Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Täällä Pohjantähden alla (‘Here beneath the North Star’), part one, chapter five. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Tähti, the rectory’s black carriage-horse, trotted from croft to croft, flashing his white spats. In the sledge, behind the driver, was the rector’s wife, wearing her husband’s heavy fur coat and sitting up very straight.

She began at Koskela. Jussi had finished his rent-work for the week, so she had to drive out to the croft. The little sleigh-bells tinkled so prettily that the boys overcame their shyness and came outside to marvel. These were quite unlike the simple, tinny ‘jingles’ that the old crofters had on their sledges: there was a whole row of bells attached to each half of the smart leather harness-saddle, and they sang out pleasantly and musically every time the highly-strung thoroughbred moved or even quivered. Vilppu could hardly claim to belong to the same species as this splendid creature. The boys had never before seen Tähti at such close quarters. He had wonderful blue-black eyes, and a soft pink muzzle.

Alma fetched the key of the parlour. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bit chilly in here, but if you keep your coat on, ma’am…’

‘Oh, please don’t bother, we can stay here in the living-room.’

Living as they did in comparative isolation from the rest of the hamlet, Jussi and Alma had heard none of the gossip about the Humble Address project, and were a little uneasy as to the purpose of the lady’s visit.

‘My dear neighbours. The business that brings me here is something that we must all find very painful.’

Jussi winced as if expecting a blow. His fear and suspicion of the rector’s wife had grown so strong that whenever he saw her he felt instinctively that the croft was being threatened in some way. This subconscious dread had become so powerful that when he was working in the rectory grounds he tried to avoid meeting her, for fear that she would start talking about the croft. His anxieties were not based merely on the fact that he now had a worse contract and had to provide more working days, but also on his knowledge that the good lady had spoken disparagingly of the rectory’s own pastures and hay meadows. She had said that the establishment of a dairy would be pointless as far as the rectory was concerned, since they were able to keep so few cows.

However, as she talked on, it soon became plain to Jussi that any threat there might be was to Finland, and not to the croft; whereupon he breathed a sigh of relief, and almost began to warm towards her a little.

‘I suppose you have heard about the blow that has befallen our country?’

‘There’s bin talk… But we’re a bit cut off, like, out here. Don’t hear much about what goes on.’

‘Well, now it’s been decided to let the Tsar know what his people think, by sending him a special letter from the whole nation. That’s what I’ve come about: I’d like to have your signatures to this document.’

Jussi hummed and hawed for a while, twisting and turning uncomfortably in his seat.

‘Well’, he said, ‘if it’s for summat like you say, I’m not a gin signing, but. .. I mean, how will it… I mean if there’s going to be a lot of expense… Oh well, of course, yes, if it’s summat important… but I mean, if it’s a lot of money, well, you know, we’re finding things a bit tight just now…’

A shadow passed across the visitor’s face, and there was a certain severity, as well as pained amusement, in the tone of her voice as she reassured him:

‘It won’t cost you anything at all… And, in any case, money doesn’t come into it: there’s much more at stake here than money.’

‘Oh, ay, that’s true, ma’am. It isn’t that I…’

Somewhat scared by her reaction, Jussi was anxious not to appear to disagree. Alma, too, had noticed her displeasure, and hastened to placate her:

‘No, of course, the money doesn’t count. Not when it’s an important thing like this, with the Tsar and all.’

Their names were duly written down, and His Imperial Majesty Nicholas the Second would learn in due course that, along with others of his loyal subjects, Jussi and Alma Koskela, of Koskela Croft, were of the opinion that crafty tricks would get him nowhere. An opinion expressed, of course, in the most humble and respectful terms, but making it plain that the said loyal subjects were aware of their rights, and intended to hold on to them.

The visitor prepared to take her leave, thanking them both effusively as she turned to go.

‘The ruler will have to understand that he cannot oppose himself to the will of the entire nation. And you boys, you’ll soon be young men. And when you’re grown up, always remember that your country’s rights have to be resolutely defended.’

Awed by these exhortations, the boys became very solemn, but when the lady left the house, they followed her out.

‘Let’s go and listen to the jingle-bells!’

As Ellen took her seat in the sledge, Tähti was already pawing the ground impatiently, evoking with every movement a silvery tremor of the bells. Then, with head lowered, he lunged into motion, and the three forest-children were delighted as much by the grace and beauty of the horse’s movements as by the sleigh-bells, sprinkling ethereal music into the wintry air.

Translated by David Barrett

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