk. "She's different from our girls somehow."
"Well, you see she's the child of a farmer's son," answered Maren, who had never got over the greatest disappointment of her life, and eagerly caught at anything that might soften it.
But Soeren laughed scornfully and said: "You're a fool, Maren, and that's all about it."
THE DEATH OF SOeREN MAN
One day Soeren came crawling on all fours over the doorstep. Once inside, he stumbled to his feet and moved with great difficulty towards the fireplace, where he clung with both hands to the mantelpiece, swaying to and fro and groaning pitifully the while. He collapsed just as Maren came in from the kitchen, she ran to him, got off his clothes and put him to bed.
"Seems like I'm done for now," said Soeren, when he had rested a little.
"What's wrong with you, Soeren?" asked Maren anxiously.
"'Tis naught but something's given inside," said Soeren sullenly.
He refused to say more, but Maren got out of him afterwards that it had happened when drawing the tethering-peg out of the ground. Usually it was loose enough. But today it was firm as a rock, as if some one was holding it down in the earth. Soeren put the tethering-rope round his neck and pulled with all his might, it did give way; but at the same time something seemed to break inside him. Everything went dark, and a big black hole appeared in the earth.
Maren gazed at him with terror. "Was 't square?" asked she.
Soeren thought it was square.
"And what of Girlie?" asked Maren suddenly.
She had disappeared when Soeren fainted.
Maren ran out on the hills with anxious eyes. She found Ditte playing in the midst of a patch of wild pansies, fortunately Maren could find no hole in the ground. But the old rotten rope had parted. Soeren, unsteady on his feet, had probably fallen backwards and hurt himself. Maren knotted the rope together again and went towards the little one. "Come along, dearie," said she, "we'll go home and make a nice cup of coffee for Grandad." But suddenly she stood transfixed. Was it not a cross the child had plaited of grass, and set among the pansies? Quietly Maren took the child by the hand and went in. Now she knew.
Soeren stayed in bed. There was no outward hurt to be seen, but he showed no inclination to get up. He hardly slept at all, but lay all day long gazing at the ceiling, and fumbling with the bedclothes.
Now and then he groaned, and Maren would hurry to his side. "What ails you, Soeren, can't you tell me?" said she earnestly.
"Ails me? Nothing ails me, Maren, but death," answered Soeren. Maren would have liked to try her own remedies on him, but might just as well spare her arts for a better occasion; Soeren had seen a black hole in the ground; there was no cure for that.
So matters stood. Maren knew as well as he, that this was the end; but she was a sturdy nature, and never liked to give in. She would have wrestled with God himself for Soeren, had there been anything definite to fight about. But he was fading away, and for this there was no cure; though if only the poison could be got out of his blood, he might even yet be strong again.
"Maybe 'tis bleeding you want."
But Soeren refused to be bled. "Folks die quickly enough without," said he, incredulous as he had always been. Maren was silent and went back to her work with a sigh. Soeren never did believe in anything, he was just as unbelieving as he had been in his young days—if only God would not be too hard on him.
At first Soeren longed to have the child with him always, and every other minute Maren had to bring her to the bedside. The little one did not like to sit quietly on a chair beside Grandad's bed, and as soon as she saw a chance of escape, off she would run. This was hardest of all to Soeren, he felt alone and forsaken, all was blackness and despair.
Before long, however, he lost all interest in the child, as he did in everything else. His mind began to wander from the present back to bygone days; Maren knew well what it meant. He went further and still further back to his youth and childhood. Strange it was how much he could remember things which otherwise had been forgotten. And it was not rambling nonsense that he talked, but all true enough; people older than he who came from the hamlet to visit him confirmed it, and wondered at hearing him speak of events that must have happened when he was but two or three years old. Soeren forgot the latter years of his life, indeed he might never have lived them so completely had they faded from his mind.
This saddened Maren. They had lived a long life, and gone through so much together, and how much more pleasant it would have been, if they could have talked of the past together once more before they parted. But Soeren would not listen, when it came to their mutual memories. No, the garden on the old farm—where Soeren lived when five years old—that he could remember! Where this tree stood, and that—and what kind of fruit it bore.
And when he had gone as far back as he could remember, his mind would wander forward again, and in his delirium he would rave of his days as a shepherd boy or sailor boy and heaven knows what.
In his uneasy dreams he mixed up all his experiences, the travels of his youth, his work and difficulties. At one minute he would be on the sea furling sail in the storm, the next he would struggle with the ground. Maren who stood over him listened with terror to all that he toiled with; he seemed to be taking his life in one long stride. Many were the tribulations he had been through, and of which she now heard for the first time. When his mind cleared once more, he would be worn out with beads of perspiration standing on his forehead.
His old partners came to see him, and then they went through it again—Soeren had to talk of old times. He could only say a few words, weak as he was; but then the others would continue. Maren begged them not to speak too much, as it made him restless, and he would struggle with it in his dreams.
It was worst when he imagined himself on the old farm; pitiful to see how he fought against the sea's greedy advance, clutching the bedclothes with his wasted fingers. It was a wearisome leave-taking with existence, as wearisome as existence itself had been to him.
One day when Maren had been to the village shop, Ditte ran out screaming, as she came back. "Grandad's dead!" she burst out sobbing. Soeren lay bruised and senseless across the doorstep to the kitchen. He had been up on the big chest, meddling with the hands of the clock. Maren dragged him to bed and bathed his wounds, and when it was done he lay quietly following her movements with his eyes. Now and then he would ask in a low voice what the time was, and from this Maren knew that he was nearing his end.
On the morning of the day he died he was altogether changed again. It was as if he had come home to take a last farewell of everybody and everything; he was weak but quite in his senses. There was so much he wanted to touch upon once again. His talk jumped from one thing to another and he seemed quite happy. For the first time for many months he could sit on the edge of the bed drinking his morning coffee, chatting to Maren whenever she came near. He was exactly like a big child, and Maren could not but put his old head to hers and caress it. "You've worn well, Soeren," said she, stroking his hair—"your hair's as soft as when we were young."
Soeren fell back, and lay with her hand in his, gazing silently at her with worship in his faded eyes. "Maren, would you let down your hair for me?" he whispered bashfully at last. The words came with some difficulty.
"Nay, but what nonsense!" said Maren, hiding her face against his chest; "we're old now, you know, dear."
"Let down your hair for me!" whispered he, persisting, and tried with shaking fingers to loosen it himself. Maren remembered an evening long ago, an evening behind a drawn-up boat on the beach, and with sobs she loosened her gray hair and let it fall down over Soeren's head, so that it hid their faces. "It's long and thick," he whispered softly, "enough to hide us both." The words came as an echo from their bygone youth.
"Nay, nay," said Maren, crying, "it's gray and thin and rough. But how fond you were of it once."
With closed eyes Soeren lay holding Maren's hand. There was much to do in the kitchen, and she tried again and again to draw her hand away, but he opened his eyes each time, so she sat down, letting the things look after themselves, and there she was with the tears running down her furrowed face, while her thoughts ran on. She and Soeren had lived happily together; they had had their quarrels, but if anything serious happened, they always faced it together; neither of them had lived and worked for themselves only. It was so strange that they were now to be separated, Maren could not understand it. Why could they not be taken together? Where Soeren went, Maren felt she too should be. Perhaps in the place where he was going he needed no one to mend his clothes and to see that he kept his feet dry, but at least they might have walked hand in hand in the Garden of Eden. They had often talked about going into the country to see what was hidden behind the big forest. But it never came to anything, as one thing or another always kept Maren at home. How beautiful it would have been to go with Soeren now; Maren would willingly have made the journey with him, to see what was on the other side—had it not been for Ditte. A child had always kept her back, and thus it was now. Maren's own time was not yet; she must wait, letting Soeren go alone.
Soeren now slept more quietly, and she drew her hand gently out of his. But as soon as she rose, he opened his eyes, gazing at Maren's loosened hair and tear-stained face.
"Don't cry, Maren," said he, "you and Ditte'll get on all right. But do this for me, put up your hair as you did at our wedding, will you, Maren?"
"But I can't do it myself, Soeren," answered the old woman, overwhelmed and beginning to cry again. But Soeren held to his point.
Then Maren gave in, and as she could not leave Soeren alone for long, she ran as fast as she could to the hamlet, where one of the women dressed her thin gray hair in bridal fashion. On her return she found Soeren restless, but he soon calmed down; he looked at her a long time, as she sat crying by the bed with his hand in hers. He was breathing with much difficulty.
Then suddenly he spoke in a stronger voice than he had done for many days.
"We've shared good and bad together, Maren—and now it's over. Will you be true to me for the time you have left?" He rose on his elbow, looking earnestly into her face.
Maren dried her bleared eyes, and looked faithfully into his. "Ay," she said slowly and firmly—"no one else has ever been in my thought nor ever shall be. 'Tis Christ Himself I take as a witness, you can trust me, Soeren."
Soeren then fell back with closed eyes, and after a while his hand slipped out of hers.
THE WIDOW AND THE FATHERLESS
After Soeren's death there were hard days in store for the two in the hut on the Naze. Feeble as he had been, yet he had always earned something, and had indeed been their sheet anchor. They were now alone, with no man to work for them. Not only had Maren to make things go as far as possible, but she had to find the money as well. This was a task she had never done before.
All they had once received for their share in the boat and its fittings had gone too; and the funeral took what was left. Their affairs could be settled by every one, and at the time of Soeren's death there was much multiplying and subtracting in the homes round about on Maren's behalf. But to one question there was no answer; what had become of the two hundred crowns paid for Ditte for once and for all? Ay, where had they gone? The two old people had bought nothing new at that time, and Soeren had firmly refused to invest in a new kind of fishing-net—an invention tried in other places and said to be a great success. Indeed, there were cases where the net had paid for itself in a single night. However, Soeren would not, and as so much money never came twice to the hamlet in one generation, they carried on with their old implements as usual.
The money had certainly not been used, nor had it been eaten up, that was understood. The two old folk had lived exactly as before, and it would have been known if the money had gone up through the chimney. There was no other explanation, than that Maren had put it by; probably as something for Ditte to fall back upon, when the two old ones had gone.
There was a great deal of talking in the homes, mostly of how Maren and Ditte were to live. But with that, their interest stopped. She had grown-up children of her own, who were her nearest, and ought to look after her affairs. One or two of them turned up at the funeral, more to see if there was anything to be had, and as soon as Soeren was well underground they left, practically vanishing without leaving a trace, and with no invitation to Maren, who indeed hardly found out where they lived. Well, Maren was not sorry to see the last of them. She knew, in some measure, the object of her children's homecoming; and for all she cared they might never tread that way again—if only she might keep Ditte. Henceforth they were the only two in the world.
"They might at least have given you a helping hand," said the women of the hamlet—"after all, you're their mother."
"Nay, why so," said Maren. They had used her as a pathway to existence—and it had not always been easy; perhaps they did not thank her for their being here on earth, since they thought they owed her nothing. One mother can care for eight children if necessary, but has any one ever heard of eight children caring for one mother? No, Maren was thankful they kept away, and did not come poking round their old home.
She tried to sell the hut and the allotment in order to provide means, but as no buyers offered for either, she let the hut to a workman and his family, only keeping one room and an end of the kitchen for herself. After settling this she studded her own and the child's wooden shoes with heavy nails. She brought forth Soeren's old stick, wrapped herself and the little one well up—and wandered out into the country.
Day after day, in all weathers, they would set out in the early morning, visiting huts and farms. Maren knew fairly well for whom Soeren had worked, and it was quite time they paid their debts. She never asked directly for the money, but would stand just inside the door with the child in front of her, rattling a big leather purse such as fisher folk used, and drone:
"God bless your work and your food—one and all for sure! Times is hard—ay, money's scarce—ay, 'tis dear to live, and folks get old! And all's to be bought—fat and meat and bread, ay, every scrap!—faith, an old wife needs the money!"
Although Maren only asked for what was her due, it was called begging, when she went on this errand, and she and the child were treated accordingly. They often stood waiting in the scullery or just inside the living room, while every one ran to and fro to their work without appearing to notice them. People must be taught their proper place, and nothing is so good as letting them stand waiting, and that without any reason. If they are not crushed by this, something must be wrong.
Maren felt the slight, and the smart went deep; but in no way shook her purpose—inwardly she was furious, though too wise to show it, and, old as she was, quietly added experience to experience. Perhaps after all it was the child who made it easier for her to submit to circumstances. So that was how she was treated when she needed help! But when they themselves needed help, it was a different matter; they were not too proud to ask her advice. Then they would hurry down to her, often in the middle of the night, knocking at the window with the handle of a whip; she must come, and that at once.
Maren was not stupid, and could perfectly well put two and two together, only neglecting what she had no use for. As long as Soeren was by her side and held the reins, she had kept in the background, knowing that one master in the house was quite enough; and only on special occasions—when something of importance was at stake—would she lend a guiding hand, preferably so unostentatiously that Soeren never noticed it.
Blockhead, he used to call her—right up to his illness. About a week before his death they had spoken of the future, and Soeren had comforted Maren by saying: "'Twill all be right for you, Maren—if but you weren't such a blockhead."
For the first time Maren had protested against this, and Soeren, as was his wont, referred to the case of Soerine: "Ay, and did you see what was wrong with the girl, what all saw who set eyes on her? And was it not yourself that fed her with soft soap and paraffin?"
"Maybe 'twas," answered Maren, unmoved.
Soeren looked at her with surprise: well to be sure—but behind her look of innocence gleamed something which staggered him for once. "Ay, ay," said he. "Ay, ay! 'twas nigh jail that time."
Maren good-naturedly blinked her heavy eyelids. "'Tis too good some folks are to be put there," answered she.
Soeren felt as if cold water were running down his back; here had he lived with Maren by his side for forty-five years, and never taken her for anything else but a good-natured blockhead—and he had nearly gone to his grave with that opinion. And perhaps after all it was she who had mastered him, and that by seeming a fool herself.
The heavy waves crashed on the shore. Large wet flakes of snow hurled themselves on bushes and grass; what was not caught by the high cliffs was frozen to ice in the air and chased before the storm.
The sea was foaming. The skies were all one great dark gray whirl, with the roaring breakers beneath. It was as if the abyss itself threw out its inexhaustible flood of cold and wickedness. Endlessly it mounted from the great deep; dense to battle against, and as fire of hell to breathe.
Two clumsy figures worked their way forward over the sandhills, an old grandmother holding a little girl by the hand. They were so muffled up, that they could hardly be distinguished in the thick haze.
Their movements were followed by watchful eyes, in the huts on the hills women stood with faces pressed flat against the window-panes! "'Tis wise Maren battling against the storm," they told the old and the sick within. And all who could, crawled to the window. They must see for themselves.
"'Tis proper weather for witches to be out," said youth, and laughed. "But where is her broomstick?"
The old ones shook their heads. Maren ought not to be made fun of; she had the Gift and did much good. Maybe that once or twice she had misused her talents—but who would not have done the same in her place? On a day like this she would be full of power; it would have been wise to consult her.
The two outside kept to the path that ran along the edge of the steep cliff, hollowed out in many places by the sea. Beneath them thundered the surf, water and air and sand in one yellow ferment, and over it seagulls and other sea birds, shrieking and whipping the air with their wings. When a wave broke they would swoop down and come up again with food in their beaks—some fish left stunned by the waves to roll about in the foam.
It seemed foolish of the two keeping just inside the edge of the cliff, against which the storm was throwing itself with all its might, to fall down well inland. The old woman and the child clung to each other, gasping for breath.
At one place the path went through a thicket of thorns, bent inland by the strong sea wind, and here they took shelter from the storm to regain their breath. Ditte whimpered, she was tired and hungry.
"Be a big girl," said the old one, "we'll soon be home now." She drew the child towards her under the shawl, with shaking hands brushing the snow from her hair, and blowing her frozen fingers. "Ay, just big," she said encouragingly, "and you'll get cakes and nice hot coffee when we get home. I've the coffee beans in the bag—ah, just smell!"
Granny opened the bag, which she had fastened round her waist underneath her shawl. Into it went all that she was given, food and other odds and ends.
The little one poked her nose down into the bag, but was not comforted at once.
"We've nothing to warm it with," said she sulkily.
"And haven't we then? Granny was on the beach last night, and saw the old boat, she did. But Ditte was in the land of Nod, and never knew."
"Is there more firewood?"
"Hush, child, the coastguard might hear us. He's long ears—and the Magistrate pays him for keeping poor folks from getting warm. That's why he himself takes all that's washed ashore."
"But you're not frightened of him, Granny, you're a witch and can send him away."
"Ay, ay, of course Granny can—and more too, if he doesn't behave. She'll strike him down with rheumatism, so that he can't move, and have to send for wise Maren to rub his back. Ah me, old Granny's legs are full of water, and aches and pains in every limb; a horrid witch they call her, ay—and a thieving woman too! But there must be some of both when an old worn woman has to feed two mouths; and you may be glad that Granny's the witch she is. None but she cares for you—and lazy, no folks shall ever call her that. She's two-and-seventy years now, and 'tis for others her hands have toiled all along. But never a hand that's lifted to help old Maren."
They sat well sheltered, and soon Ditte became sleepy, and they started out again. "We'll fall asleep if we don't, and then the black man'll come and take us," said Granny as she tied her shawl round the little one.
"Who's the black man?" Ditte stopped, clinging to her grandmother from very excitement.
"The black man lives in the churchyard under the ground. 'Tis he who lets out the graves to the dead folks, and he likes to have a full house."
Ditte had no wish to go down and live with a black man, and tripped briskly along hand in hand with the old one. The path now ran straight inland, and the wind was at their back—the storm had abated somewhat.
When they came to the Sand farm, she refused to go further. "Let's go in there and ask for something," said she, dragging her grandmother. "I'm so hungry."
"Lord—are you mad, child! We daren't set foot inside there."
"Then I'll go alone," declared Ditte firmly. She let go her granny's hand and ran towards the entrance. When there, however, she hesitated. "And why daren't we go in there?" she shouted back.
Maren came and took her hand again: "Because your own father might come and drive us away with a whip," said she slowly. "Come now and be a good girl."
"Are you afraid of him?" asked the little one persistently. She was not accustomed to seeing her granny turned aside for anything.
Afraid, indeed no—the times were too bad for that! Poor people must be prepared to face all evils and accept them too. And why should they go out of their way to avoid the Sand farm as if it were holy ground. If he did not care to take the chance of seeing his own offspring occasionally, he could move his farm elsewhere. They two had done nothing to be shamed into running away, that was true enough. Perhaps there was some ulterior motive behind the child's obstinacy? Maren was not the one to oppose Providence—still less if it lent her a helping hand.
"Well, come then!" said she, pushing the gate open. "They can but eat us."
They went through the deep porch which served as wood and tool house as well. At one side turf was piled neatly up right to the beams. Apparently they had no thought of being cold throughout the winter. Maren looked at the familiar surroundings as they crossed the yard towards the scullery. Once in her young days she had been in service here—for the sake of being nearer the home of her childhood and Soeren. It was some years ago, that! The grandfather of the present young farmer reigned then—a real Tartar who begrudged his servant both food and sleep. But he made money! The old farmer, who died about the same time as Soeren, was young then, and went with stocking feet under the servants' windows! He and Soeren cared nought for each other! Maren had not been here since—Soeren would not allow it. And he himself never set foot inside, since that dreary visit about Soerine. A promise was a promise.
But now it was so long ago, and two hundred crowns could not last forever. Soeren was dead, and Maren saw things differently in her old days. Cold and hardship raised her passion, as never before, against those sitting sheltered inside, who had no need to go hunting about like a dog in all weathers, and against those who for a short-lived joy threw years of heavy burden on poor old shoulders. Why had she waited so long in presenting his offspring to the farmer? Perhaps they were longing for it. And why should not the little one have her own way? Perhaps it was the will of Providence, speaking through her, in her obstinate desire to enter her father's house.
All the same, Maren's conscience was not quite clear while standing with Ditte beside her, waiting for some one to come. The farmer apparently was out, and for that she was thankful. She could hear the servant milking in the shed, they would hardly have a man at this time of the year.
The cracked millstone still lay in front of the door, and in the middle of the floor was a large flat tombstone with ornaments in the corners, the inscription quite worn away.
A young woman came from the inner rooms. Maren had not seen her before. She was better dressed than the young wives of the neighborhood, and had a kind face and gentle manners. She asked them into the living room, took off their shawls, which she hung by the fire to dry. She then made them sit down and gave them food and drink, speaking kindly to them all the while; to Ditte in particular, which softened Maren's heart.
"And where do you come from?" asked she, seating herself beside them.
"Ay, where do folk come from?" answered Maren mumblingly. "Where's there room for poor people like us? Some have plenty—and for all that go where they have no right to be; others the Lord's given naught but a corner in the churchyard. But you don't belong to these parts, since you ask."
No, the young woman came from Falster; her voice grew tender as she spoke of her birthplace.
"Is't far from here?" said Maren, glancing at her.
"Yes, it takes a whole day by train and by coach, and from the town too!"
"Has it come to that, that the men of the Sand farm must travel by train to find wives for themselves? But the hamlet is good enough for sweethearts."
The young woman looked uncertainly at her. "We met each other at the Continuation School," said she.
"Well, well, has he been to Continuation School too? Ay, 'tis fine all must be nowadays. Anyway, 'twas time he got settled."
The young woman flushed. "You speak so strangely," said she.
"Belike you'll tell me how an old wife should speak? 'Tis strange indeed that a father sits sheltered at home while his little one runs barefoot and begs."
"What do you mean?" whispered the young woman anxiously!
"What the Lord and every one knows, but no-one's told you. Look you at the child there—faces don't tell lies, she's the image of her father. If all was fair, 'twould be my daughter sitting here in your stead—ay, and no hunger and cold for me."
As she spoke, Maren sucked a ham bone. She had no teeth, and the fat ran down over her chin and hands.
The young woman took out her handkerchief. "Let me help you, mother," said she, gently drying her face. She was white to the lips, and her hands shook.
Maren allowed herself to be cared for. Her sunken mouth was set and hard. Suddenly she grasped the young woman by the hips with her earth-stained hands. "'Tis light and pure!" she mumbled, making signs over her. "In childbirth 'twill go badly with you." The woman swayed in her hands and fell to the ground without a sound; little Ditte began to scream.
Maren was so terrified by the consequence of her act, that she never thought of offering help. She tore down the shawls from the fire and ran out, dragging the child after her. It was not until they reached the last house in the hamlet, the lifeboat shed, that she stopped to wrap themselves up.
Ditte still shook. "Did you kill her?" asked she.
The old woman started, alarmed at the word. "Nay, but of course not. 'Tis nothing to prate about: come along home," said she harshly, pushing the child. Ditte was unaccustomed to be spoken to in this manner, and she hurried along.
The house was cold as they entered it, and Maren put the little one straight to bed. Then having gathered sticks for the fire, she put on water for the coffee, talking to herself all the while. "Ugh, just so; but who's to blame? The innocent must suffer, to make the guilty speak."
"What did you say, Granny?" asked Ditte from the alcove.
"'Twas only I'm thinking your father'll soon find his way down here after this."
A trap came hurrying through the dark and stopped outside. In burst the owner of the Sand farm. There was no good in store for them; his face was red with anger and he started abusing them almost before he got inside the door. Maren had her head well wrapped up against the cold, and pretended to hear nothing. "Well, well, you're a sight for sore eyes," said she, smilingly inviting him in.
"Don't suppose that I've come to make a fuss of you, you crafty old hag!" stormed Anders Olsen in his thin cracked voice. "No, I've come to fetch you, I have, and that at once. So you'd better come!" seizing her by the arm.
Maren wrenched herself out of his grasp. "What's wrong with you?" asked she, staring at him in amazement.
"Wrong with me?—you dare to ask that, you old witch, you. Haven't you been up to the farm this afternoon—dragging the brat with you? though you were bought and paid to keep off the premises. Made trouble you have, you old hag, and bewitched my wife, so she's dazed with pain. But I'll drag you to justice and have you burned at the stake, you old devil!" He foamed at the mouth and shook his clenched fist in her face.
"So you order folks to be burnt, do you?" said Maren scornfully. "Then you'd best light up and stoke up for yourself as well. Seemingly you've taken more on your back than you can carry."
"What do you mean by that?" hissed the farmer, gesticulating, as if prepared at any moment to pounce upon Maren and drag her to the trap. "Maybe it's a lie, that you've been to the farm and scared my wife?" He went threateningly round her, but without touching her. "What have you to do with my back?" shouted he loudly, with fear in his eyes. "D'you want to bewitch me too, what?"
"'Tis nothing with your back I've to do, or yourself either. But all can see that the miser's cake'll be eaten, ay, even by crow and raven if need be. Keep your strength for your young wife—you might overstrain yourself on an old witch like me. And where'd she be then, eh?"
Anders Olsen had come with the intention of throwing the old witch into the trap and taking her home with him—by fair means or foul—so that she could undo her magic on the spot. And there he sat on the woodbox, his cap between his hands, a pitiful sight. Maren had judged him aright, there was nothing manly about him, he fought with words instead of fists. The men of the Sand farm were a poor breed, petty and grasping. This one was already bald, the muscles of his neck stood sharply out, and his mouth was like a tightly shut purse. It was no enviable position to be his wife; the miser was already uppermost in him! Already he was shivering with cold down his back—having forgotten his fear for his wife in his thought for himself.
Maren put a cup of coffee on the kitchen table, then sat down herself on the steps leading to the attic with a cracked cup between her fingers. "Just you drink it up," said she, as he hesitated—"there's no-one here that'll harm you and yours."
"But you've been home and made mischief," he mumbled, stretching out his hand for the cup; he seemed equally afraid of drinking or leaving the coffee.
"We've been at the farm we two, 'tis true enough. The bad storm drove us in, 'twas sore against our will." Maren spoke placidly and with forbearance. "And as to your wife, belike it made her ill, and couldn't bear to hear what a man she's got. A kind and good woman she is—miles too good for you. She gave us nought but the best, while you're just longing to burn us. Ay, ay, 'twould be plenty warm enough then! For here 'tis cold, and there's no-one to bring a load of peat to the house."
"Maybe you'd like me to bring you a load?" snapped the farmer, closing his mouth like a trap.
"The child's yours for all that; she's cold and hungry, work as I may."
"Well, she was paid for once and for all."
"Ay, 'twas easy enough for you! Let your own offspring want; 'tis the only child, we'll hope, the Lord'll trust you with."
The farmer started, as if awakened to his senses. "Cast off your spell from my wife!" he shouted, striking the table with his hands.
"I've nought against your wife. But just you see, if the Lord'll put a child in your care. 'Tis not likely to me."
"You leave the Lord alone—and cast off the spell," he whispered hoarsely, making for the old woman, "or I'll throttle you, old witch that you are." He was gray in the face, and his thin, crooked fingers clutched the air.
"Have a care, your own child lies abed and can hear you." Maren pushed open the door to the inner room. "D'you hear that, Ditte, your father's going to throttle me."
Anders Olsen turned away from her and went towards the door. He stood a moment fumbling with the door handle, as if not knowing what he did; then came back, and sank down on the woodbox, gazing at the clay floor. He looked uncommonly old and had always done so ever since his childhood, it was said people of the Sand farm were always born toothless.
Maren came and placed herself in front of him. "Maybe you're thinking of the son your wife should bear? And maybe seeing him already running by your side in the fields, just like a little foal, and learning to hold the plow. Ay! many a one's no son to save for, but enjoys putting by for all that. And often 'tis a close-fisted father has a spendthrift son; belike 'tis the Lord punishing them for their greedy ways. You may fight on till you break up—like many another one. Or sell the farm to strangers, when there's no more work in you—and shift in to the town to a fine little house! For folks with money there's many a way!"
The farmer lifted his head. "Cast off your spell from my wife," he said beseechingly, "and I'll make it worth your while."
"On the Sand farm we'll never set foot again, neither me nor the child. But you can send your wife down here—'tis no harm she'll come to, but don't forget if good's to come of it, on a load of peat she must ride!"
Early next morning the pretty young wife from the Sand farm, could be seen driving through the hamlet seated on top of a swinging cartload of peat. Apparently the farmer did not care to be seen with his wife like this, for he himself was not there; a lad drove the cart. Many wondered where they were going, and with their faces against the window-panes watched them pass. From one or another hut, with no outlook, a woman would come throwing a shawl over her head as she hurried towards the Naze. As the lad carried the peat into Maren's woodshed, and the farmer's wife unpacked eggs, ham, cakes, butter and many other good things on the table in the little sitting room, they came streaming past, staring through the window—visiting the people in the other part of the house with one or other foolish excuse. Maren knew quite well why they came, but it did not worry her any longer. She was accustomed to people keeping an eye on her and using her neighbors as a spying ground.
A few days afterwards the news ran round the neighborhood that the farmer had begun to take notice of his illegitimate child—not altogether with a good will perhaps. Maren was supposed to have had a hand in the arrangement. No-one understood her long patience with him; especially as she had right on her side. But now it would seem she had tired of it and had begun casting spells over the farmer's young wife—first charmed a child into her, and then away again, according to her will. Some declared Ditte was used for this purpose—by conjuring her backwards, right back to her unborn days, so that the child was obliged to seek a mother, and it was because of this she never grew properly. Ditte was extraordinarily small for her age, for all she was never really ill. Probably she was not allowed to grow as she should do, or she would be too big to will away to nothing.
There was much to be said both for and against having such as wise Maren in the district. That she was a witch was well known; but as they went she was in the main a good woman. She never used her talents in the service of the Devil, that is as far as any one knew—and she was kind to the poor; curing many a one without taking payment for it. And as to the farmer of the Sand farm, he only got what he deserved.
Maren's fame was established after this. People have short memories, when it is to their own advantage, and Anders Olsen was seldom generous to them. There would be long intervals in between his visits, then suddenly he would take to coming often. The men of the Sand farm had always been plagued by witchcraft. They might be working in the fields, and bending down to pick up a stone or a weed, when all of a sudden some unseen deviltry would strike them with such excruciating pains in the back, that they could not straighten themselves, and had to crawl home on all fours. There they would lie groaning for weeks, suffering greatly from doing nothing, and treated by cupping, leeches and good advice, till one day the pain would disappear as quickly as it had come. They themselves put it down to the evil eye of women, who perhaps felt themselves ignored and took their revenge in this mean fashion; others thought it was a punishment from Heaven for having too fat a back. At all events this was their weak spot, and whenever the farmer felt a twinge of pain in his back he would hurry to propitiate wise Maren.
This was not sufficient to live on, but her fame increased, and with it her circle of patients.
Maren herself never understood why she had become so famous; but she accepted the fact as it was, and turned it to the best account she could. She took up one thing or another of what she remembered from her childhood of her mother's good advice—and left the rest to look after itself; generally she was guided by circumstances as to what to say and do.
Maren had heard so often that she was a witch, and occasionally believed it herself. Other times she would marvel at people's stupidity. But she always thought with a sigh of the days when Soeren still lived and she was nothing more than his "blockhead"—those were happy days.
Now she was lonely. Soeren lay under the ground, and every one else avoided her like the plague, when they did not require her services. Others met and enjoyed a gossip, but no one thought of running in to Maren for a cup of coffee. Even her neighbors kept themselves carefully away, though they often required a helping hand and got it too. She had but one living friend, who looked to her with confidence and who was not afraid of her—Ditte.
It was a sad and sorry task to be a wise woman—only more so as it was not her own choice; but it gave her a livelihood.
DITTE VISITS FAIRYLAND
Ditte was now big enough to venture out alone, and would often run away from home, without making Maren uneasy. She needed some one to play with, and sought for playmates in the hamlet and the huts at the edge of the forest. But the parents would call their children in when they saw her coming. Eventually the children themselves learned to beware of her; they would throw stones at her when she came near, and shout nicknames: bastard and witch's brat. Then she tried children in other places and met the same fate; at last it dawned upon her that she stood apart. She was not even sure of the children at home; just as she was playing with them on the sandhills, making necklaces and rings of small blue scabious, the mother would run out and tear the children away.
She had to learn to play alone and be content with the society of the things around her; which she did. Ditte quickly invested her playthings with life; sticks and stones were all given a part and they were wonderfully easy to manage. Almost too well behaved, and Ditte herself sometimes had to put a little naughtiness into them; or they would be too dull. There was an old wornout wooden shoe of Soeren's; Maren had painted a face on it and given it an old shawl as a dress. In Ditte's world it took the part of a boy—a rascal of a boy—always up to mischief and in some scrape or other. It was constantly breaking things, and every minute Ditte had to punish it and give it a good whipping.
One day she was sitting outside in the sun busily engaged in scolding this naughty boy of a doll, in a voice deep with motherly sorrow and annoyance. Maren, who stood inside the kitchen door cleaning herrings, listened with amusement. "If you do it once more," said the child, "we'll take you up to the old witch, and she'll eat you all up."
Maren came quickly out. "Who says that?" asked she, her furrowed face quivering.
"The Bogie-man says it," said Ditte cheerfully.
"Rubbish, child, be serious. Who's taught you that? Tell me at once."
Ditte tried hard to be solemn. "Bogie-doggie said it—tomorrow!" bubbling over with mirth.
No-one could get the better of her; she was bored, and just invented any nonsense that came into her head. Maren gave it up and returned to her work quietly and in deep thought.
She stood crying over her herrings, with the salt tears dropping down into the pickle. She often cried of late, over herself and over the world in general; the people treated her as if she were infected with the plague, poisoning the air round her with their meanness and hate, while as far as she knew she had always helped them to the best of her ability. They did not hesitate in asking her advice when in trouble, though at the same time they would blame her for having brought it upon them—calling her every name they could think of when she had gone. Even the child's innocent lips called her a witch.