English Literature

Mogens and Other Stories by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Mogens and Other Stories by Jens Peter Jacobsen.jpg

SUMMER it was; in the middle of the day; in a corner of the enclosure. Immediately in front of it stood an old oaktree, of whose trunk one might say, that it agonized in despair because of the lack of harmony between its fresh yellowish foliage and its black and gnarled branches; they resembled most of all grossly misdrawn old gothic arabesques. Behind the oak was a luxuriant thicket of hazel with dark sheenless leaves, which were so dense, that neither trunk nor branches could be seen. Above the hazel rose two straight, joyous maple-trees with gayly indented leaves, red stems and long dangling clusters of green fruit. Behind the maples came the forest—a green evenly rounded slope, where birds went out and in as elves in a grasshill.

All this you could see if you came wandering along the path through the fields beyond the fence. If, however, you were lying in the shadow of the oak with your back against the trunk and looking the other way—and there was a some one, who did that—then you would see first your own legs, then a little spot of short, vigorous grass, next a large cluster of dark nettles, then the hedge of thorn with the big, white convolvulus, the stile, a little of the ryefield outside, finally the councilor’s flagpole on the hill, and then the sky.

It was stifling hot, the air was quivering with heat, and then it was very quiet; the leaves were hanging from the trees as if asleep. Nothing moved except the lady-birds and the nettles and a few withered leaves that lay on the grass and rolled themselves up with sudden little jerks as if they were shrinking from the sunbeams.

And then the man underneath the oak; he lay there gasping for air and with a melancholy look stared helplessly towards the sky. He tried to hum a tune, but gave it up; whistled, then gave that up too; turned round, turned round again and let his eyes rest upon an old mole-hill, that had become quite gray in the drought. Suddenly a small dark spot appeared upon the light-gray mold, another, three, four, many, still more, the entire mole-hill suddenly was quite dark-gray. The air was filled with nothing but long, dark streaks, the leaves nodded and swayed and there rose a murmur which turned into a hissing—rain was pouring down. Everything gleamed, sparkled, spluttered. Leaves, branches, trunks, everything shone with moisture; every little drop that fell on earth, on grass, on the fence, on whatever it was, broke and scattered in a thousand delicate pearls. Little drops hung for a while and became big drops, trickled down elsewhere, joined with other drops, formed small rivulets, disappeared into tiny furrows, ran into big holes and out of small ones, sailed away laden with dust, chips of wood and ragged bits of foliage, caused them to run aground, set them afloat, whirled them round and again caused them to ground. Leaves, which had been separated since they were in the bud, were reunited by the flood; moss, that had almost vanished in the dryness, expanded and became soft, crinkly, green and juicy; and gray lichens which nearly had turned to snuff, spread their delicate ends, puffed up like brocade and with a sheen like that of silk. The convolvuluses let their white crowns be filled to the brim, drank healths to each other, and emptied the water over the heads of the nettles. The fat black wood-snails crawled forward on their stomachs with a will, and looked approvingly towards the sky. And the man? The man was standing bareheaded in the midst of the downpour, letting the drops revel in his hair and brows, eyes, nose, mouth; he snapped his fingers at the rain, lifted a foot now and again as if he were about to dance, shook his head sometimes, when there was too much water in the hair, and sang at the top of his voice without knowing what he was singing, so pre-occupied was he with the rain:

 Had I, oh had I a grandson, trala,
 And a chest with heaps and heaps of gold,
 Then very likely had I had a daughter, trala,
 And house and home and meadows untold.

 Had I, oh had I a daughter dear, trala,
 And house and home and meadows untold,
 Then very like had I had a sweetheart, trala.
 And a chest with heaps and heaps of gold.

There he stood and sang in the rain, but yonder between the dark hazelbushes the head of a little girl was peeping out. A long end of her shawl of red silk had become entangled in a branch which projected a little beyond the others, and from time to time a small hand went forward and tugged at the end, but this had no other result, further than to produce a little shower of rain from the branch and its neighbors. The rest of the shawl lay close round the little girl’s head and hid half of the brow; it shaded the eyes, then turned abruptly and became lost among the leaves, but reappeared in a big rosette of folds underneath the girl’s chin. The face of the little girl looked very astonished, she was just about to laugh; the smile already hovered in the eyes. Suddenly he, who stood there singing in the midst of the downpour, took a few steps to the side, saw the red shawl, the face, the big brown eyes, the astonished little open mouth; instantly his position became awkward, in surprise he looked down himself; but in the same moment a small cry was heard, the projecting branch swayed violently, the red end of the shawl disappeared in a flash, the girl’s face disappeared, and there was a rustling and rustling further and further away behind the hazelbushes. Then he ran. He did not know why, he did not think at all. The gay mood, which the rainstorm had called forth, welled up in him again, and he ran after the face of the little girl. It did not enter his head that it was a person he pursued. To him it was only the face of a little girl. He ran, it rustled to the right, it rustled to the left, it rustled in front, it rustled behind, he rustled, she rustled, and all these sounds and the running itself excited him, and he cried: “Where are you? Say cuckoo!” Nobody answered. When he heard his own voice, he felt just a little uneasy, but he continued running; then a thought came to him, only a single one, and he murmured as he kept on running: “What am I going to say to her? What am I going to say to her?” He was approaching a big bush, there she had hid herself, he could just see a corner of her skirt. “What am I going to say to her? What am I going to say to her?” he kept on murmuring while he ran. He was quite near the bush, then turned abruptly, ran on still murmuring the same, came out upon the open road, ran a distance, stopped abruptly and burst out laughing, walked smiling quietly a few paces, then burst out laughing loudly again, and did not cease laughing all the way along the hedge.

It was on a beautiful autumn day; the fall of the foliage was going on apace and the path which led to the lake was quite covered with the citron-yellow leaves from the elms and maples; here and there were spots of a darker foliage. It was very pleasant, very clean to walk on this tigerskin-carpet, and to watch the leaves fall down like snow; the birch looked even lighter and more graceful with its branches almost bare and the roan-tree was wonderful with its heavy scarlet cluster of berries. And the sky was so blue, so blue, and the wood seemed so much bigger, one could look so far between the trunks. And then of course one could not help thinking that soon all this would be of the past. Wood, field, sky, open air, and everything soon would have to give way to the time of the lamps, the carpets, and the hyacinths. For this reason the councilor from Cape Trafalgar and his daughter were walking down to the lake, while their carriage stopped at the bailiff’s.

The councilor was a friend of nature, nature was something quite special, nature was one of the finest ornaments of existence. The councilor patronized nature, he defended it against the artificial; gardens were nothing but nature spoiled; but gardens laid out in elaborate style were nature turned crazy. There was no style in nature, providence had wisely made nature natural, nothing but natural. Nature was that which was unrestrained, that which was unspoiled. But with the fall of man civilization had come upon mankind; now civilization had become a necessity; but it would have been better, if it had not been thus. The state of nature was something quite different, quite different. The councilor himself would have had no objection to maintaining himself by going about in a coat of lamb-skin and shooting hares and snipes and golden plovers and grouse and haunches of venison and wild boars. No, the state of nature really was like a gem, a perfect gem.

The councilor and his daughter walked down to the lake. For some time already it had glimmered between the trees, but now when they turned the corner where the big poplar stood, it lay quite open before them. There it lay with large spaces of water clear as a mirror, with jagged tongues of gray-blue rippled water, with streaks that were smooth and streaks that were rippled, and the sunlight rested on the smooth places and quivered in the ripples. It captured one’s eye and drew it across its surface, carried it along the shores, past slowly rounded curves, past abruptly broken lines, and made it swing around the green tongues of land; then it let go of one’s glance and disappeared in large bays, but it carried along the thought—Oh, to sail! Would it be possible to hire boats here?

No, there were none, said a little fellow, who lived in the white country-house near by, and stood at the shore skipping stones over the surface of the water. Were there really no boats at all?

Yes, of course, there were some; there was the miller’s, but it could not be had; the miller would not permit it. Niels, the miller’s son, had nearly gotten a spanking when he had let it out the other day. It was useless to think about it; but then there was the gentleman, who lived with Nicolai, the forest-warden. He had a fine boat, one which was black at the top and red at the bottom, and he lent it to each and every one.

The councilor and his daughter went up to Nicolai’s, the forest-warden. At a short distance from the house they met a little girl. She was Nicolai’s, and they told her to run in and ask if they might see the gentleman. She ran as if her life depended on it, ran with both arms and legs, until she reached the door; there she placed one leg on the high doorstep, fastened her garter, and then rushed into the house. She reappeared immediately afterwards with two doors ajar behind her and called long before she reached the threshold, that the gentleman would be there in a moment; then she sat down on the doorstep, leaned against the wall, and peered at the strangers from underneath one of her arms.

The gentleman came, and proved to be a tall strongly-built man of some twenty years. The councilor’s daughter was a little startled, when she recognized in him the man, who had sung during the rainstorm. But he looked so strange and absentminded; quite obviously he had just been reading a book, one could tell that from the expression in his eyes, from his hair, from the abstracted way in which he managed his hands.

The councilor’s daughter dropped him an exuberant courtesy and said “Cuckoo,” and laughed.

“Cuckoo?” asked the councilor. Why, it was the little girl’s face! The man went quite crimson, and tried to say something when the councilor came with a question about the boat. Yes, it was at his service. But who was going to do the rowing? Why, he of course, said the girl, and paid no attention to what her father said about it; it was immaterial whether it was a bother to the gentleman, for sometimes he himself did not mind at all troubling other people. Then they went down to the boat, and on the way explained things to the councilor. They stepped into the boat, and were already a good ways out, before the girl had settled herself comfortably and found time to talk.

“I suppose it was something very learned you were reading,” she said, “when I came and called cuckoo and fetched you out sailing?”

“Rowing, you mean. Something learned! It was the ‘History of Sir Peter with the Silver Key and the Beautiful Magelone.’”

“Who is that by?”

“By no one in particular. Books of that sort never are. ‘Vigoleis with the Golden Wheel’ isn’t by anybody either, neither is ‘Bryde, the Hunter.’”

“I have never heard of those titles before.”

“Please move a little to the side, otherwise we will list.—Oh no, that is quite likely, they aren’t fine books at all; they are the sort you buy from old women at fairs.”

“That seems strange. Do you always read books of that kind?”

“Always? I don’t read many books in the course of a year, and the kind I really like the best are those that have Indians in them.”

“But poetry? Oehlenschlager, Schiller, and the others?”

“Oh, of course I know them; we had a whole bookcase full of them at home, and Miss Holm—my mother’s companion—read them aloud after lunch and in the evenings; but I can’t say that I cared for them; I don’t like verse.”

“Don’t like verse? You said had, isn’t your mother living any more?”

“No, neither is my father.”

He said this with a rather sullen, hostile tone, and the conversation halted for a time and made it possible to hear clearly the many little sounds created by the movement of the boat through the water. The girl broke the silence:

“Do you like paintings?”

“Altar-pieces? Oh, I don’t know.”

“Yes, or other pictures, landscapes for instance?”

“Do people paint those too? Of course they do, I know that very well.”

“You are laughing at me?”

“I? Oh yes, one of us is doing that”

“But aren’t you a student?”

“Student? Why should I be? No, I am nothing.”

“But you must be something. You must do something?”

“But why?”

“Why, because—everybody does something!”

“Are you doing something?”

“Oh well, but you are not a lady.”

“No, heaven be praised.”

“Thank you.”

He stopped rowing, drew the oars out of the water, looked her into the face and asked:

“What do you mean by that?—No, don’t be angry with me; I will tell you something, I am a queer sort of person. You cannot understand it. You think because I wear good clothes, I must be a fine man. My father was a fine man; I have been told that he knew no end of things, and I daresay he did, since he was a district-judge. I know nothing because mother and I were all to each other, and I did not care to learn the things they teach in the schools, and don’t care about them now either. Oh, you ought to have seen my mother; she was such a tiny wee lady. When I was no older than thirteen I could carry her down into the garden. She was so light; in recent years I would often carry her on my arm through the whole garden and park. I can still see her in her black gowns with the many wide laces….”

He seized the oars and rowed violently. The councilor became a little uneasy, when the water reached so high at the stern, and suggested, that they had better see about getting home again; so back they went.

“Tell me,” said the girl, when the violence of his rowing had decreased a little. “Do you often go to town?”

“I have never been there.”

“Never been there? And you only live twelve miles away?”

“I don’t always live here, I live at all sorts of places since my mother’s death, but the coming winter I shall go to town to study arithmetic.”

“Mathematics?”

“No, timber,” he said laughingly, “but that is something you don’t understand. I’ll tell you, when I am of age I shall buy a sloop and sail to Norway, and then I shall have to know how to figure on account of the customs and clearance.”

“Would you really like that?”

“Oh, it, is magnificent on the sea, there is such a feeling of being alive in sailing—here we are at the landing-stage!”

He came alongside; the councilor and his daughter stepped ashore after having made him promise to come and see them at Cape Trafalgar. Then they returned to the bailiff’s, while he again rowed out on the lake. At the poplar they could still hear the sounds of the oars.

“Listen, Camilla,” said the councilor, who had been out to lock the outer door, “tell me,” he said, extinguishing his hand-lamp with the bit of his key, “was the rose they had at the Carlsens a Pompadour or Maintenon?”

“Cendrillon,” the daughter answered.

“That’s right, so it was,—well, I suppose we had better see that we get to bed now; good night, little girl, good night, and sleep well.”

When Camilla had entered her room, she pulled up the blind, leaned her brow against the cool pane, and hummed Elizabeth’s song from “The Fairy-hill.” At sunset a light breeze had begun to blow and a few tiny, white clouds, illumined by the moon, were driven towards Camilla. For a long while she stood regarding them; her eye followed them from a far distance, and she sang louder and louder as they drew nearer, kept silent a few seconds while they disappeared above her, then sought others, and followed them too. With a little sigh she pulled down the blind. She went to the dressing table, rested her elbows against her clasped hands and regarded her own picture in the mirror without really seeing it.

She was thinking of a tall young man, who carried a very delicate, tiny, blackdressed lady in his arms; she was thinking of a tall man, who steered his small ship in between cliffs and rocks in a devastating gale. She heard a whole conversation over again. She blushed: Eugene Carlson might have thought that you were paying court to him! With a little jealous association of ideas she continued: No one would ever run after Clara in a wood in the rainstorm, she would never have invited a stranger—literally asked him—to sail with her. “Lady to her fingertips,” Carlson had said of Clara; that really was a reprimand for you, you peasant-girl Camilla! Then she undressed with affected slowness, went to bed, took a small elegantly bound book from the bookshelf near by and opened the first page. She read through a short hand-written poem with a tired, bitter expression on her face, then let the book drop to the floor and burst into tears; afterwards she tenderly picked it up again, put it back in its place and blew out the candle; lay there for a little while gazing disconsolately at the moonlit blind, and finally went to sleep.

A few days later the “rainman” started on his way to Cape Trafalgar. He met a peasant driving a load of rye straw, and received permission to ride with him. Then he lay down on his back in the straw and gazed at the cloudless sky. The first couple of miles he let his thoughts come and go as they listed, besides there wasn’t much variety in them. Most of them would come and ask him how a human being possibly could be so wonderfully beautiful, and they marveled that it really could be an entertaining occupation for several days to recall the features of a face, its changes of expression and coloring, the small movements of a head and a pair of hands, and the varying inflections in a voice. But then the peasant pointed with his whip towards the slate-roof about a mile away and said that the councilor lived over there, and the good Mogens rose from the straw and stared anxiously towards the roof. He had a strange feeling of oppression and tried to make himself believe that nobody was at home, but tenaciously came back to the conception that there was a large party, and he could not free himself from that idea, even though he counted how many cows “Country-joy” had on the meadow and how many heaps of gravel he could see along the road. At last the peasant stopped near a small path leading down to the country-house, and Mogens slid down from the cart and began to brush away the bits of straw while the cart slowly creaked away over the gravel on the road.

He approached the garden-gate step by step, saw a red shawl disappear behind the balcony windows, a small deserted white sewing-basket on the edge of the balcony, and the back of a still moving empty rocking-chair. He entered the garden, with his eyes fixed intently on the balcony, heard the councilor say good-day, turned his head toward the sound, and saw him standing there nodding, his arms full of empty flowerpots. They spoke of this and that, and the councilor began to explain, as one might put it, that the old specific distinction between the various kinds of trees had been abolished by grafting, and that for his part he did not like this at all. Then Camilla slowly approached wearing a brilliant glaring blue shawl. Her arms were entirely wrapped up in the shawl, and she greeted him with a slight inclination of the head and a faint welcome. The councilor left with his flower-pots, Camilla stood looking over her shoulders towards the balcony; Mogens looked at her. How had he been since the other day? Thank you, nothing especial had been the matter with him. Done much rowing? Why, yes, as usual, perhaps not quite as much. She turned her head towards him, looked coldly at him, inclined her head to one side and asked with half-closed eyes and a faint smile whether it was the beautiful Magelone who had engrossed his time. He did not know what she meant, but he imagined it was. Then they stood for a while and said nothing. Camilla took a few steps towards a corner, where a bench and a garden-chair stood. She sat down on the bench and asked him, after she was seated, looking at the chair, to be seated; he must be very tired after his long walk. He sat down in the chair.

Did he believe anything would come of the projected royal alliance? Perhaps, he was completely indifferent? Of course, he had no interest in the royal house. Naturally he hated aristocracy? There were very few young men who did not believe that democracy was, heaven only knew what. Probably he was one of those who attributed not the slightest political importance to the family alliances of the royal house? Perhaps he was mistaken. It had been seen…. She stopped suddenly, surprised that Mogens who had at first been somewhat taken aback at all this information, now looked quite pleased. He wasn’t to sit there, and laugh at her! She turned quite red.

“Are you very much interested in politics?” she asked timidly.

“Not in the least.”

“But why do you let me sit here talking politics eternally?”

“Oh, you say everything so charmingly, that it does not matter what you are talking about.”

“That really is no compliment.”

“It certainly is,” he assured her eagerly, for it seemed to him she looked quite hurt.

Camilla burst out laughing, jumped up, and ran to meet her father, took his arm, and walked back with him to the puzzled Mogens.

When dinner was through and they had drunk their coffee up on the balcony, the councilor suggested a walk. So the three of them went along the small way across the main road, and along a narrow path with stubble of rye on both sides, across the stile, and into the woods. There was the oak and everything else; there even were still convolvuluses on the hedge. Camilla asked Mogens to fetch some for her. He tore them all off, and came back with both hands full.

“Thank you, I don’t want so many,” she said, selected a few and let the rest fall to the ground. “Then I wish I had let them be,” Mogens said earnestly.

Camilla bent down and began to gather them up. She had expected him to help her and looked up at him in surprise, but he stood there quite calm and looked down at her. Now as she had begun, she had to go on, and gathered up they were; but she certainly did not talk to Mogens for a long while. She did not even look to the side where he was. But somehow or other they must have become reconciled, for when on their way back they reached the oak again, Camilla went underneath it and looked up into its crown. She tripped from one side to the other, gesticulated with her hands and sang, and Mogens had to stand near the hazelbushes to see what sort of a figure he had cut. Suddenly Camilla ran towards him, but Mogens lost his cue, and forgot both to shriek and to run away, and then Camilla laughingly declared that she was very dissatisfied with herself and that she would not have had the boldness to remain standing there, when such a horrible creature—and she pointed towards herself—came rushing towards her. But Mogens declared that he was very well satisfied with himself.

When towards sunset he was going home the councilor and Camilla accompanied him a little way. And as they were going home she said to her father that perhaps they ought to invite that lonesome young man rather frequently during the month, while it was still possible to stay in the country. He knew no one here about, and the councilor said “yes,” and smiled at being thought so guileless, but Camilla walked along and looked so gentle and serious, that one would not doubt but that she was the very personification of benevolence itself.

The autumn weather remained so mild that the councilor stayed on at Cape Trafalgar for another whole month, and the effect of the benevolence was that Mogens came twice the first week and about every day the third.

It was one of the last days of fair weather.

It had rained early in the morning and had remained overclouded far down into the forenoon; but now the sun had come forth. Its rays were so strong and warm, that the garden-paths, the lawns and the branches of the trees were enveloped in a fine filmy mist. The councilor walked about cutting asters. Mogens and Camilla were in a corner of the garden to take down some late winter apples. He stood on a table with a basket on his arm, she stood on a chair holding out a big white apron by the corners.

“Well, and what happened then?” she called impatiently to Mogens, who had interrupted the fairy-tale he was telling in order to reach an apple which hung high up.

“Then,” he continued, “the peasant began to run three times round himself and to sing: ‘To Babylon, to Babylon, with an iron ring through my head.’ Then he and his calf, his great-grandmother, and his black rooster flew away. They flew across oceans as broad as Arup Vejle, over mountains as high as the church at Jannerup, over Himmerland and through the Holstein lands even to the end of the world. There the kobold sat and ate breakfast; he had just finished when they came.

“‘You ought to be a little more god-fearing, little father,’ said the peasant, ‘otherwise it might happen that you might miss the kingdom of heaven.’”

“Well, he would gladly be god-fearing.”

“‘Then you must say grace after meals,’ said the peasant….”

“No, I won’t go on with the story,” said Mogens impatiently.

“Very well, then don’t,” said Camilla, and looked at him in surprise.

“I might as well say it at once,” continued Mogens, “I want to ask you something, but you mustn’t laugh at me.”

Camilla jumped down from the chair.

“Tell me—no, I want to tell you something myself—here is the table and there is the hedge, if you won’t be my bride, I’ll leap with the basket over the hedge and stay away. One!”

Camilla glanced furtively at him, and noticed that the smile had vanished from his face.

“Two!”

He was quite pale with emotion.

“Yes,” she whispered, and let go the ends of her apron so that the apples rolled toward all corners of the world and then she ran. But she did not run away from Mogens.

“Three,” said she, when he reached her, but he kissed her nevertheless.

The councilor was interrupted among his asters, but the district-judge’s son was too irreproachable a blending of nature and civilization for the councilor to raise objections.

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Categories: English Literature

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