Emanuel, or Children of the Soil/Book 1, Chapter 8

Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896)
by Henrik Pontoppidan, illustrated by Nelly Erichsen, translated by Alice Lucas
Book I; Chapter VIII
Henrik Pontoppidan4503017Emanuel, or Children of the SoilBook I; Chapter VIII1896Alice Lucas (1855-1935)

The same night four persons were playing cards in the sky-blue best parlour of Jensen, the chairman of the Parish Council.

They were—besides the host—Aggerbölle the district veterinary surgeon, the old schoolmaster Mortensen, and Villing the shop-keeper. They all belonged to Veilby.

They had been sitting round the same table since ten o'clock in the morning, without other interruptions than those required for meals. The clock now pointed to three. The candles had twice burnt down to the sockets, and four times in the course of the evening had hot water for toddy been brought in from the kitchen. No one yet seemed to think of breaking up the party, though the fumes of the cognac and the smoke from the glowing stove, combined with the thick blue clouds of tobacco which rendered them almost invisible to each other, had considerably cooled their ardour.

Not an unnecessary word was uttered. Half mechanically the cards were thrown on the table, and the tricks taken up. Even little Villing's goggle eyes, which usually were busy enough spying out the cards of the other players, were now blood-shot and starting out of his head like a boiled haddock's; in fact the game only went on because no one had resolution enough to bring it to a close. The only one who still kept up valiantly was the old schoolmaster. But he might have been born at an Ombre table.

From the moment that he carefully spread out his coat tails on taking his seat, till he was plainly informed that the game was over, he sat holding his venerable white head as erect as possible, hiding the fever he was always thrown into at the sight of cards and money, under an immoveably grave mask; while only an irrepressible trembling of the lips and the continual creaking of his stiff old boots betrayed his excitement. Now and then, at critical moments, he wiped the pearling sweat from his forehead with a red silk handkerchief; and if, after careful consideration, he ventured to "ask for cards," he would shut his eyes as if breathing a mental prayer. Jensen, the host, sat on his right, struggling in vain with sleep. He was a big stout peasant with a fiery red face and a drooping purple nose. He was the rich man of the neighbourhood, and his whole bearing and attire showed that he considered himself something more than an ordinary peasant. His friends used to call him "Squire Jensen," or Mr Jensen without the christian name. In return he allowed them to fleece him as much as they liked, nay, he even burst into roars of laughter every time he had to produce a fresh "krone" from his trousers pockets. He was not specially interested in the game, although he was proud of having learnt this aristocratic "Lummer" which was played in gentlemen's houses. He was also flattered by the greedy coveting of his money by the others, and he flung the coins to them as if he were feeding a herd of swine.

Aggerbölle, the vet., sat opposite the schoolmaster—he was a powerful broad-shouldered man with thick brown hair and a grizzled beard. He sat resting his head on his hand, buried in a dull, gloomy reverie. Now and then he ran his hand through his bushy mane, beating his forehead and cursing himself bitterly. The toddy had gone to his head, and he had been very unlucky this evening. Only a vanishing number of Jensen's coins had found their way to his pocket—and for Aggerbölle, card-playing was not a mere pastime, as it was to the others,—it was a life and death struggle for existence.

Suddenly the schoolmaster's old boots began to creak violently under the table. His eyes, under their silvery brows, turned anxiously towards a saucer of 25 öre pieces which stood in the middle of the table, the so-called "Pool."

At last he wiped his pale face, closed his eyes for a moment as he did on Sundays before saying the opening prayer at the chancel steps, and said quietly, "I play for the pool!"

The drowsy figures started up, and the vet. lifted his heavy head, ready to cry with exasperation.

"What suit?" he growled.

"Clubs," answered the schoolmaster benignly.

The cards were brought in silence. The vet. pulled himself together for the fray, sipped his toddy and stroked his beard with his hairy hand. His eyes were as red as a bull's. He would try one more tilt with fortune. If this solo were won, the game would come to an end, and with it all hope for this evening. Mortensen had three "Matadors," and a four of trumps, besides the king, queen, and three of hearts, and two small spades. He also had the lead. Like a careful general he kept his king of hearts back, and sent the queen into the fire first.

The vet., who could not follow suit, was not to be imposed upon.

"That's a blind, I expect," he growled, and took it with a trump.

The first drops of sweat made their appearance on Mortensen's forehead.

The vet. played a small trump, Villing took it with the king; Mortensen had to follow suit. Then hearts appeared again from Villing, Mortensen followed suit with his king, the vet. took it with a trump and played his queen of spades.

Now Mortensen saw that he was lost, his boots ceased creaking, and he turned as white as a sheet. Then unnoticed, he dropped the small spade with which he ought to have followed suit into his lap, whence it slid between his knees on to the floor, where he quickly put his foot on it, at the same time taking the queen with a small trump. Then he threw his three Matadors on to the table in rapid succession, so as to have an opportunity of replacing the missing card from one of his tricks; and in the general fog no one noticed that the six of trumps from the first trick re-appeared in the sixth.

The schoolmaster won his "Solo" and the game came to an end at last.

Just then the richly gilt clock on the chiffonier struck four admonitory strokes. With a righteous smile Mortensen collected his evenly piled heaps of money into an old-fashioned leather purse and buried it in the bottom of his deep trousers pocket, carefully buttoning it up.

At this moment the host's deformed little wife appeared at the door of the adjoining room; she had been sitting wrapped in a big shawl and dozing by the kitchen fire. With an almost inaudible voice, which she tried to make grand, and with an awkward movement of her withered hand, she invited the gentlemen to come in to a "little refreshment."

The host rose too, repeating the invitation in his noisy way. "C-come in, come in and have a l-little refreshment—we n-need something to eat after our labours!"

The "little refreshment," which was served in the next room, turned out to be a fully laid table with pickled pork, ham, sausages, poached eggs, goose, liver pie, and various smoked meats, besides a first course of hot steak and onions; in addition there was a plentiful supply of corn brandy and Bavarian beer. Although the guests had partaken of four solid meals at the same table in the course of the day and night, they attacked the food with good-will, and soon emptied both the decanter of brandy and the well-filled dishes. At the end of the meal, coffee was served with cognac.

In the middle of the meal the vet. broke out into a tremendous oath, and banged his glass on to the table so hard that the stem broke. He had suddenly remembered a sick cow he had promised to see in a neighbouring village, and to which he had been on the way when he dropped in at the parish councillor's in the morning.

Jensen, unfortunately, immediately on his arrival, proposed to send a message to the schoolmaster and the shopkeeper to come and have a game of cards; and as Aggerbölle was very hard up for a few kroner to pay his baker's bill, he had allowed himself to be talked over, in the hope that in a few hours he might win what he wanted. In the course of the game the sick cow as well as everything else went clean out of his head. This was by no means of rare occurrence with Aggerbölle. Every morning he left his home in a tiny, mud-bespattered gig, solemnly promising himself and his wife that he would visit all his patients. Seldom did he get further than the first farm where there was a prospect of cards and of winning some ready money. His life was a continuous wild chase after one or two ten-kroner notes which he must find within four-and-twenty hours to pay the baker or the shoemaker. As the visits to patients were not paid on the spot, he could never withstand the temptation to try and get out of his difficulties by a bold dip into fortune's purse. He had now fallen into a complete state of imbecility. Without knowing what he was doing, he drained glass after glass, and at last sank back with open mouth, and only woke up when the little shopkeeper laid his hand on his shoulder and said: "Come, Aggerbölle, it's five o'clock."