THE VISIONARY OR PICTURES FROM NORDLAND
BY JONAS LIE
TRANSLATED FROM THE NORWEGIAN BY JESSIE MUIR
WITH A PREFACE AND PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR
LONDON. HODDER BROTHERS 1894
* * * * *
Until a few years ago, Norway was an unknown country to most Englishmen. Occasionally a sportsman went there to kill salmon or to shoot reindeer, but the fjords, glaciers, mountains, and waterfalls were quite beyond the reach of any but the most venturesome travellers. Still less was it supposed that Norway possessed a modern school of poets and novelists. Wergeland, Welhaven, Munch, and Moe among the former, Bjoernson, Ibsen, Kjelland, and Lie among the latter, were, as far as Englishmen were concerned, "to fortune and to fame unknown." All this has been changed; sportsmen now complain that it becomes more difficult every year to hire rivers. Tourists swarm over the country from the Naze to the North Cape. Ibsen's dramas are played in London theatres, and his novels, and those of Bjoernson and Lie, are read in Germany and in France, as well as in England and America.
These three writers are of nearly the same age. Ibsen was born in 1828, at Skien on the south-eastern coast of Norway; Bjoernson in the Dovrefjeld in 1832; and Lie at Eker, near Drammen, in 1833. Five years after his son's birth, Lie's father was appointed sheriff of Tromsoe, which lies within the Arctic Circle, and young Jonas Lauritz Edemil Lie, to give him his full name, spent six of the most impressionable years of his life at that remote port. There he heard from the sailors many strange tales of romantic adventure and of hazardous escape from shipwreck, with the not uncommon result that he wished to be a sailor himself. He was, therefore, sent to the naval school at Fredriksvaern; but his defective eyesight proved fatal to the realisation of his wish and the idea of a seafaring life had to be given up. He was removed from Fredriksvaern to the Latin School at Bergen, and in 1851 entered the University of Christiania, where he made the acquaintance of Ibsen and Bjoernson. He graduated in law in 1857, and shortly afterwards began to practise at Konsvinger, a little town in Hamar's Stift between Lake Miosen and the frontier of Sweden. Clients were not numerous or profitable at Konsvinger; Lie found time to write for the newspapers and became a frequent contributor to some of the Christiania journals. Meantime, Ibsen and Bjoernson were becoming famous in Norway, and in 1865 Lie, perhaps in a spirit of emulation, decided to abandon law for literature. His first venture was a volume of poems which appeared in 1866 and was not successful. During the four following years he devoted himself almost exclusively to journalism, working hard and without much reward, but acquiring the pen of a ready writer and obtaining command of a style which has proved serviceable in his subsequent career. In 1870 he published "The Visionary,"—"Den Fremsynte"—of which a translation is now, for the first time, offered to English readers. In the following year he revisited Nordland and travelled into Finmark. Having obtained a small travelling pension from the Government, immediately after his journey to Nordland, he sought the greatest contrast he could find in Europe to the scenes of his childhood and started for Rome. For a time he lived in North Germany, then he migrated to Bavaria, spending his winters in Paris. In 1882 he visited Norway for a time, but returned to the continent of Europe. His voluntary exile from his native land ended in the spring of 1893, when he settled at Holskogen, near Christiansund.
"The Visionary" was followed in 1871 by a volume of short stories "Fortoellinger," and during the next year by a larger and more ambitious book, "The Three-master Future,"—"Tremasteren Fremtiden"—a realistic sketch of life in the northern harbours of Norway. Two years later "The Pilot and his Wife"—"Lodsen og hans Hustru"—appeared, a book in every respect greatly in advance of its predecessors. Though written almost entirely in an Italian village it has been justly described by an able critic as "one of the saltiest stories ever published." It placed Lie on a higher pedestal than he had ever before occupied, and brought him into line with Ibsen and Bjoernson. "The Pilot and his Wife" made its author a popular Norwegian writer, and as it has been translated into several European languages—there are, I believe, two English versions—it was the first step towards the wider reputation Lie now enjoys. His next book was hardly a success. Leaving, happily only for a time, Norwegian folk and Norwegian scenes, he attempted, in 1876, a drama in verse, "Faustina Strozzi," the plot of which is derived from an incident in modern Italian history. He returned to Norwegian subjects in "Thomas Ross" and "Adam Schrader," published in 1878 and 1879, which deal with life and manners in Christiania; but even here he was not quite at home and these two novels are not of his best work. "Rutland" and "Go Ahead!"—"Gaa paa!"—are much better, and these two stories of Norwegian life as exhibited in the merchant navy added greatly to Lie's popularity at home.
"The Slave for Life"—"Livsslaven"—1883, is in a different vein. The plot is strong and the writer shows himself a keen and careful observer of human nature. Without imputing to him any attempt at imitating Ibsen, "The Slave for Life" certainly exhibits that pessimistic view of existence which is at once attractive to many and repulsive to not a few of Ibsen's readers. "The Family of Gilge,"—"Familjen paa Gilge"—is of a somewhat similar character. Ethical objections to these stories are, perhaps, superfluous; it must be admitted that both are popular and have added very considerably to Lie's fame. They were followed by "A Whirlpool"—"En Malstroem"—1886; "A Wedded Life"—"En Samliv"—1887; "The Story of a Dressmaker"—"Maisa Jons"—1888; and by "The Commodore's Daughters"—"Kommandoerens Doettre"—1889, which has enjoyed the good fortune of being translated into English with an introduction by Mr. Edmund Gosse, a most competent Scandinavian scholar. Since 1889 Lie has published "Evil Forces"—"Onde Magter," a volume of poetry, and two collections of shorter stories, "Otte Fortoellinger" and "Trold." He has recently completed another novel, which will shortly appear, and is, it is believed, to be entitled "Niobe." Jonas Lie completed his sixtieth year on the 6th of November last, and this interesting occasion has been celebrated by a festival given in his honour by the students of his old University at Christiania. A special number of Samtiden, a Norwegian magazine, has also been devoted to a series of articles on his life and literary work.
The present volume, as has already been said, is a translation of Lie's first story. His literary style is at times very colloquial, and his sentences are often of great length, running on for ten, fifteen, or even twenty lines without a full stop. The difficulty of rendering such a mass of words into English prose without sacrificing the meaning, and of maintaining the easy familiarity of the conversation has been fairly overcome by the translator. The story is simple as compared with some of Lie's later productions, but it will always be interesting, not only in itself but as the earliest production of Norway's most popular novelist. Ibsen and Bjoernson may be better known in England, in America, and on the Continent of Europe, but Jonas Lie is dearer to the Norwegian heart. He has laid the scene of "The Visionary" in Nordland, the home of his childhood, the last district of Norway to receive the faith of Christendom, and even now the abode of superstitions which have survived centuries of Christian teaching. Except along the coast, and there towns and villages are few and far between, Nordland is very sparsely occupied by men of Norwegian birth. Fins and Laplanders wander over the interior during the brief summer, and have, to some extent, intermarried with the Norwegians on the coast, who are chiefly fishermen and sailors. The seafaring life of the people and the slight intermixture of Fin and Lap blood have not tended to lessen their superstitions, and, doubtless, young Lie heard many a strange tale of sea-goblins and land-spirits as he wandered in his boyhood along the quay and in the streets of Tromsoe. Many of the impressions he then received have contributed to the tragic interest of "The Visionary." For "The Visionary" is a tragedy in which resistless Fate hurries its victims to destruction. The hero, David Holst, is one of those unhappy beings who seem doomed to a more than ordinary share of the ills of life. He has inherited from his mother at least a tendency to insanity, and he lives in fear of being involved in a terrible catastrophe, from which he only saves himself by strong efforts of will and by the recollection of the lost love of his youth. The awful calamity which overtook him at the very moment his betrothal to Susanna was sanctioned by her father proved, in fact, his salvation, and delivered him from madness, but its effects were never eradicated. Like Hamlet he found the times out of joint; but, instead of contending with them, he patiently submitted to Fate and won for himself, if not absolute peace, at least a certain amount of tranquillity. Throughout his life he was subject to visions. In his earliest days the appearance of a lady carrying a white rose marked the near approach of calamity. In later life a vision of his beloved Susanna was sometimes vouchsafed to him, and as he lay on his death-bed she came, after a long interval, as if beckoning him to join her.
The other characters of the story are naturally drawn. David's stern, yet not unkind father; the minister and his wife; the old clerk, and Susanna herself, will soon make themselves known to the reader. The refusal of Susanna to give up David when she learns that his doctor fears he may become insane, and her victory over her father's objections to her engagement, are proofs of Lie's insight into the depth and steadfastness of the love of a good woman. The story of her death, of the bringing home her body in the boat, and of the scene in the death-chamber, are full of pathos, and are told with the simplicity of a great artist.
"The Visionary" is written in the spirit of a true Nordlander, who is ever contrasting life and nature in the south of Norway with life "up there" at home, and with the more varied aspects of nature in Nordland. The vivid description of the great storm are evidently impressions and recollections of actual experience. Before he became an author Lie had often mused
"On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life,"
and the first results of these musings were given to the world in "The Visionary."
* * * * *
II. NORDLAND AND NORDLANDERS
III. CHAP. I.—HOME II.—ON THE SHORE III.—THE SERVANTS' HALL IV.—AMONG THE VAETTE ROCKS V.—CONFIRMATION VI.—AT THE CLERK'S VII.—TRONDENAES VIII.—AT HOME IX.—THE CHRISTMAS VISIT X.—THE STORM XI.—CONCLUSION
* * * * *
* * * * *
I know many people who have felt the same inclination that sometimes comes over me, to choose bad weather to go out in. They are generally men who have passed from a childhood lived in the open air of the country, to an occupation which entails much sitting still, and for whom the room sometimes seems to become too narrow and confined—or else they are poets. Their recollection and imagination live, more or less unknown to themselves, in a continual longing to get away from the confined air of a room, and the barrack-life of a town.
So one day when the country comes into the town in the shape of a downright storm of wind and rain, which shakes the tiles on the roofs, and now and then flings one after you, while the streets become rivers, and every corner an ambush from which the whirlwind makes a sudden attack upon your umbrella, and, after a more or less prolonged and adroit struggle, tears it, and turns it inside out, until at last you stand with only the stick and the ribs left in your hand—at such a time, it now and then happens that a quiet, dignified civil servant, or business man, instead of sitting at home, as usual, in the afternoon in his comfortable room after the day's toil in the office, says to his wife that he "is sorry he must go out into the town for a little while." And what he unfortunately must go out for is, of course, "business." For little would it become a sedate, grave man, perhaps an alderman, and one of the fathers of the town, to acknowledge, even to himself, that he is childish enough to go and wander about in bad weather, that he only wants to walk down to the quay to see the spray dash over the bitts, and to watch the ships in the harbour playing at shipwreck. He must, of course, have something to do there; if nothing else, at any rate to see "ne quid detrimenti capiat respublica"; that is to say, that the town, whose welfare, in one way or another, it is his business to look after, is not blown down.
The fact is, there is a revolution in the streets—not a political revolution, Heaven preserve him from that—but one which has an attraction for him, because it awakens all his old recollections, and in which, much to his disgrace, he contrives surreptitiously to join, although, in its own way, it too defies all police arrangements, breaks windows, puts out street-lamps, tears the tiles from the house-roofs, damages piers and moorings, and chases police and watchmen into their holes. It is Nature's loud war-cry, in the very midst of the civilised town, to all the recollections of his childhood, to his imagination and his love of Nature; and he obeys it like an old trumpeter's horse that hears the signal of his youth, and instantly leaps the fence.
After an hour or two out in the storm, the fire in his veins is subdued, and home he comes once more a quiet, grave man, carefully puts his stick and goloshes in their accustomed places in the hall, and is pitied by his wife, who has been anxious about him, and is now helping him off with his wet things. Strange to say, he himself, in spite of adverse circumstances, is in capital spirits that evening, and has such a number of things to tell about this storm—every thing of course, as becomes the occasion, in the form of anxiety lest damage should be done, or fire break out in the town.
It was in such weather that I—a practising doctor, and having, as such, good reason, both on my own account and on that of others, for being out at all times of the day or night—one rainy, misty, stormy October afternoon, roamed the streets of Kristiania, finding pleasure in letting the rain dash in my face, while my mackintosh protected the rest of my person.
Darkness had gradually fallen, and the lighted gas-lamps flared in the gusty wind, making me think of the revolving lights on a foggy night out on the coast. Now and again an unfastened door swung open and shut again, with a bang like a minute gun. My inward comment on these occasions was that, even in our nervous times, there must still be an astonishing number of people without nerves; for such bangs thunder through the whole house right up to the garret, as a gust fills the passage, and doors fly open and shut, shut and open; everybody feels the discomfort, but no one will take the trouble to go down and fasten the origin of the evil; the porter is out in the town, and as long as he is away the inmates must put up with an absence of all domestic comfort.
It was just such an unfastened, unweariedly banging door that led to what I have to relate.
As I passed it, I heard a voice, which seemed familiar to me, an old beloved voice—though at first I could not recall where I had heard it—calling impatiently to the porter. It was on the subject of the banging door. The man was evidently the only nervous individual in that house; at any rate, the porter was not, for he appeared to be quite wanting in feeling both for his door and for the man who had interested himself in it, and was now fumbling in vain with a latch-key, which did not appear to fit.
At last the porter came out of his subterranean hole, and it was during a little altercation between the now placable and gentle voice, sorry for its previous irritability, and the growling porter, that with all the power of an awakened recollection I recognised my old friend of student-days, David Holst, with whom I had lived three of the richest years of my youth.
"If that is you, David, you must let me in before you lock the door!" I cried, just as I should have done in the good old days, twenty years before.
The door opened wide, and a warm shake of the hand from the dark advancing form, told me that he had not needed to search so long through the chambers of his memory as I, but had recognised me at once.
"Follow me!" were his only words, and then we mounted silently, he in front and I behind, up the dark stairs, one, two, three floors and one considerably narrower flight above. There he took my hand to guide me—a very necessary proceeding, for, as far as I could make out, the way led across a dark loft, hung with clothes-lines. He told me, too, to bend my head.
As I mounted I drew my own conclusions. His hand—I remembered that in old days he used to be rather proud of it—was damp, perhaps with mental agitation, and he sometimes stopped as if to take breath. The narrow garret-stairs whispered to me too, that my friend David, who in his time had given promise of good abilities, could not have made great use of them for his own worldly advancement.
He opened a door and bade me go in first.
Upon a table stood a lamp, whose shade concentrated the light round its foot, in a circle of scarcely more than half a yard's radius, upon an inkstand and papers which lay there, leaving the ends of the table in apparent darkness. Behind the table was what looked like a black grave, which, however, when the eye became accustomed to the abrupt transition from light to shadow, revealed itself as a sofa, before which stood an almost correspondingly long, painted, wooden table with square ends.
When two old friends meet in such a way, there is often, under their frank manner, a secret shyness to overcome; for there is a layer of the different experiences of many years that has to be cleared away.
After a short pause, my friend, as if with a sudden resolve, went quickly up to the table and took the shade off the lamp, so that the whole room became light.
"You see," said he, "things are just the same with me as in the old days, only that there are now two garret windows instead of one, a few more shelves with books, and a rather better monthly salary, which I get by combining a teachership in one of the lower-class schools here, with an easy post on a daily paper. It is all I need, you see. I moved here from Bergen this spring, and ought properly to have paid you a call, but have not yet managed it; when I have seen you in the street, you have always looked as if you were too much taken up with your practice. But now that I have you in my den, we will have a chat about old times, and what you are doing. Take off your coat, while I go down and see about getting some toddy made." Whereupon he replaced the lamp shade, and disappeared through the doorway.
My friend's somewhat forced introductory speech did not seem natural to me; it was as though, in his ready confidence, he were regulated rather by my circumstances than by his own, and the whole thing gave me the impression that at the outset he would parry all unnecessary questions.
As yet I, at least, had not said a word; indeed, I had not seen more of my friend than a brief glimpse of his face, as he turned towards the lamp and replaced the shade. Still I recognised, in spite of the difference in age, the same thin, delicate, pale face, which, in the old days, would sometimes assume such a beautiful, melancholy expression—it was with that he was always photographed in my memory—but the features had now acquired a striking sharpness, and in the quick glance I caught there was an expression, both suffering and searching, which made me indescribably sad. I have seen sick people look at me in the same way, when they were afraid they were to be operated upon; and I thought I now understood at any rate this much, that what wanted operating on here was my friend's confidence, and this would require all my dexterity.
I was once the most confiding fellow under the sun; but since I became a doctor and saw what people really are, I have become thoroughly suspicious; for there is nothing in the whole world you may not have to presuppose, even with the best of mortals, if you do not want to be misled as to the cause of their disease. I suspect everybody and everything, even, as the reader has seen above, those sedate men who go out in stormy weather. An Indian does not steal more unperceived and noiselessly through a primeval forest than I, when necessary, into my patient's confidence; and my friend David had all at once become my patient. He would scarcely succeed in deceiving me any longer with his talk about "old days" and a glass of punch in his "unchanged student's den."
My first strategem was now hastily to continue the inspection of the room, which my friend had somewhat cursorily allowed me to begin. I took the lamp and began to look about me.
Under the sloping ceiling, against the wall opposite the sofa, was the bed, with a little round table beside it. On some bookshelves, which stood on the floor against the wall in the corner at the foot of the bed, I recognised Henrik Wergeland's bust, even more defective about the chin and nose than in my time, and now, in addition, blind in one eye; he had fared almost as badly as the old pipe I used to smoke, which I recognised again, in spite of its being cut and hacked in every direction. For my friend had a habit of cutting marks in it while he sat smoking, now and then throwing a word into the conversation to keep it going, just as one throws fuel on a fire—it was the spirit of the conversation, and that something should be said, rather than the thought itself, he cared about. When sitting thus, his face often wore a melancholy, peaceful expression, as if he were smiling at something beautiful we others did not see.
Between the bed and the shelves I discovered some bottles, ordinary spirit bottles, and the suspicion flashed like lightning through my mind—I have, as I said, become suspicion personified, not naturally, but through disappointment—that my friend was perhaps given to drink.
I put the lamp down upon the floor. In one bottle was ink, in the second paraffin, and in the third, a smaller one, cod-liver oil, which he probably took for his chest.
I remembered his clammy hand, his stopping, and heavy breathing on the stairs, and I felt thoroughly ashamed that I could have been such a wretch as to think the dear friend, I might also say ideal, of my youth, was no better than any scamp in vulgar life, who positively ought to be suspected.
I offered him, in silence, a penitent apology, while I read over the titles on the backs of the books, recognising one and another. These shelves seemed to be the bookshelves of his student days. I drew out a thick volume, old "Saxo Grammaticus," which I remembered to have bought at an auction, and presented to him; but now I found something quite different to think about.
It happened with me as with a man who draws out a brick and suddenly finds a secret passage—I all at once felt myself at the entrance to my friend's secret, though, as yet, only before a deep, dark room through which my imagination might wander, but which I could not really see, unless my friend himself held the light for me.
What thus attracted my attention and rivetted my thought and recollection to the spot, was no hole, but the head of a violin, with a dusty neck, and a tangle of strings about the screws which was stuck up at the back of the shelf. The fourth string hung loosely down; the over-stretched, broken first had curled up, and under the two whole strings the bridge lay flat, as I ascertained by taking several books out of the row and feeling for it. I examined the violin, which I could easily remove, as carefully as if I had found a friend ill and starving; there was an unmended crack in the body. Enchained by old memories, I could not help falling into a very sad frame of mind.
I put the books on the shelves again, replaced the lamp on the table, and sat myself on the sofa, where puffing away at the pipe (I found on it among others my own initials, cut by myself) I gave myself up to reflections, which I will here impart to the reader even at the risk of his thinking my friend is rather a long time getting the punch. Through these reflections he will stand before the reader, as he did before my mind's eye in the light of youthful recollections, and as the reader must know him, if he will understand him.
Our acquaintance as students arose naturally from the fact that we were both from Nordland. He was three or four years older than I, and his being the trusted though anonymous theatrical reviewer on the H—— paper, was enough of itself to give him, in my eyes, an official superiority, before which I bowed.
But what worked still more strongly upon my youthful imagination was his manner. There was something unusually noble about his slender figure and his delicate, oval-shaped, earnest face, with the high forehead and the heavy masses of dark, curly hair on the temples. His strongly-marked eyebrows and a decided Roman nose drew one's attention away from his eyes, which were light blue, and more in keeping with his pale and beardless face than with his more energetic features. But yet it was his eyes that gave one the first impression of him. I learned later to read his features differently, and to see that in them was reflected the meeting of the currents of that twofold nature by which his life was gradually crushed out.
A sweet smile when he talked and a reserved manner gave him a distinguished air, which at any rate impressed me greatly. He was the only student I knew who did not wear a student's cap; he used to wear a flat blue sailor's cap with a short peak, which suited him very well. When he became eager, as might happen in a dispute—for he was a great logician, though it was only his intellect that took part in a discussion, and never, as far as I could see, his heart or his deeper feelings—his voice would give way; it became overstrained and harsh, as if from a weak chest. Such encounters always told upon him, and left him in irritable restlessness for some time after.
One of his peculiarities was that he sometimes went on walking tours of several days out in the country, both in summer and winter. Companionship he would never hear of. Had he wished for it, he would have asked me I knew, and therefore I never thought of forcing myself upon him.
On these occasions he would set off without a knapsack; I noticed this once when I happened to be roaming in the fields two or three miles [A Norwegian mile is about seven English miles.] from a town, where I had gone on a visit. When he came home again, he would be in capital spirits, but before setting out he was always so silent and melancholy that I had to sustain nearly the whole burden of the conversation. He used to have periods of low spirits.
One indication of these moods was his manner in playing on the violin I had now found with broken strings, at the back of his bookshelf. As it lay there, it recalled the incidents of twenty years ago.
This violin he once held in high esteem; it had the place of honour on his wall, with the bow beside it. It had been left him by a friend, an old clerk, [Norw. "klokker," almost answering to the Scotch precentor, but a klokker, in addition to leading the singing in church, has to read the opening prayer and to assist the priest in putting on his vestments.] at his home up in the north, who had taught him to play, and had evidently been one of those musical geniuses who are never fully appreciated in this world.
David loved to give play to his fancy, not only upon this violin—he had a good ear, and had learnt not a little—but also about it: where it really came from, and how old it might be? He would exceedingly have liked an indistinct mark inside to mean that it was "possibly a Cremona"; it was one of his weak points, and this room for conjecture was evidently, in his eyes, one of the excellences of the violin.
David had a small collection of what he called classical music, long compositions which he played from the notes. They were not much to my fancy, and always struck me as being of a piece with what was strange in his manner when he posed as a logician. When he played them it was more like severe, mental, school exercise than anything his heart was in; and he played as correctly as he argued or wrote.
The times when classical music and critical conversations ruled in his room, were certainly those in which he felt his mind most in balance. He was less hearty in manner then, even towards me.
But then would come times when the music-stand would remain in the corner. He would sit for a long time looking straight before him, as if lost in thought, and then give expression to his feeling, on his violin, in all kinds of fantasies, which pleased my uncultivated ear far more than his so-called classical music.
He sometimes played a variety of small pieces, and then gradually sank into his own peculiar minor strain, and sometimes into a wonderfully sad melody. I very seldom heard him play anything right through, and then always in a kind of self-forgetfulness. At such times, I had a feeling that he was confiding to me something beautiful that he had lost, and over which he could never cease to mourn.
At a later period of our friendship he became, as I have said, more irregular in his habits, and was seldom to be found at home; he would sometimes talk ironically about his comrades, the professors and things in general, and his sarcasm was almost biting.
I was privileged to take my friend's key, and go into his room, even when he was not at home. If his violin hung uncared for, I knew that something was wrong, and that his own condition answered to that of his instrument. The first thing he did, when all was right again, was carefully to put it in order.
But never during those times had I seen his treasure so badly treated and neglected as when twenty years later, I found it again, dusty and cracked at the back of the bookshelf. The reader will now be able to understand how sorrowful were the reflections it aroused, and how it led me to suspect the story of a joyless life; and I trust he will forgive me for having taken him so far from David Holst's room—where I sat and waited for my friend to come with the punch—into the land of my youthful recollections. For three years we had been together almost daily. After that David had to go out as tutor, and our ways parted, as they so often do in this life.
And this evening we had met again.
There was a jingling in the passage, and immediately after David Holst carefully opened the door for a servant-girl, who brought in a steaming jug of hot water and other requisites for punch, which were most welcome to a man who had been out several hours in the wind and rain, as I had that very afternoon.
David found me installed on the sofa with his pipe in my mouth and his slippers on my feet, just as he would have done in the old days, and this I reckoned as one of my cunning artifices; for with these passes, his pipe and slippers, I reinstated myself, without more ado, on the old friendly footing. I felt like a general who is fortunate enough to open the campaign by occupying a whole province.
In default of his accustomed place on the sofa, David drew a chair up to the table and sat down opposite to me, with the punch tray between us.
We were now once more on the banks of the same river of delight, in which we had so often bathed and tumbled in our youth; but now we both approached it more carefully.
In the course of conversation, he often leaned over towards me, as if listening, and in this way his head came within the region of the lamp's bright light. I then noticed that his hair was much thinner, and sprinkled rather plentifully with grey, and that the perspiration stood in beads on his no longer unwrinkled brow. His pallid, sharp-featured face, and a strange brilliancy in his eyes, told me that either his physical or his mental being hid an underground fire, perhaps no longer quenchable. Thinking from his repeated fits of coughing, that his bending over towards me arose quite as much from the fact that he was tired and was trying to rest against the edge of the table, as from his interest in the conversation, I determined to enter at once upon the question of the state of his health, and thus put myself in possession of yet another important outwork of his confidence.
I rose suddenly, determined and serious, and said that, as an experienced doctor, I unfortunately saw that he was ill in no such slight degree as he perhaps thought, and that, as he was evidently weak and languid—as the drops of perspiration on his forehead showed—he must, at any rate, at once seat himself on the comfortable sofa I had hitherto occupied.
He acknowledged that going twice downstairs had been rather too much for him—the first time he had only gone down to put an end to the uncomfortable draught through the house—and willingly took his place on the sofa at my desire.
It was his chest, he said. By the help of the stethoscope, I found that this was only too true. His chest, indeed, was in such a condition that it was only a question of gaining time, not of saving life; for one lung was entirely gone, and the other seriously affected.
During the remainder of the evening, both he and I felt ourselves re-established on the old footing, my authority as doctor now giving me a slight superiority.
At nine o'clock, I declared that he must go to bed, and I told him that the next morning I intended to come again, and prescribe what was needful. I heard he was not to be at school before eleven: until that hour he promised me not to go out.
When I came home, I found my wife in great anxiety about me. She could not conceive how a sensible man, and a doctor into the bargain, who gave others such good advice, could be out more than was necessary in such dreadful weather; and I had been out in it the whole time since dinner.
There was nothing to be said to this, and I only considered, while she talked, how I could best win her over to the cause which I now had at heart. My wife had not the slightest acquaintance with my dying friend, and, if I knew her aright, might even feel hurt when I told her that he had, in a way, possessed my affection before I knew her.
Things turned out as I foresaw; for it was only after a rather doubtful pause that she came up to me, and said that my best friend should of course be dear to her.
And from that moment no one could have been more helpful than she. Whatever she undertakes, she always does thoroughly, and she settled that very evening how the matter should be arranged.
At ten the next morning I was up in my friend's room with my wife, and I introduced her to him, saying that she wished to be regarded as an old friend like myself. I told him, as consolingly as I could—but when I said it, my wife looked away—that his illness absolutely required that he should put himself under treatment for six months, until the warm weather came and completed his cure, and that I hoped he would consent to let me arrange matters at the school for him.
He was evidently both surprised and touched. Life had not offered him friendship, he said; he was so little used to accept it, even when it came to him as true and good as this was. After a little parleying, he surrendered at discretion to my wife, who never liked being defeated.
He would not, however, move to our house, as I suggested, for he had a fondness for this room, and, as he frankly said, he would not feel happy if obligations of a pecuniary nature were introduced into the matter.
From this time I visited him as a rule every morning, and generally had a little chat about different things in the town which I thought might interest, or at any rate divert him.
My wife treated him in her own way. Contrary to what I had been a little afraid of, she carried out no radical revolution in his housekeeping arrangements. That the servant-girl had her reasons for coming up to him so often, and that every day she waited in fear and trembling my wife's quiet inspection whether the room were properly dusted and in order, he could have no suspicion.
The only thing that my wife openly effected, was the sending of all kinds of strengthening food. One of the children often went with the maid who took these, and it sometimes amused and entertained him, to keep the child with him for a while.
This new and unaccustomed state of affairs seemed at first to divert him; but in the course of a month he began to be depressed again. Our visits evidently troubled him, and, for this reason, were discontinued for a time. He spent almost the whole day on the sofa at the dark end of the room.
One evening the girl said she had heard a sound as of crying and sobbing in his room, so she did not go in, but remained standing outside. A little while after it seemed to her as if he were praying earnestly, but she did not understand the words. The next evening she heard him playing a soft melody, as if on a violin which did not give a clear sound.
The following morning when I came to him his mood was entirely changed, and to my surprise I saw that his violin, dusted and with strings in order, but still cracked, hung on the wall with the bow beside it. On the table, by the bed, I noticed too an old Bible that I had never before seen, probably because this treasure had always been kept in his drawer as a sacred thing.
He looked more languid and worn out than usual; but his face wore a beatified expression, as of a man who had wrestled with his fate, and had won rest and resignation.
If possible, he said, he would like to speak to my wife that same morning; but he would rather talk with me at once, and so I must sit down for a little while.
With a smile—that same quiet, sweet, mysterious smile of his that I knew so well, but which now seemed no longer to shun observation—he turned to me saying, as he laid his hand on my shoulder and looked into my face:
"My dear, kind Frederick! I know for certain, though I cannot tell you why, that I shall not live to see the spring again. What is wanting neither you nor any one else can give me, only God; but of all men you have been the kindest to me, and your friendship has reached farther than you would ever imagine. You have a right to know him who has been your friend. When I am gone—and that will undoubtedly be this winter, perhaps sooner than you, judging from my condition, think—you will find some memoranda in my drawer; they are the history of my early youth, but uneventful as that was, it has had its effect upon my whole life. It will tell you that the world has been sad, very sad for me, and that I am as glad as an escaped bird to leave it."
"There was a time," he added after some hesitation, "when I wished to be buried in a churchyard up in Nordland; but now I think that the place does not make any difference, and that one can rest just as peacefully down here."
Saying which, he pressed my hand, and asked me to go for my wife.
When she came, she was surprised to see him brighter and in better spirits than she had ever thought he could be. He wanted, he said, to ask a favour of her. It was a whim of his; but, if he should be called away, she must promise him to plant a wild rose upon his grave next spring.
My wife understood how sad the request was when I told her what had already passed; for David had looked so confident and bright when he was talking to her, that the sorrowful element was absent.
My friend's prophecy about himself proved to be only too true. Though his mood grew constantly brighter, so that he sometimes even had a gleam of the joy of living, his illness went in the opposite direction, always toward the worst.
One day I found him lying and watching from his bed—where he now spent nearly the whole day—my little Anton, who had "made a steamboat" out of his old violin-case—of which the lid was gone—and was travelling with it on the floor, touching at foreign ports. When I came up to the bed, David told me, smiling, that he had been at home in Nordland playing on the beach again.
My wife had, meantime, become more and more his sick-nurse. She was with him two or three times a day, and sat at his bedside. He often held her hand, or asked her to read him something out of his old Bible. The portions he chose were generally those in which the Old Testament speaks of love and lovers. He dwelt especially on the story of Jacob and Rachel.
My wife, who had now become very fond of him, confided to me one day that she was sure she knew what my friend was suffering from; it was certainly nothing but unrequited love.
She had never thought any one could look so touchingly beautiful as he did, when death was near. When he lay still and smiled, it was as though he were thinking of a tryst he should go to, as soon as he had done with us here on earth.
One evening he asked my wife to sit with him. At nine o'clock a message came for me; but when I got there, he was gone.
He had asked my wife to read to him, for the first time, a part of Solomon's Song, where she found an old mark in his Bible. It was the second chapter, in which both the bride and the bridegroom speak, and which begins: "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley"; and ends: "Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether."
He had asked her to read it a second time, but during the reading he had quietly fallen asleep.
And there he lay, beautiful in death, with a peaceful smile, as though he were greeting just such a grove, on the other side of the mountains of Bether.
Next summer there stood a wooden cross, and a blooming, wild briar-rose, on a grave in one of the churchyards of the town. There rests my friend David Holst.
* * * * *
As a beginning of the story of my friend's life, I found, laid aside, a section, part of which seems to have been added at a riper age. It shows with what strong ties nature had bound him to his home, and with what affection he clung to it.
* * * * *
NORDLAND AND NORDLANDERS
* * * * *
NORDLAND AND NORDLANDERS
In so far as a man like myself, who lives in such a sad reality, dare talk of illusions—how great, and what a number of illusions I have had shattered, during the two or three years since I left my home in Nordland, and became a student; how grey and colourless is the world down here, how small and mean, compared with what I had imagined it as regards both men and conditions of life!
This afternoon, I was out fishing in the fjord with some friends; of course they all enjoyed themselves—and I pretended that I did. No, I did not enjoy myself! We sat in a flat-bottomed, broad, ugly boat, that they called a "pram," a contrivance resembling a washtub, and fished the whole afternoon in muddy water a few feet deep, with a fine line, catching altogether seven whiting—and then rowed quite satisfied to land! I felt nearly sick; for the whole of life down here seems to me like this pram, without a keel, by which to shape a course, without a sail, which one cannot even fancy could be properly set in such a boat, without rough weather, which it could not stand, and like this muddy, grey, waveless sea outside the town, with only a few small whiting in it. Life here has nothing else to offer than such small whiting.
While the others talked, I sat and thought of a fishing expedition when she was with me, out among the Vaette Rocks at home, in our little six-oared boat—what a different kind of day, what a different kind of boat, what a different experience! Yes, how unromantic, poor and grey, life is down here among the rich, loamy, corn-producing hills, or on the fjord of the capital, sooty with steamboat smoke, or even in the town itself, compared with that at home! But if I uttered this aloud, how these superior people would open their eyes!
They talk here of fishing, and are pleased with a few poor cod and whiting. A Nordlander understands by fishing a haul of a thousand fish; he thinks of the millions of Lofoten and Finmark, and of an overwhelming variety of species, of whales, spouting through the sounds, and driving great shoals of fish before them, as well as of the very smallest creatures of the deep. The only fish that I know down here worth noticing—and I always look at them whenever I come across them—are the gold and silver fish, that you keep in a glass-bowl, just as you keep a canary in a cage: but then they are from another fairyland in the south.
When a Nordlander speaks of birds he does not mean as they do here, only a head or two of game, but an aerial throng of winged creatures, rippling through the sky, flying round the rocks, like white foam, or descending like a snowstorm on their nesting-places; he thinks of eider-duck, guillemot, diver and oyster-catcher swimming in fjord and sound, or sitting upon the rocks; of gulls, ospreys and eagles, hunting in the air; of the eagle-owl, hooting weirdly at night in the mountain-clefts—in short, he means a whole world of birds, and has a little difficulty in confining his ideas to the poor capercailzie, surprised and killed by a sportsman in the midst of a love-frolic, when the sun is rising over the pine-clad hills.
Instead of the fruit-gardens here, he has the miles of cloudberry moors at home. Instead of a poor, uniform shore with nothing but mussels, he remembers a grand beach strewn with myriads of marvellously tinted shells.
All natural conditions are intensified in Nordland, and are far more powerfully contrasted than in the south of Norway. Nordland is a boundless stone-grey waste, as it was in primaeval times before man began to build, but in the midst of this there are also countless natural treasures; it has a sun and a summer glory, whose day is not twelve hours only, but an uninterrupted period of three months, during which, in many places, one must wear a mask as protection against the swarms of mosquitoes; but, on the other hand, the night is a time of darkness and horror, lasting nine months. Everything there is on a gigantic scale without the gradual transitions between extremes, upon which the quiet life here in the south is built; in other words, there are more occasions for fancy, adventure and chance, than for calm reasoning, and quiet activity with certain results.
A Nordlander, therefore, down here, is at first apt to feel like Gulliver, who has come to Lilliput, and, on the whole, does not get on well among the inhabitants, until he has screwed down his old customary ideas to the simple proportions of their insignificant life; in short, until he has taught himself to use his intellect, instead of his fancy.
The Lap on snow-shoes with his reindeer, the Fin, the Russian, not to mention the constantly moving Nordlander himself, who, though slow on land, is quick in his boat—are all undeniably far more interesting people than the dull southern rustic, whose imagination reaches scarcely farther than his own field, or to wondering whereabouts in the pasture he must go to fetch his horse.
When Southerners talk about storms and waves, they mean a little bit of a storm and rough sea in the Kristiania Fjord, which can even do a little damage in the harbour; and they consider it deeply affecting when a clumsy boatman is drowned. A storm suggests something very different to my mind: a sudden down-rushing wind from the mountains, which carries away houses—for which reason they are secured with ropes at home; waves from the Arctic Sea, which bury high rocks and islands in foam, and roll ground-seas of innumerable fathoms' depth, so that vessels are suddenly dashed to pieces in the middle of the ocean; crowds of brave men sailing for their very lives before the wind, and not for their lives only, but also to save the dearly-won cargo for the sake of those at home, and, even in deadly peril, trying to lend a hand to a capsized comrade; I think of the shipwreck of countless boats and vessels on a winter evening, in the hollows of the foaming waves. It would, for once, be worth while to see such waves (usually three in succession, and the last the worst) advancing with their crests higher than the custom-house roof, and bearing on their shoulders a yacht, which has to be run ashore, rushing into Kristiania's peaceful little harbour, carrying ships up with them into the town, and followed by correspondingly fierce bursts of wind, lifting off the very roofs. If they came, I know well it would be me they wanted, me the poor visionary, hidden away in the civilisation of the town, who, they consider, belongs to them; and I think a moment after the terror I should greet them as friends from home, although they came bearing death and destruction on their wings. They would, for once, show to all this civilised littleness the terrible grandeur and greatness of the mighty ocean, and flavour the insipidity of the town with a little sea-salt terror. I should like to see a whale squeezed in between Prince's Street and Custom-house Street, glaring at a family on the upper floor, or the fine, gold-laced policemen trying to bring into court a stranded sea-goblin. I should like, too, to see the town's theatrical reviewers, who are accustomed to see "Haupt und Statsaction" in vaudevilles twice a week, stand with their eye-glasses to their eyes, before such a play, which, without more ado, would swamp all their critical ideas and inkstands, and show them death and horror in real downright earnest.
How such a reviewer would grow in ability to understand what is imposing and powerful in a poetical composition, and in the desires it awakens, if he only once in his life had seen the "Horseman," [A remarkable mountain in Nordland.] on a stormy day, with its height of 1700 feet, riding southwards out in the surf, while his cloak fluttered from his shoulder towards the north, and, besides the giant himself in his might, had seen, in prefect illusion, the horse's head, his ear, his neck, his snaffle and his majestic chest.
It is up in the north that northern popular imagination, from the time of the myths, has laid the home of a whole army of wickedness; there the Fin folk have practised their magic arts, and woven their spells; and there by the dark, wintry-grey breakers of the Arctic Sea, live yet the ancient gods of evil, driven out to earth's farthest limits, those demoniacal, terrible, half-formless powers of darkness, with whom the Aases fought, but St. Olaf, with his victorious, dazzling, cross-hilt sword, "turned to stock and stone."
That which can so easily be put aside as superstition, when one is sitting safely in the middle of civilisation—and yet still lives as a natural power in the people—is represented, on the whole, in pigmy proportions in the south. Here they have a little terror of small hobgoblins, good-natured fairies, a love-sick river-sprite, and so forth, beings who with us in the north, almost go about our houses like superstition's tame domestic animals. You have there, too, good-natured elves, who carry on their peaceful boating and coasting trade invisibly among the people. But then, in addition, natural terror creates a whole host of wicked demons, who draw people with an irresistible power, the ghosts of drowned men, who have not had Christian burial, mountain ogres, the sea-sprite, who rows in a half boat, and shrieks horribly on the fjords on winter nights. Many who really were in danger have let their chance of safety go for fear of him, and the visionaries can actually see him.
But if Nature's great power, brooding with crushing weight over life on this wintry, surf-beat, iron-bound coast, which lies in twilight for nine months, and for three of these altogether loses the sun, creates a terror of darkness in the mind, yet the north also possesses in the same extreme the exactly opposite character, a warm, sunny, summer nature, clear-aired, heavily scented, rich with the changing beauty of countless colours; in which objects at ten or twelve miles' distance across the sea-mirror, seem to approach within speaking-distance; in which the mountains clothe themselves with brownish green grass to the very top—in Lofoten to a height of 2000 feet—in which the small birch woods wreathe themselves up on the slopes and ravines, like white, sixteen-year-old maidens at play; in which too the air is laden, as in no other place, with the scent of the growing strawberries and raspberries there, and when the day is so hot, that you are compelled to walk in shirt-sleeves, and you are longing to bathe in the rippling sea, always saturated with sunshine, and perfectly clear to the very bottom.
The powerful aroma and bright colour of things growing there, have been attributed by the learned to the strong light that fills the atmosphere, when the sun is above the horizon uninterruptedly the whole twenty-four hours. And in no other place can such deliciously flavoured strawberries or raspberries, nor such fragrant birch-boughs, be gathered as in Nordland.
If there is a home for a wonderfully beautiful idyl, it must be in the fjord-valleys of Nordland in the summer-time. It is as though the sun kisses Nature all the more lovingly, because he knows how short a time they have to be together, and as if they both, for the time, try to forget that they must part so soon. Then the hill grows green as if by a sudden miracle, and the bluebell, the dandelion, the buttercup, the dog-daisy, the wild rose, the raspberry and the strawberry spring up in lavish abundance, by every brook, on every hillock, on every mountain-slope; then hundreds of insects hum in the grass as in a tropical land; then cows, horses, and sheep are driven up the hills and the mountain-sides, while the Fin from the highlands comes down into the valley with his reindeer and waters them in the river; then the cloudberry moors lie reddening for many a mile inland; then there is quiet, sunny peace in every cottage, where the fisherman is now sitting at home with his family, putting his tackle in order for the winter fishing; for in Nordland the summer is more beautiful than in any other place, and there is an idyllic gladness and peace over Nature, which is to be found nowhere else.
The Nordlander, too, has a touch of Nature's caressing softness in his character; when he can manage it, he is fond of living and dressing well, and lodging comfortably; with regard to delicacies, he is a thorough epicure. Cod's tongue, young ptarmigan, reindeer-marrow, salted haddock, trout, salmon and all kinds of the best salt-water fish, appropriately served with liver and roe, nourishing reindeer-meat and a variety of game are, like the fresh-flavoured cloudberries, only every-day dishes to him. And the Fin as well as the Nordland plebeian is also childishly fond of all sweet things, and his "syrup and porridge" are widely known.
Brought up in the midst of a nature so rich in contrasts and possibilities, and amidst scenes of the utmost variety, from the wildest grandeur to the tenderest beauty, charm and fascination, the Nordlander is, as a rule, clever and bright, often indeed brilliant and imaginative. Impressionable as he is, he yields easily to the impulse of the moment. If there is sunshine in your face, there is sure to be sunshine in his. But you must not be mistaken in him, and take his good-nature for perfect simplicity—as is often done here in the south. Deep in his soul there lurks a silent suspicion, unknown even to himself, he is always like a watchful sea-fowl that dives at the flash of the gun, and before the bullet has had time to strike the spot where it just now lay on the water. He has been used from childhood to think of the unexpected, the possibility of all possible things in Nature, as a sword hanging over every peaceful, quiet hour, and he generally carries this instinct with him in his intercourse with his fellow-creatures. While you are talking to him, he may dive into his mind like the sea-fowl, but you do not suspect it, and are not therefore disconcerted. This introspection may occur while he has tears in his eyes, and in moments when he is most deeply affected—it is his nature, and he will always retain a dash of it, even when he has moved, with all his belongings, from natural into civilised surroundings. He eludes you, steals, with his imagination and his watchful suspicion, in, among, and around your thoughts; indeed, if he is a really talented Nordlander—I am too dull and disinterested to be able to do it—I believe that, without your suspecting it, he can go, with his hands in his pockets, right through your mind, in at your forehead, and out at the back of your head. He would be invaluable as a detective or a diplomatist, if only he had more strength of character, and succumbed with less childish weakness to the influence of the moment; but these are unfortunately his weak points. I am speaking now of the strong trait in the national character as it shows itself in the more conspicuous natures, and would not be misunderstood to mean that men of character are not to be found in Nordland too—many a time, perhaps oftener than elsewhere, they are hardened into something grand.
In a native Nordland family there will generally be found—such, at least, is my belief—some drops of Fin blood. It has been remarked elsewhere that in the Sagas, when the greatest peasant races in Halgoland were spoken of as descended from half-trolls, or mountain-ogres, this only meant Finnish descent. Our royal families were of Finnish extraction, and Fin was a good-sounding name borne by the greatest men in the land—for instance, Fin Arnesen. [One of Olaf the Holy's most trusted men.] Harald Haarfager and Erik Blodoexe both married Fin maidens. The mystic sense-affecting influence which has been ascribed to them, was only the erotic expression of the great national connection between the two differently derived elements; the fair-haired, blue-eyed, larger-minded and quieter Norwegian, and the dark, brown-eyed Fin, quick of thought, rich in fancy, filled with the mysticism of nature, but down-trodden and weak in character. The Fin, to this very day, goes as it were on snow-shoes and sings minor strains, while many a Norwegian, in his pride of race, little suspects that he has any connection with that despised people.
There is also, in my experience, a great difference in our national character, which depends upon whether the crossing has taken place with the weak Laplander, or with the well-grown, strong, bold Fin. It makes a difference in temperament, as great as between minor and major in the same piece of music. That touch of rich colour in our nation, of which the poet Wergeland's endless wealth of imagery and flight beyond logic are a representation, is certainly Finnish—at any rate, there is very little of it in our old Sagas. And it can be understood from this, what grandeur of nature the Fin has added to the Norwegian character. The Fin admixture has been a great and essential factor in the composition of the mental qualities of our people at the present day.
I have often talked with people about this Finnish admixture, which, in a near degree, is looked upon almost as a disgrace, and I have found a surprisingly large number who were secretly of my opinion. Finnish admixture makes energetic, logical, bold, enterprising men; it has, to a great extent, given a backbone to the character of our Eastland and Trondhjem people. In Nordland, on the contrary, the Lap element is predominant, and has in a measure altered the character of the people. The Fin-Norwegian is master of Nordland nature; the Lap-Norwegian is subject to it, and suffers under its oppression.
Nature's contrasts in Nordland are too great and extreme for the mind of the race that lives there not to be exceedingly liable to receive permanent injury from them. The extreme melancholy and sadness which is found there in the poor man, and which so often results in mental derangement and suicide, has most undoubtedly its connection with and reason in these natural conditions; in the long winter darkness with its oppressive, overwhelming scenes that crush down the mind in light-forsaken loneliness; and in the strong and sudden impressions that, in the dark season as well as in the light, affect all too violently the delicate inner fibres of being. I have thought over these things as perhaps no one else has done—thought, while I myself have been suffering under them; and I understand—although again, when it is a question of my own person, I do not understand it in the least—why "second sight," fremsynethed as it is called in Nordland, can there, just as in the Shetland and Orkney Isles, make its appearance, and be inherited in a family. I understand that it is a disease of the mind, which no treatment, no intelligence or reflection can cure. A visionary is born with an additional sense of sight. Beside his two sound eyes, he has the power of looking into a world that others have only a suspicion of, and when the occasion comes it is his doom to be obliged to use his extraordinary power; it will not be stopped with books or by intelligent reflection; it will not be suppressed even here in the "enlightened capital": it can at the most only be darkened for a while with the curtain of forgetfulness.
Ah! when I think how, at home in Nordland, I pictured to myself the king's palace in Kristiania, with pinnacles and towers standing out grandly over the town, and the king's men like a golden stream from the castle court right up to the throne-room; or Akershus fortress, when the thundering cannon announce the king's arrival, and the air is filled with martial music and mighty royal commands; when I think how I pictured to myself "the high hall of light," the University, as a great white chalk mountain, always with the sunshine on its windowpanes; or how I imagined the Storthing [Norwegian parliament] Hall, and the men who frequent it, whose names, magnified by fancy, echoed up to us, as though for each one there rang through the air a mighty resounding bell, names like Foss, Soerenssen, Jonas Anton Hjelm, Schweigaard, and many others; when I compare what I, up in the north, imagined about all this, with the "for our small conditions—most respectable reality," in which I now live and move—it is like a card-castle of illusions, as high as Snehaetten, [Snehaetten—a mountain in the Dovre range, 7400 feet high.] falling over me. Until I was over twenty years of age, I lived only in a northern fairyland, and I am now for the first time born into the world of reality: I have been spell-bound in my own fancy.
If I were to tell any one all this, he would certainly—and the more sensible the man was the more surely—be of opinion that my good Examen Artium [Artium—an examination to be passed before admittance to the University is granted.] must clearly have come about by some mistake. But if life depends on theoretical reasoning and knowledge, I have, thank God, as good abilities as most men. And I know that in them I have a pair of pliant oars, with which, as long as I require to do so, I shall be able to row my boat through practical life without running aground. The load which I have in the boat, at times so very heavy, but then again so blissfully beautiful, no one shall see.
I feel a longing to weep away the whole of this northern fairy tale of mine, and would do it if I could only weep away my life with it. But why wish to lose all the loveliness, all the illusion, when I must still bear with me to my dying day the sadness it has laid upon me?
It will be a relief to me in quiet hours to put down my recollections of this home of mine, which so few down here understand. It is the tale of a poor mentally-diseased man, and in it there are more of his own impressions than of outward events.
* * * * *
* * * * *
My father was a country merchant, and owned the trading-place, ——ven in West Lofoten. He was really from Trondhjem, whence he had come north, as a destitute boy, in one of those small vessels which are sent from that city to Lofoten, to trade during the fishing season. In his youth he had gone through a great deal, and had even worked for a time in a boat's crew, as a simple fisherman, until he at last got a place as shop-boy with Erlandsen the merchant, whose son-in-law he became.
My father, in middle age, was a handsome man, black-haired and dark-skinned, with sharp, energetic features, and in height rather short than tall. He always wore a brown duffel, seaman's jacket, and glazed hat. In manner he was stern, and not very accessible; it was said, too, that he was rather a hard man—for which the severe school of life through which he had passed was perhaps to blame. If this manner, on the one hand, made him few friends, on the other, it gained for him a greater confidence in business matters, in which he was prompt and expeditious, always claiming to the utmost what he considered to be his due. People feared him, and would not willingly be on bad terms with him.
We have generally only flashing recollections of what has happened before our eighth year, but these flashes last for a whole lifetime. I have in my mind just such a picture of my poor unhappy mother. I know her better from that than from all I have heard about her since; from what I have been told she must have had fair hair and soft blue eyes, have been pale and delicate, and in figure rather tall. She was also very quiet and melancholy.
She was Erlandsen's only daughter, and was married to my father while he was yet a subordinate in Erlandsen's service, and it was said that it was the old man who brought about the union, thinking it the best way to provide for her future.
I remember a warm summer day, and the mowers in their shirt-sleeves, mowing with long scythes, out in the meadow: I was with my mother, as she passed by them, knitting. Outside the fence lay a half-bare rocky hill, behind which my mother had a bench. Above this on a stony heap grew raspberry-bushes, and beside them stood a few small birch-trees. While I was scrambling about among the stones, picking raspberries, father called my mother.
When she had gone away, there came over to me from the other side of the hill a tall, pale lady, who seemed older than mother, dressed in black, with a stand-up, white, frilled collar; she looked at me very kindly, and stretched out to me a wild rose spray she had in her hand.
I did not feel at all afraid, and it did not seem as if she were a stranger. Then she nodded sadly to me in farewell, and went back the same way she had come.
When mother returned I told her that such a kind, strange lady had been there, but she must have been in great sorrow, and now she was gone.
My mother—I remember it, as if it were yesterday—stood still for a minute, as white as a sheet, looking at me with anguish in her eyes, as if we were both going to die, then she threw her arms above her head, and fell fainting to the ground.
I was too frightened to cry, but I remember that, while she lay stretched insensible on the grass by the bench, I threw myself upon her, crying, "Mother! mother!"
A little while after I had come running to father, who stood in his shirt-sleeves over in the meadow, mowing with the others, and had said, sobbing, that mother was dead.
From that hour my mother was out of her mind. For many years she had to be constantly watched in her own room, and my father must have had many a sad hour. Afterwards she was taken to a lunatic asylum in Trondhjem, where two years later she died, without having come to her right mind for one moment.
The person who had the charge of me during this time was old Anne Kvaen, a pock-marked, masculine-looking woman, with little brown eyes, rough, iron-grey hair, strongly marked, almost witch-like features, and as a rule a short, black clay pipe in her mouth. She had been my mother's nurse, and was attached to her with her whole soul. When my mother went out of her mind, she begged earnestly to become her guardian in the blue room; but this had to be given up, as it was evident that it was just her presence that most excited the patient's mind. My mother could not bear to see father either, and me they never dared show her at all.
Old Anne Kvaen had been my mother's only confidante. She was extremely superstitious and strange. In her imagination, hobgoblins and gnomes occupied the store-house and boat-house, as surely as my father resided in the main building; and under the mountain to the east of the harbour, the underground people carried on, invisibly, their fishing and trading with Bergen, just as my father did his, visibly, in the world. Old Anne had certainly filled my poor mother's head with her mystic superstition, to no less an extent than she did mine. There were all kinds of marks and signs to be made from morning till night, and she always wore an uneasy look, as though she were keeping watch. When a boat came in, you ought to turn towards the sea, and spit, and mutter a few words against sea-sprites. She could see every man's double. [The spirit which every one is supposed to have as a follower and companion through life.] On its account the door must be shut to quickly after any one had gone out; and she could always hear a warning beforehand when father was coming home from a journey.
When Anne Kvaen had no longer leave to go into the blue room to my mother, she silently went through all kinds of performances outside the door. I remember once standing on the stairs, and seeing her bowing and curtseying, wetting her finger every now and then, drawing on the door with it, and muttering, until I fled in terror.
In her incantation formulae, the word "Jumala" often occurred, the name of the Bjarmers' old god, whose memory, in the far north, is not so completely eradicated as one would think, and who to this day has perhaps some sacrificial stone or other on the wide mountain wastes of Finland. Against Lap witchcraft—and a suspicion of it was fastened on almost every Lap boat that landed at the quay—she also had her charms; she apparently melted down Fin and Christian gods together in her mystical incantations, for the confounding of Lap witchcraft.
In the midst of such mental impressions as these, I grew up.
The parsonage, with the white-towered church beside it, lay only a short way from us, down by the sea, on the right-hand side of the bay, looking out from our trading-place, which lay farther in.
There was a tutor in the place—we always called him "the student"—and I went to lessons every day with the minister's two children, a bright boy of the name of Carl, who was a year younger than I, namely twelve, and his sister Susanna, of exactly the same age as myself, a blue-eyed wild child, with a quantity of yellow hair, which was always requiring to be pushed back from her forehead; when she could do so unnoticed by the student, she made all kinds of faces and grimaces across at us, to make us laugh.
The tutor was, in fact, exceedingly strict, and inspired the greatest respect. The torture in which we sat when at school, not daring to look up at one another for fear our laughter should break out, was really anything but pleasant; for every time it exploded we fared very badly; in the first place, we had our hair pulled and our ears boxed, and in the next, long written harangues in our mark-books about our behaviour.
Susanna was often utterly merciless; it came to such a pass, that with only a little wink in the corner of her eye, she could instantly put us in a state of fever, so that we would sit with cheeks as red as apples, and our eyes fastened on our books, until we could contain ourselves no longer. She tried especially to work upon me, though she knew I must pay dearly for misconduct at home; for father was a severe man, who had very little comprehension of children.
In play hours, we romped with more animation than children generally indulge in.
In contrast to the strict, gloomy life at home, with father always either out on business, or up in the office; where, from the blue room, often came noises and cries from my poor insane mother, and where Anne Kvaen was always going about, like a wandering spirit, playing with the parsonage children was like a life in some other and happier, more sunshiny part of the globe.
ON THE SHORE
The shore is an even more attractive playground for children in Nordland than here in the south of Norway. At low-tide there is a much longer stretch of beach than here.
The sandy bottom lies bare, with pools in it here and there, in which small fish swim, while down by the sea there sits a solitary gull on a stone, or a sea-fowl walks by the water's edge. The fine, wave-marked sand is full of heaps, covered with lines, left by the large, much sought after bait-worms, that burrow down into the earth. Hidden among the stones, or in the masses of sea-weed, lie the quick, transparent, shrimp-like sand-hoppers, which dart through the shallow water when they are pursued. They are used by small boys as bait, upon a bent pin, to catch young coal-fish.
Upon the high grassy hill above the beach, among some large stones, we three children built our own warehouse of flat stone slabs, with store-house, boat-house and quay below.
In the boat-house we had all kinds of boats, small and great, from the four-oared punt up to the ten-oared galley, some of wood and bark, others of the boat-shaped, blue mussel shells. Our greatest pride, the large yacht—a great, mended trough, with one mast and a deck, that was constantly being fitted out for the Bergen market—was still not the best; and I can remember how I many a time sat in church and made believe that we owned the splendid, full-rigged ship, with cannon, that hung under the chancel arch, [A ship, symbolical of the church, often hangs in Norwegian churches.] and how, while the minister was preaching, I pictured to myself all kinds of sailing-tours, which Carl and Susanna, but especially Susanna, should look on at in wonder. That ship was the only thing that was wanting to my happiness.
In the bay, by father's quay, there was a deep, shelving bank, where, at the end of the summer, came shoals of young cod-fish and other small fry; and there we boys carried on our fishing, each with his linen thread and bent pin. We cut the fish open, and hung them over the drying poles standing in the field over by our own warehouse for the preparation of dried fish, and we let the liver stand in small tubs to rot until it became train-oil. Both products were then duly put away in our store-house, ready "to go to Bergen" later on, in the yacht; and Heaven knows we worked and slaved as eagerly and earnestly at our work as the grown-up people did at theirs, yet the only real return we had for it was the sunshine we got over our sunburnt, happy faces.
Carl was a slenderly-built boy, who generally followed his more energetic sister in everything. Both children had thick yellow hair; Susanna's curled in ringlets that seemed to twinkle round her head every time she moved—which, as already said, she constantly did with a toss of her head, to keep her hair off her forehead. Both had alike a fair, brilliant complexion, and beautiful blue eyes. I do not know whether Susanna at that time was tall or short for her age—I only know I thought her at least of the same height as myself, though she must really have been half a head shorter; the difference was probably made up by my admiration.
I remember her, as she went to church on Sundays with her mother, a little, pale, soberly-clad, busy woman, who was always, except on Sunday mornings, knitting a long, dreary stocking. Susanna walked along the sand-strewn path to church in a white or blue dress, with a dark shepherdess hat on her head, a little white pocket-handkerchief folded behind a very large old hymn-book, and white stockings, and shoes with a band crossed over the instep. I did not think there could be a prettier costume in the world than Susanna's Sunday dress.
In church the minister's family sat in the first pew, right under the pulpit, and we—my father and I—a few pews behind; and we children exchanged many a Freemason's sign, intelligible only to ourselves.
But once Susanna wounded me deeply, even to bitter tears. It became evident to me that she had made my father the subject of one of her lively remarks. With his good strong voice, he used to sing the hymns in the simple country fashion, very loud; but—what I and many others considered very effective—at the end of each verse he added a peculiar turn to the last note, which did not belong to the tune, and was of his own composition. This had been made a subject of remark at the parsonage, and, like a little pitcher, Susanna had ears. When she noticed that I had found this out, she looked very unhappy.
When Carl was thirteen, he was sent to the grammar-school in Bergen, and the "expensive" tutor went away by the last steamboat that same autumn.
From this time Susanna's education was carried on by her parents, and I was obliged to acquire my learning from the clerk, a good-natured old man, who himself knew very little more than how to play the violin, which he did with passion, and a sympathetic if uncultivated taste.
When the clerk had gained my father's permission for me to learn the violin—and I, like him, preferred this kind of entertainment to learning lessons—three whole years, in other words, the time until I was sixteen years of age, were divided between violin-playing and idleness.
Perhaps if my mind, during this period of my life, had been properly kept under the daily discipline of work, much in me might have been developed differently. At it was, the whole of my imaginary life was unfortunately put into my own power, and I laid the foundation of fancies which afterwards gained the mastery over my life, to a ruinous extent. Some strongly impressionable natures require that the dividing line drawn in every one's consciousness between fancy and reality, shall be constantly and thoroughly maintained, lest it be obliterated at certain points, and the real and the imaginary become confused.
Although we no longer had the same abundant opportunities for meeting as before, Susanna and I were, notwithstanding, constant and confidential playmates throughout our childhood.
When she had anything to confide to me, she generally watched by the gate that crossed the road by the parsonage lands, at the time when I went to or came from the clerk's.
One day, as I came homewards along the road, with my books under my arm, she was sitting in her blue-checked frock and straw hat, on the steps by the side of the gate. She looked as if she were in a very bad temper, and I could see at once that I was in for something.
She did not answer my greeting; but when I attempted to slip through the gate a little more quickly than she liked, she asked me in an irritated tone if it were true, as they said, that I was so lazy that they could make nothing of me at home.
Susanna had often teased me; but what wounded me this time was that I saw that they had been making my father and me the subject of censorious remarks at the parsonage, and that Susanna had been a party to it. Had I known that she now sat there as my defeated advocate, I should certainly have done otherwise than I did, for with an offended look I passed on without bestowing a word upon her.
When I came home, I heard that the minister and my father had had a disagreement in the Court of Reconciliation. The minister, who was a commissioner of that court, had said that he thought my father went too quickly forward in a certain case, and my father had given him a hasty answer. It was on this occasion that judgment was passed upon us in the parsonage.
This state of affairs between our elders caused some shyness between us children, and I remember that at first I was even afraid to go by the parsonage, for fear of meeting the minister on the road.
Susanna, however, made several attempts at advances; but at the first glimpse of her blue-checked frock I always went a long way round, through the field above the road, or waited among the trees until she was gone.
For some time I saw nothing of her; but one day, as I was going through the gate, I saw written in pencil on the white board of the post that marked the rode [Rode—a length of road. The high-road is divided into rodes, and the division between these is marked by posts, on which stand the names of the houses, whose owners have to keep that portion of the road in repair.]: "You are angry with me, but S. is not at all angry with you."
I knew the large clumsy writing well, and I went back to the gate two or three times that day to read it over and over again. It was Susanna in a new character; I saw her in thought behind the letters as behind a balustrade. In the afternoon I wrote underneath: "Look on the back of the post!" and there I wrote: "D. is not angry with S. either."
The next day Susanna was standing by the fence in the garden when I passed, but pretended not to see me; she probably repented having been so ready to make advances.
Although outwardly their relations were polite in the extreme, in reality my father's intercourse with the minister was from this time broken off; they never, except on special occasions and in response to a solemn invitation, set foot within one another's door. This again gave a kind of clandestine character to the intercourse between me and Susanna. No command was laid upon us, yet we only met, as it were, by stealth.
We were both lonely children. Susanna sat at home, a prisoner to every-day tediousness, under her mother's watchful eye, and in my dreary home I always had a feeling of cold and fright, and as if all gladness were over with Susanna at the parsonage. It was therefore not surprising that we were always longing to be together.
As we grew older, opportunities were less frequent, but the longing only became the greater by being repressed, and the moments we could spend together gradually acquired, unknown to us, another than the old childish character. To talk to her had now become a solace to me, and many a day I haunted the parsonage lands, only to get a glimpse of her.
I was about sixteen, when one morning, as I passed the parsonage garden, she beckoned to me, and handed me a flower over the wall, and then she hastily ran in, right across the carrot beds, as if she were afraid some one would see.
It was the first time it had struck me how beautiful she was, and for many a day I thought of her as she stood there in the garden among the bushes with the morning sun shining down upon her.
THE SERVANTS' HALL
The ghostly spirit which ran through our house, first had free outlet down in the servants' hall, when the men and maids, and the wayfarers who were putting up for the night, sat in the evening in the red glow from the stove, and told all kinds of tales about shipwrecks and ghosts.
On the bench in the space between the stove and the wall, sat the strong, handsome man Jens with his carpentering and repairs; he used to do his work, and listen in silence to the others. By the stove "Komag-Nils" busied himself with greasing komags [Komag—a peculiar kind of leather boot used by the Fins.] or skins—he had this name, because he made komags. Komag-Nils was a little fellow, with untidy yellow hair, which hung over his eyes, and a face as round as a moon, on which the nose looked like a little button; when he laughed, his wide thin-lipped mouth and large jaws gave him almost the expression of a death's-head. His small, watery eyes blinked at you mysteriously, but showed plainly that he was not wanting in common sense. It was he, in fact, who could tell the greatest number of stories, but still more was it he who could get a stranger to tell stories of the visible or the invisible world just as they occurred to him.
A third man went by a nickname, which, however, they never gave him within his hearing; Anders Lead-head, was so called, because he now and then had bad fits of drinking, and nearly lost his place in consequence. And yet in his way he was extremely capable. In any real dilemma—in a storm—he rose at once to the responsible post of captain in the boat; for there was but one opinion of his capability as a sailor. When the danger was over, he fell back again into the insignificant man.
A girl of twenty years of age, whom we called French Martina, was also one of the regular servants of the house. She seemed of a totally different race of beings from the ordinary Nordlander, was quick and lively, with thick, curly black hair, round a brown oval face with strikingly regular features. She was slenderly built, of middle height, and had a good figure. Her eyes, beneath strongly marked, black eyebrows, were as black as coal; and when she was angry, they could flash fire. She was in love with the silent Jens, and was extremely jealous, without the slightest cause. It was said that these two would make a match when he had been on two or three more fishing expeditions, but the matter was not officially announced at any rate, I think because Jens made a passive resistance as long as he could, and never actually proposed to her. French Martina was, by birth, one of the illegitimate children of those fishing districts, whose fathers are foreign skippers or sailors. Her father was said to have been a French sailor.
I was strictly forbidden by my father to go into the servants' hall in the evening; he knew very well that a good many things were said there that were not fit for children's ears. But then, on the other hand, it was just down there that the most interesting things in the world were talked about. The consequence was that I used to steal down secretly. I remember how, one dark autumn evening, when I had slipped in, I listened, while Komag-Nils—the man with the yellow hair and death's-head grin when he laughed—told a dreadful ghost story from Erlandsen's predecessor's time.
At that time there stood an old store-house not far from the parsonage. One Christmas Eve they sat drinking and merry-making in the warehouse. At eleven o'clock the ale gave out, and a man named Rasmus, who was a strong, courageous fellow, was sent to the store-house, where the beer-cask lay, to fill a large pewter jug, which he took with him. When he got there, Rasmus set the lantern on the cask, and began to draw. When the jug was full, and he was just meditating putting it to his lips, he saw, over the beer barrel, lying with its body in the shadow, where all the barrels stood in a row, a terribly big, broad, dark form, from which there came an icy breath, as if from a door that stood open; it blinked at him with two great eyes like dull, horn lanterns, and said: "A thief at the Christmas ale"! But Rasmus did not neglect his opportunity. He flung the heavy jug right in the goblin's face, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. Outside there was moonlight on the snow; he heard cries and howls down on the shore, and became aware that goblins were pursuing him in ever-increasing numbers. When he came to the churchyard wall they were close upon him, and in his extremity he bethought himself of shouting over the wall: "Help me now, all ye dead!" for the dead are enemies of the goblins. He heard them all rising, and noises and yells as of a battle followed. He himself was closely pursued by a goblin, who was just on the point of springing upon him as he seized the latch of the door, and got safely in. But then he fell fainting on the floor. The next day—the first Christmas Day [In Norway, Christmas Day is called "first Christmas Day"; the day after, "second Christmas Day," and so on to the end of the week.]—the people going to church saw, strewn all around on the graves, pieces of coffin-boards, and all kinds of old sodden oars, and such timbers as usually sink to the bottom after a shipwreck. They were the weapons that the dead and the goblins had used, and from various things it could be gathered that the dead were the victors. They also found both the pewter jug and the lantern down in the store-house. The pewter jug had been beaten flat against the goblin's skull, and the goblin had smashed the lantern when Rasmus escaped.
Komag-Nils could also tell a great deal about people with second sight and their visions of things, sometimes in the spirit world, sometimes in actual life, of which they either feel a warning, or—as if in a kind of atmospheric reflection before their mental vision—can see what is happening at that very moment in far distant places. They may be sitting in merry company, and all at once, becoming pale and disturbed, they gaze absently before them into space. They see all kinds of things, and sometimes an exclamation escapes them, such as: "A fire has broken out in Merchant N.N.'s buildings in ——vaagen"! or "Trondhjem is burning now"! Sometimes they see a long funeral procession passing, with such distinctness that they can describe the place and appearance of every man in it, the coffin and the streets through which the procession wends its way. They will say: "A great man is being buried down in Kristiania"; and when the news comes, it always corresponds with their statement. It may happen, at sea, that such a man will say to the captain that he will do well to go out of his course for a little while; and he is always obeyed, for the crew are quite sure that he beholds in front of the ship what none of them perceive, perhaps a goblin in his half-boat, or a spectre, or something else that brings misfortune.
One of Komag-Nils' many stories of this kind had happened to an acquaintance of his during the winter fishing. The weather had been very stormy for two days, but on the third had so far lulled that one of the boats' crews that had been lodging in the fishing hut, thought that it would be quite possible to draw their nets. But the rest did not care to venture. Now it is a custom that the different boats' crews shall give each other a hand in launching the boats, and this was now to be done. When they came down to the ten-oared boat, which was drawn a good way up the beach, they found both oars and thwarts reversed, and, in addition to this, it was impossible, even with their united efforts, to move it. They tried once, twice, three times without avail. And then one of them, who was known to have second sight, said that from what he saw, it was better that they should not touch the boat that day: it was too heavy for human power. In one of the crews that put up in the fishing-hut there was a lively boy of fourteen, who entertained them the whole time with tricks of all kinds, and was never quiet. He took up a huge stone and threw it with all his might into the stern of the boat. Instantly there rushed out, visible to every one, a gnome in seaman's dress with a great bunch of sea-weed for a head. It had been sitting at the stern weighing down the boat, and now rushed out into the sea, dashing the water up in spray round it as it went. After that the boat went smoothly into the water. The man with the second sight looked at the boy, and said he ought not to have done as he had; but the boy only laughed and said that he did not believe in goblins or spirits. In the night, when they had come home and lay sleeping in the hut, at about twelve o'clock they heard the boy crying for help. One of the men thought, too, he saw by the dim light of the oil lamp a great hand stretching in from the door up to the bench on which the boy lay. Before they had so far collected themselves as to lay hold of the hand, the boy, crying out and resisting, was already dragged to the door. And now a hard struggle took place in the doorway, the goblin pulling the boy by the legs, while the whole crew held him by the arms and the upper part of his body. In this way, at the hour of midnight, he was dragged backwards and forwards in the half-open doorway, now the men, now the goblin, having the better of the struggle. All at once the goblin let go his hold, so that the whole crew fell over one another backwards on to the floor. But the boy was dead, and they understood that it was only then that the goblin had let go. The following winter they used to hear wailings at midnight in the fishing-hut, and they had no peace until it was moved away to another spot.
The Nordlander has the same, or even a greater pride in owning the fastest sailing-boat, that the East countryman in many places has in having the fastest trotting-horse. A really good boat is talked of in as many districts in the north, as, a really fine trotter would be in the south. All sorts of traditions about the speed and wonderful racing powers of the boats are current in Nordland, and romantic tales are told of some of them. The best boats in Nordland now came from Ranen, where boatbuilding has made great strides. To build a good boat with the correct water-lines requires genius, and cannot be learned theoretically; for it is a matter of special skill on the part of the builder of each boat. Ill-constructed boats are sometimes put together but they are, of course, unsatisfactory and sail only moderately well. The Nordland boat-builders have long since discovered the high fore and aft, sharp-keeled boat, to be the most practical, with one mast and a broad, prettily cut square sail admirably suited to what is most required, rapid sailing in fore and side winds, though less so for tacking. The boat is exactly the same shape under water as the fast-sailing clippers for which the English and Americans have of late become famed. What it has cost the Nordlanders to perfect the form that now enables them almost to fly before the wind, away from mighty curling billows which would bury the boat, if they reached it; how many generations have suffered and toiled and thought over, and corrected this shape under pain of death, so to speak, for every mistake made! In short, the history of the Nordland boat, from the days of men who first waged war with the ocean up there, to this day is a forgotten Nordland saga, full of the great achievements of the steadily toiling workman.