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Absalom's Hair by Bjornstjerne Bjornson

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"Mother, mother! what a fearful time!"

Her little hand sought his: it was cold; it lay in his like an egg
in a deserted nest. He warmed it and took the other as well.

"Was not the illumination splendid?" she said. And now her voice
was like a child's.

He moved the screen which obstructed the light: he must see her
better. He thought, when he saw the look of happiness in her face,
if life looks so beautiful to her still, we shall have a long time
together.

"If you had told me all that about Absalom, the picture which you
made when you were told the story of David, Rafael; if you had
only told me that before!" She paused, and her lips quivered.

"How could I tell it to you, mother, when I did not understand it
myself?"

"The illumination--that must signify that I, too, understand. It
ought to light you forward; do you not think so?"

A PAINFUL MEMORY FROM CHILDHOOD

I must have been somewhere about seven years old, when one Sunday
afternoon a rumour reached the parsonage that, on that same day,
two men, rowing past the Buggestrand in Eidsfjord, had discovered
a woman who had fallen over a cliff, and had remained half lying,
half hanging, close to the water's edge.

Before moving her, they tried to find out from her who had thrown
her over.

It was thirty-five miles by water to the doctor's, and then an
order for admission to the hospital had also to be procured. She
had lain twenty-four hours before help reached her, and shortly
afterwards she died. Before she breathed her last, she said it was
Peer Hagbo who had done it. "But," she added, "they mustn't do him
any harm."

Everybody knew that there had been an attachment between the girl,
who was in service at Hagbo's, and the son of the house, and the
shrewd ones instantly guessed why he wanted to get her out of the
way.

I remember clearly the arrival of the news. It was, as I have
said, on a Sunday afternoon, her death having occurred on the
morning of the same day.

It was in the very middle of summer, when the whole place was
flooded with sunshine and gladness. I remember how the light
faded, faces turned to stone, the fjord grew dim, and village and
forest shrank away into shadow. I remember that even the next day
I felt as though a blow had been dealt to ordinary existence. I
knew that I need not go to school. Men knocked off work, leaving
everything just as it was, and sat down with idle hands. The women
especially were paralysed: it was evident they felt themselves
threatened, they even said as much. When strangers came to the
parsonage their bearing and expression showed that the murder lay
heavy on their minds, and they read the same story in us. We took
each other's hands with a sense of remoteness. The murder was the
only thing that was present with us. Whatever we talked of we
seemed to hear of the murder in voice and word. The last
consciousness at night and the first in the morning was that
everything was unsettled, and that the joy of life was suddenly
arrested, like the hands on a dial at a certain hour.

But by degrees the murder fell into its proper place among other
interests; curiosity and gossip had made it commonplace. It was
taken up, turned over, considered, picked at and pulled about,
till it became simply "the last new thing." Soon we knew every
detail of the relation between the murdered and the murderer. We
knew who it was that Peer's mother had wanted him to marry; we
knew the Hagbo family in and out, and their history for
generations past.

When the magistrate came to the parsonage to institute the
preliminary inquiry, the murder was merely an inexhaustible theme
of conversation. But the next day when the bailiff and some other
men appeared with the murderer, a new feeling took possession of
me, a feeling of which I could not have imagined myself capable--
an overpowering compassion. A young good-looking lad, well grown,
slightly built, rather small than otherwise, with dark not very
thick hair, with appealing eyes which were now downcast, with a
clear voice, and about his whole personality a certain charm,
almost refinement; a creature to associate with life, not death,
with gladness, with gaiety. I was more sorry for him than I can
say. The bailiff and the other people spoke kindly to him too, so
they must have felt the same. Only the peppery little clerk came
out with some hard words, but the accused stood cap in hand and
made no answer.

He paced up and down the yard in his shirt sleeves--the day was
very warm--with a flat cloth cap over his close-cut hair, and his
hands in his trousers pockets, or toying restlessly with a piece
of straw. The parsonage dog had found companions, and the youth
followed the dog's frolic with his eyes, and gazed at the chickens
and at us children as though he longed to be one of us. The girl's
words, "But don't do him any harm," rang in my ears unceasingly--
whether he walked about or stood still or sat down. I knew that he
would certainly be beheaded, and, believing that it must be soon,
I was filled with horror at the thought of his saying to himself,
In a month I shall die--and then in a week--in a day--an hour...
it must be utterly unendurable. I slipped behind him to see his
neck, and just at that moment he lifted his hand up to it, a
little brown hand; and I could not get rid of the thought that
perhaps his fingers would come in the way when the axe was
falling.

He and the warders were asked to come in and dine. I felt I must
see if it were really possible for him to eat. Yes, he ate and
chatted just like the rest, and for a time I forgot my terror. But
no sooner was I outside again and alone than I fell to thinking of
it with might and main, and it seemed to me very hard that her
words, "But you mustn't do him any harm," should be so utterly
disregarded. I felt I must go in and say as much to father. But
he, slow and serious, and the clerk, little and dapper, were
walking up and down the room deep in conversation, far, far above
all my misery. I slipped out again, and stroked the coat which
Peer had taken off.

The inquiry was held in my schoolroom. My master acted as
secretary to the court, and I got leave to sit there and listen.
For the matter of that, the clerk spoke in so loud a voice that it
could be heard through the open window by every one in the place.
The unfortunate youth was called upon to account for the entire
day on which the murder had been committed--for every hour of that
Sunday. He denied that he had killed her--denied it with the
utmost emphasis: "It was not he who had done it." The magistrate's
examination was both acutely and kindly conducted; Peer was moved
to tears, but no confession could be drawn from him.

"This will be a long business, madam," said the magistrate to my
mother when the first day's inquiry was over. But later in the
evening Peer's sister came to the parsonage and remained with him
all through the night. They were heard whispering and crying
unceasingly. In the morning Peer was pale and silent; before the
court he took all the blame upon himself.

The way it had happened, he explained, was that he had been her
lover, and that his mother had strongly disapproved of the
connection. So one Sunday as the girl, prayer-book in hand, was
going to church, he met her in the wood. They sat down, and he
asked if she intended to declare him the father of the child she
was about to bear; for it was in this time of sore necessity that
she was going to seek consolation in the church. She replied that
she could accuse no one else. He spoke of the shame it would bring
on him, and how annoyed his mother already was. Yes, yes, she knew
that too well. His mother was very angry with her; and she thought
it strange of Peer that he didn't stand up for her; he knew best
whose fault it was that all this had happened. But Peer hinted
that she had been compliant to others as well as to himself, and
therefore he would not submit to being given out as the child's
father. He tried to make her angry, but did not succeed, she was
so gentle. He had an axe lying concealed in the heather near where
he sat. He took it and struck her on the head from behind. She did
not lose consciousness at once, but tried to defend herself while
she begged for her life. He could give no clear account of what
happened afterwards. It seemed almost as though he himself had
lost consciousness. As to the other events, he accepted the
account of them which had been given in the evidence against him.

His sister waited at the parsonage until he came from the
examination, worn out and with eyes red with weeping. Once more
they went aside and whispered. I remember nothing more of her than
that she held her head down and wept a great deal.

It was in the winter that he was to be executed. The announcement
was made at such short notice that every one in the house had to
bestir himself--father was to deliver an exhortation at the place
of execution, and the Dean, whose parishioner the condemned man
was, together with the bailiff, had arranged to come to us the day
before.

Peer and his warders and a friend, his instructor during the time
of his imprisonment, schoolmaster Jakobsen, were to sleep down in
the schoolhouse, which was part of the farm property belonging to
the old parsonage. Meals were to be carried from our house to the
prisoner and Jakobsen.

I remember that they came in the morning in two boat-loads from
Molde: the Dean, the bailiff, the military escort, and the
condemned man. But I had to sit in the old schoolhouse, and not
even later in the day was I allowed to go down to where they were.

This prohibition made the whole proceeding the more mysterious. It
grew dark early. The sea ran black against a whitish and in some
places bare-swept beach. The ragged clouds chased each other
across the sky. We were afraid a storm was coming on. Then one of
the parsonage chimneys caught on fire, and most of the soldiers
came rushing up to offer help. The great fire-ladder was brought
from under the storehouse. It was unusually heavy and clumsy, so
it was difficult to get it raised, till father broke into the
midst of the crowd, ordered them all to stand back, and set it up
by himself. This is still remembered in the parish; and also that
the bailiff, an active little fellow, took a bucket in each hand
and went up the ladder till he reached the turf roof. The black
fjord, the hurrying clouds, the menace of the coming day, the
blaze of the fire, the bustle and din...and then the silence
afterwards! People whispered as they moved about the rooms and out
in the yard, whence they looked down upon the schoolhouse-prison
where the steady light burned.

Schoolmaster Jacobsen was sitting there now with his friend. They
were singing and praying together, I heard from those who had been
down in that direction. Peer's family came in the evening in a
boat, went up to see him, and took leave of him. I heard how
dauntless he was in his confidence that the next day he would be
with God, and how beautifully he talked to his people, and
especially how he begged them to take an affectionate greeting to
his mother, and be good to her as long as she lived. Some said she
had come in the boat with the rest, but would not go up to see
him. That was not true, any more than that some of them were at
the execution the next day, which was also reported.

I wakened the next morning under a weight of apprehension. The
weather had changed and was fair now, but it felt oppressive
nevertheless. No one spoke loud, and people said as little as
possible. I was to be allowed to go with the rest and look on; so
I made haste to find my tutor, whom I had been told not to leave.
The two clergymen came out in their cassocks. We went down to the
landing-place and rowed the first part of the way. The condemned
man and his escort had gone on before, and waited at the place
where we disembarked, in order to walk the latter part of the way
to the place of execution, a kilometer or so distant. The
execution had to take place at a cross-roads, and there was only
one in the neighbourhood--namely, at Ejdsvaag, nearly seven miles
away from where the murder was committed. The bailiff headed the
procession, then came the soldiers, then the condemned man, with
the Dean on one side and my father on the other, then Jacobsen and
my tutor, with me between them, then some more people, followed by
more soldiers. We walked cautiously along the slippery road. The
clergyman talked constantly to the condemned man, who was now very
pale. His eyes had grown gentle and weary and he said very little.
My mother, who had been very kind to him, and whom he had thanked
for all she had done, had sent him a bottle of wine to keep up his
strength. The first time that my tutor offered him some, he looked
at the clergyman as though asking if there were anything sinful in
accepting it. My father quoted St. Paul's advice to Timothy, and
instantly he drank off a long draught.

By the wayside stood people curious to see him, and they joined
the procession as it passed along. Among them were some of his
comrades, to whom he sorrowfully nodded. Once or twice he lifted
his cap, the same flat one I had seen him in the first time. It
was evident that his comrades had a regard for him; and I saw,
too, some young women who were crying, and made no attempt to
conceal it. He walked along with his hands clasped at his breast,
probably praying.

We were all startled by the captain's loud and commonplace word of
command, "Attention!" as we reached the appointed place. A body of
soldiers stood drawn up in a hollow square, which closed in after
admitting the bailiff, the clergyman, the condemned man, and a few
besides, among whom was myself. A great silent crowd stood round,
and over their heads one saw the mounted figure of the sheriff in
his cocked hat. When the soldiers who came with us, having carried
out various sharp words of command, had taken their places in the
square, the further proceedings began by the sheriff's reading
aloud the death sentence and the royal order for the execution.

The sheriff stationed himself directly in front of the place where
some planed boards were laid over the grave. At one end of it
stood the block. On the other side of the grave a platform had
been erected, from which the Dean was to speak. Peer Hagbo knelt
below on the step, with his face buried in his hands, close to the
feet of his spiritual adviser. The Dean was of Danish birth, one
of the many who, at the time of the separation, had chosen to make
their home in Norway. His addresses were beautiful to read, but
one couldn't always hear him, and least of all when he was moved,
as was frequently the case. He shouted the first words very loud;
then his head sank down between his shoulders, and he shook it
without a pause while he closed his eyes and uttered some
smothered sounds, catching his breath between them. The points of
his tall shirt-collar, which reached to the middle of his ears (I
have never since seen the like), stuck up on each side of the bare
cropped head with the two double chins underneath, and the whole
was framed between his shoulders, which, by long practice, he
could raise much higher than other men. Those who did not know
him--for to know him was to love him--could hardly keep from
laughing. His speech was neither heard nor understood, but it was
short. His emotion forced him to break it off suddenly. One thing
alone we all understood: that he loved the pale young man whom he
had prepared for death, and that he wished that all of us might go
to our God as happy and confident as he who was to die to-day.
When he stepped down they embraced each other for the last time.
Peer gave his hand to my father and to a number besides, and then
placed himself by his friend Jakobsen. The latter knew what this
meant. He took off a kerchief and bound Peer's eyes, while we saw
him whisper something to him and receive a whispered answer. Then
a man came forward to bind Peer's hands behind his back, but he
begged to be left free, and his prayer was granted. Then Jakobsen
took him by the hand and led him forward. At the place where Peer
was to kneel Jakobsen stopped short, and Peer slowly bent his
knees. Jakobsen bent Peer's head down until it rested on the
block; then he drew back and folded his hands. All this I saw, and
also that a tall man came and took hold of Peer's neck, while a
smaller man drew forth from a couple of folded towels a shining
axe with a remarkably broad thin blade. It was then I turned away.
I heard the captain's horrible "Present arms"; I heard some one
praying "Our Father"--perhaps it was Peer himself--then a blow
that sounded exactly as if it went into a great cabbage. At once I
looked round again, and saw one leg kicking out, and a yard or two
beyond the body lay the head, the mouth gasping and gasping as if
for air.

The executioner's assistant sprang forward and took hold of it by
the ends of the handkerchief that had bandaged the eyes, and threw
it into the coffin beside the body, where it fell with a dull
sound. The boards were laid over the coffined remains, and the
whole hastily lifted up and lowered into the grave.

Then my father got up on the platform. Every one could understand
what HE said, and his powerful voice was heard to such a distance
that even now it is remembered in the district. Following up the
thunderous admonition of the execution itself, he warned the young
against the vices which prevailed in the parish--against
drunkenness, fighting, unchastity, and other misconduct. They must
have liked the discourse very much, for it was stolen out of the
pocket of his gown on the way home.

As for me, I left the place as sick at heart, as overwhelmed with
horror, as if it were my turn to be executed next. Afterwards I
compared notes with many others, who owned to exactly the same
feeling. Father and the Dean dined at the captain's with the other
officials; but they separated and went home directly after dinner.

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