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PAPA JORGENSEN

 

The auction sale was almost over. The last few bids were quickly melting away under the hammer. In ones and two people were drifting away. For the first time that day I could see the quiet garden over the heads of those who remained. In the late afternoon light the shadows of the trees stretched further and further across the grass.

I caught sight of old Jorgensen. There was an eloquent droop to his shoulders. I moved across and touched him on the arm.

‘Hello there, old friend ! I didn‘t think to see you here today ! Whatever made you come ?‘

At first he seemed not to have heard; then his eyes cleared and he spoke.

‘Why indeed ? It was a waste of time. A waste of time !‘

He looked very tired, and more frail than I remembered. I took him by the arm.

‘Come along, Nils ! I know just what you need !‘

He made no effort to resist as I led him out of the room and across the hall to the front door, with its enormous black bolts and the old church lock. As we crossed the threshold I saw old Jorgensen‘s eyes go up to the great key, the badge of his profession, hanging above his door. Already they were preparing to take it down.

When we reached my office I pushed him into a chair and took out glasses and a bottle of akvavit from the cupboard.

‘There you are, Nils ! This‘ll do you good.‘

He was sitting upright on the edge of the chair. There was a look in his eyes as though he were trying with great difficulty, but in vain, to recall something he had forgotten. He took the glass with an abstracted nod, and drank the clear liquid down. I poured out a second glass for him, and this seemed to do the trick. He began to sit deeper in the chair, and a small flag of colour appeared in his parchment cheeks. Then, as though he had remembered what it was that he was trying to recall, he leaned forward and took a notecase from his breast-pocket.

On the table in front of me he placed a handful of notes.

‘There you are, Knud ! I didn‘t need it after all. But thank you for the loan. You‘re a good fellow. I couldn‘t have asked anyone else, you know. Highly improper, with all my worldly goods being sold up !‘

He seemed to choke on the last words, and then went on, almost to himself,

‘Sold up ! Sold up ! Nils Jorgensen, the antique dealer of all Denmark sold up !‘

I broke in quickly. It wouldn‘t do for him to dwell on this line of thought.

‘I don‘t want this money, Nils ! You won‘t be destitute, you know. We shall save something !‘

He showed no interest. I didn‘t like this at all. He went on,

‘I only wanted it for a — well, I thought you might object to lending it to me if you knew – ‘

‘What are you talking about, Nils ?‘

He smiled, half to himself as he answered,

"I only wanted to bid for it ! Just this one thing – ! But I was outbid, so that‘s that !‘

A dreadful suspicion crossed my mind. And then I remembered. You fool, I said to myself, you should have known. Why hadn‘t I kept it out of the sale ? As a lawyer, I suppose I‘ve as much respect for my calling as the next, but I knew that if I had remembered it, I would have withheld it from the sale without a qualm of conscience. I turned away from him before I spoke again.

‘You mean – you mean the musical box ?‘

‘Yes, yes, Knud. The musical box.‘

His voice sounded odd, strained. I turned to look at him. The tears were coursing slowly down his cheeks.

‘Nils, old friend, I‘m sorry ! I should have remembered. But – but I‘ll get it back ! I‘ll get it back ! Do you remember who it was knocked down to ?‘

He dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief.

‘Forgive me ! A foolish old man ! Who ? Why, the stranger – the Jew ! The one in the coat with the astrakhan collar !‘

I recalled him at once. I‘d known almost everyone at the sale, of course, but this man was a stranger to me – to us all. I‘d had a shrewd suspicion that the friends of old Nils would be doing some bidding and counter-bidding to push the prices up so that he should not suffer too much; Nils had made friends like that. But this stranger, this Jew, outbid them all for almost every lot. I could see the cold face, never changing its expression as he nodded his head and yet another bid was added to the price. Now that I knew the reason for Nils‘s request for a loan I could imagine him excitedly bidding for the musical box, and I could almost feel his sick despair as his limit was reached and passed. Somehow I must get the box back. I said,

‘Look, Nils ! We‘ll get it back, never fear ! And look at it another way – whoever he was he‘s pushed the values far higher than they would have been. We shall save quite a lot !‘

I had the feeling I was speaking to someone stone deaf. For the moment I had done all I could. I went to help him as he struggled out of the chair.

‘Now do get some rest, old friend ! You look worn out. And don‘t worry, don‘t worry ! Things won‘t be so bad, you‘ll see ! Come in tomorrow morning, eh ? We‘ll have a look at the preliminary figures then !‘

As the door closed upon him, my junior partner hurried in.

‘Aaagh, I thought he‘d never go ! Old Jorgensen, wasn‘t it ? Ah, I thought so ! How‘s he taking it ?‘

I looked at him steadily for a moment or two.

‘You don‘t have much time for old Jorgensen, do you, Erik ?‘

He coloured a little.

‘Oh – ah, I wouldn‘t say that ! I don‘t think I have an opinion one way or the other.‘

‘Sit down, Erik,‘ I said. ‘Let me try to put your evident opinion into words for you. You think he‘s a silly old fool who‘s let a good business go to pot. Isn’t that it ?‘

He made no reply, and remained standing. I pointed to the other chair and sat in my own. After a moment‘s hesitation he, too, sat down.

‘You know, Erik, the French have a very wise saying that if you understood everything you could forgive everything – ‘

He began to protest, but I silenced him with a raised hand.

‘Erik, you must allow an older man the privilege of getting something off his chest. Sit down, there‘s a good chap !‘

He grinned. He‘s not a bad sort, really. Then he sat back in his chair.

‘I‘m going to take you back a quarter of a century or so, Erik. Nils Jorgensen was a middle-aged man then. Lovely home, a very good income, and a very lovely wife. Everything in the world that a man could wish for. Except for one thing. The one cloud over their life. No family. And, one gathered, little prospect of any.

You know about the war and the Occupation, of course, though I doubt if you‘ve any clear remembrance of it yourself. Well, Nils and his wife got their child. No, not their own. A little boy, a little Jewish boy, five or six years old. There were a lot of Danes like Nils and his wife, thank God.

They knew what they were doing all right. The penalty for harbouring Jews was swift and final, and it didn‘t help one little bit if the Jew in question was a harmless little child – ‘

I stopped for a moment. The recollection had brought it all back, a little too poignantly for my present comfort.

‘Of course, Nils and his wife were in more danger than others. If a German happened to catch sight of a child at an upstairs window or in the garden, as like as not he‘d take him for a member of the family. But it was common knowledge that the Jorgensens were childless.

In the circumstances, Nils decided that audacity was their best hope – and the child‘s, of course. He began to collaborate – or, at least, to appear to do so. The Germans visited him frequently. I suppose he thought if they could come and go freely in his home they were hardly likely to suspect him of harbouring a Jew. And if they did catch him there was always the outside chance that his relationship with the occupying forces might just help him to pull a few strings and save the child.

I shall never understand how he got away with it for so long. Especially as any observant German might well have suspected something from the faces of the Jorgensens. I never saw the boy myself, but if ever a child brought contentment to a household that child did.

And in the end you might say that it was love – the indulgence of love – that was their undoing. They‘d given young Jonni a musical box which he adored – the way a child will sometimes take to one toy above all others. It was the musical box, sounding in an otherwise secure hiding-place, that betrayed him. The Germans found the boy and took him away. The Jorgensens never saw him or heard of him again.

That night they came for the Jorgensens, too. It was the Liberation just a few days later that saved them. I don‘t believe either of them counted it much of a blessing.

Jorgensen‘s wife died a few years ago, and since then old Nils hasn‘t had much interest in anything. The business has gone steadily downhill. And if there‘s an end to the story I expect it‘s what happened today.‘

Then I told Erik all about the day‘s events. The Jewish stranger in the coat with the astrakhan collar. The musical box. And I gave him instructions about tracing the box.

But in the event our search was unnecessary. The next morning, with old Jorgensen sitting opposite me in my office, Erik fairly burst in.

‘Knud, it’s him ! Outside !‘

‘What are you talking about, Erik ?‘

‘The Jew ! The stranger ! At least, I think it‘s him ! Here‘s his card !‘

I took it from him. A very plain, very elegant die-stamped card. ‘David Tannenbaum. Import/Export Agent‘.

‘Show him in !‘ I said.

As he came over the threshold he stopped at the sight of Nils, and hesitated. I hurried forward.

‘Come in ! Come in, Heer Tannenbaum ! I don‘t know whether you‘ve met Heer Jorgensen – ‘

Neither spoke a word as they shook hands. Tannenbaum‘s little bow was formal and precise.

‘We were just about to go over the figures for the sale, Heer Tannenbaum ! And as Heer Jorgensen‘s legal representative I should like to say how grateful we are to you !‘

‘Oh, please ! I do not need your gratitude. The antiques I bought at the sale will be a most profitable investment. I have come merely to ask one question. I was really looking for Heer Jorgensen – ‘

Nils started, and seemed about to rise from the chair.

‘You were looking for me ?‘

‘Yes. Will you tell me, please, how you came by this ?‘

And he laid the musical box on the desk before him.

Nils stood up at once, his face a study in bewilderment.

‘The musical box ? I – I don‘t understand ! How I came by this ? Why do you ask ?‘

The stranger leaned forward intently.

‘Please, Heer Jorgensen. It is important ! I must know ! There are many Jorgensens in Denmark. I know – I have seen so many !‘

He sighed, like a man at the extremity of weariness. The face of Nils Jorgensen was touched with compassion.

‘The music box is mine ! I have had it since – since I was a child !‘

I was about to speak when I saw Tannenbaum‘s face, and stopped. In his shining eyes there was a curious mixture of pain and joy. He rushed forward and clasped the hands of Nils.

‘At last ! At last ! I have found you ! You are Papa Jorgensen ! The good Papa Jorgensen who cared for my son – my Jonni !‘

And now the face of Nils Jorgensen, too, was a study in conflicting emotions.

‘You – you are the father of Jonni ? But I – we thought he was dead ! The Germans took him !‘

The stranger‘s eyes closed for a moment.

‘Yes, he is dead, Heer Jorgensen ! But not – not at their hands. I found him in a camp – one of many camps that I searched in Germany. I had him for three years. Then – in Israel — he was struck down. Polio. It was such a – such a little time that I had him ! But I thank God – and you – for the three years. He talked so often of his Papa and Mama Jorgensen ! And of his musical box ! He knew the tune so well. Now I know it too ! And that is how I knew it was you, Papa Jorgensen !‘

I could think of nothing to say. Nor could I look at either of them. I reached down and lifted the lid of the musical box. As we stood around the table looking down at it, the still, musty air of the office was filled with a brittle, tinkling sound. A sound that spoke of love, and peace – and a child‘s brief happiness.