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The Great Hunger by Johan Bojer

Part 5 out of 5

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with their arms about each other's waists, talking loudly, laughing
a great deal, and sometimes singing. People going by on the road
would hear the laughter and singing, and think to themselves: It's
either someone that's been drinking, or else that couple from the

The spring drew on and the days grew lighter.

But at the Hamar Agricultural Exhibition, where the machine was
tried, an American competitor was found to be just a little better.
Everyone thought it a queer business; for even if the idea hadn't
been directly stolen from Peer, there could be no doubt that his
machine had suggested it. The principles adopted were the same in
both cases, but in the American machine there was just enough
improvement in carrying them out to make it doubtful whether it
would be any use going to law over the patent rights. And besides--
it's no light matter for a man with no money at his back to go to
law with a rich American firm.

In the mighty race, with competitors the wide world over, to
produce the best machine, Peer had been on the very point of
winning. Another man had climbed upon his chariot, and then, at
the last moment, jumped a few feet ahead, and had thereby won the

So that the achievement in itself be good, the world does not
inquire too curiously whether it was honestly achieved.

And there is no use starting a joint-stock company to exploit a new
machine when there is a better machine in the field.

The steel had seized on Peer, and used him as a springboard. But
the reward was destined for another.

Chapter V

Herr Uthoug Junior, Agent for English tweeds, stepped out of the
train one warm day in July, and stood for a moment on the station
platform looking about him. Magnificent scenery, certainly. And
this beautiful valley was where his sister had been living for more
than a year. Splendid air--and yet somehow it didn't seem to have
done his brother-in-law much good. Well, well! And the neatly
dressed young gentleman set off on foot towards Raastad, asking his
way from time to time. He wanted to take them by surprise. There
had been a family council at Ringeby, and they had agreed that some
definite arrangement must be made for the future of the sister and
her husband, with whom things had gone so hopelessly wrong.

As he turned up the by-road that led to the farm, he was aware of a
man in his shirt-sleeves, wheeling a barrow full of stones. What?
He thought--could he be mistaken? No--sure enough it was Peer
Holm--Peer Holm, loading up stones and wheeling them down the hill
as zealously as if he were paid for every step.

The Agent was not the man for lamentations or condolences.
"Hullo!" he cried. "Hard at it, aren't you? You've taken to
farming, I see."

Peer stood up straight, wiped his hands on his trousers, and came
towards him. "Good heavens! how old he has grown!" thought Uthoug
to himself. But aloud he said, "Well, you do look fit. I'd hardly
have known you again."

Merle caught sight of the pair from the kitchen window. "Why, I do
believe--" she exclaimed, and came running out. It was so long
since she had seen any of her people, that she forgot her dignity
and in a moment had her arms round her brother's neck, hugging him.

No, certainly Uthoug junior had not come with lamentations and
condolences. He had a bottle of good wine in his bag, and at
supper he filled the glasses and drank with them both, and talked
about theatres and variety shows, and gave imitations of well-known
actors, till he had set the two poor harassed creatures laughing.
They must need a little joy and laughter--ah! well he knew how they
must need it.

But he knew, too, that Merle and Peer were on tenterhooks waiting
to know what the family had decided about their future. The days
of their life here had been evil and sad, but they only hoped now
that they might be able to stay on. If the help they had received
up to now were taken from them, they could neither afford to stay
here nor to go elsewhere. What then could they do? No wonder they
were anxious as they sat there.

After supper he went out for a stroll with Peer, while Merle waited
at home in suspense. She understood that their fate was being
settled as she waited.

At last they returned--and to her astonishment they came in

Her brother said good-night, and kissed her on the forehead, and
patted her arm and was kindness itself. She took him up to his
room, and would have liked to sit there a while and talk to him;
but she knew Peer had waited till they were alone to tell her the
news that concerned them so nearly. "Good-night, then, Carsten,"
she said to her brother, and went downstairs.

And then at last she and Peer were sitting alone together, at her
work-table by the window.

"Well?" said Merle.

"The thing is this, Merle. If we have courage to live at all, we
must look facts in the face as they are."

"Yes, dear, but tell me . . ."

"And the facts are that with my health as it now is I cannot
possibly get any employment. It is certain that I cannot. And as
that is the case, we may as well be here as anywhere else."

"But can we stay on here, Peer?"

"If you can bear to stay with a miserable bungler like me--that, of
course, is a question."

"Answer me--can we stay here?"

"Yes. But it may be years, Merle, before I'm fit to work again--
we've got to reckon with that. And to live on charity year after
year is what I cannot and will not endure."

"But what are we to do, then, Peer? There seems to be no possible
way for me to earn any money."

"I can try, at any rate," he answered, looking out of the window.

"You? Oh no, Peer. Even if you could get work as a draughtsman,
you know quite well that your eyes would never stand . . ."

"I can do blacksmith's work," he said.

There was a pause. Merle glanced at him involuntarily, as if she
could hardly believe her ears. Could he be in earnest? Was the
engineer of the Nile Barrage to sink into a country blacksmith?

She sighed. But she felt she must not dishearten him. And at last
she said with an effort: "It would help to pass the time, I
daresay. And perhaps you would get into the way of sleeping
better." She looked out of the window with tightly compressed

"And if I do that, Merle, we can't stay on in this house. In fact
a great box of a place like this is too big for us in any case--
when you haven't even a maid to help you."

"But do you know of any smaller house we could take?"

"Yes, there's a little place for sale, with a rood or two of
ground. If we had a cow and a pig, Merle--and a few fowls--and
could raise a bushel or two of corn--and if I could earn a few
shillings a week in the smithy--we wouldn't come on the parish, at
any rate. I could manage the little jobs that I'd get--in fact,
pottering about at them would do me good. What do you say?"

Merle did not answer; her eyes were turned away, gazing fixedly out
of the window.

"But there's another question--about you, Merle. Are you willing
to sink along with me into a life like that? I shall be all right.
I lived in just such a place when I was a boy. But you! Honestly,
Merle, I don't think I should ask it of you." His voice began to
tremble; he pressed his lips together and his eyes avoided her

There was a pause. "How about the money?" she said, at last. "How
will you buy the place?"

"Your brother has promised to arrange about a loan. But I say
again, Merle--I shall not blame you in the least if you would
rather go and live with your aunt at Bruseth. I fancy she'd be
glad to have you, and the children too."

Again there was silence for a while. Then she said: "If there are
two decent rooms in the cottage, we could be comfortable enough.
And as you say, it would be easier to look after."

Peer waited a little. There was something in his throat that
prevented speech. He understood now that it was to be taken for
granted, without words, that they should not part company. And it
took him a little time to get over the discovery.

Merle sat facing him, but her eyes were turned to the window as
before. She had still the same beautiful dark eyebrows, but her
face was faded and worn, and there were streaks of grey in her

At last he spoke again. "And about the children, Merle."

She started. "The children--what about them?" Had it come at
last, the thing she had gone in fear of so long?

"Aunt Marit has sent word to ask if we will let your brother take
Louise over to stay with her."

"No!" Merle flung out. "No, Peer. Surely you said no at once.
Surely you wouldn't let her go. You know what it means, their
wanting to have her over there."

"I know," he nodded. "But there's another question: in Louise's
own interest, have we any right to say no?"

"Peer," she cried, springing up and wringing her hands, "you
mustn't ask it of me. You don't want to do it yourself. Surely we
have not come to that--to begin sending--giving away--no, no, no!"
she moaned. "Do you hear me, Peer? I cannot do it."

"As you please, Merle," he said, rising, and forcing himself to
speak calmly. "We can think it over, at any rate, till your
brother leaves tomorrow. There are two sides to the thing: one way
of it may hurt us now; the other way may be a very serious matter
for Louise, poor thing."

Next morning, when it was time to wake the children, Peer and Merle
went into the nursery together. They stopped by Louise's bed, and
stood looking down at her. The child had grown a great deal since
they came to Raastad; she lay now with her nose buried in the
pillow and the fair hair hiding her cheek. She slept so soundly
and securely. This was home to her still; she was safer with
father and mother than anywhere else in the world.

"Louise," said Merle, shaking her. "Time to get up, dear."

The child sat up, still half asleep, and looked wonderingly at the
two faces. What was it?

"Make haste and get dressed," said Peer. "Fancy! You're going off
with Uncle Carsten today, to see Aunt Marit at Bruseth. What do
you say to that?"

The little girl was wide awake in a moment, and hopped out of bed
at once to begin dressing. But there was something in her parents'
faces which a little subdued her joy.

That morning there was much whispering among the children. The two
youngest looked with wondering eyes at their elder sister, who was
going away. Little Lorentz gave her his horse as a keepsake, and
Asta gave her youngest doll. And Merle went about trying to make
believe that Louise was only going on a short visit, and would soon
be coming back.

By dinner-time they had packed a little trunk, and Louise, in her
best dress, was rushing about saying goodbye all round the farm,
the harvesters, whom she had helped to drive in the hay, coming in
for a specially affectionate farewell. Her last visit was to
Musin, the grey horse, that was grazing tethered behind the smithy.
Musin was busy cropping the turf, but he just lifted his head and
looked at her--she plucked a handful of grass, and offered it, and
when he had disposed of that, she patted his muzzle, and he let her
cling round his neck for a moment.

"I'll be sure to write," she cried out to no one in particular, as
she went back over the courtyard again.

The train moved out of the station, taking with it Uthoug junior
and Louise, each waving from one of the windows of the compartment.

And Peer and Merle were left on the platform, holding their two
youngest children by the hand. They could still see a small hand
with a white handkerchief waving from the carriage window. Then
the last carriage disappeared into the cutting, and the smoke and
the rumble of the train were all that was left.

The four that were left behind stood still for a little while, but
they seemed to have moved unconsciously closer together than

Chapter VI

Some way up from the high-road there stands a little one-storeyed
house with three small windows in a row, a cowshed on one side of
it and a smithy on the other. When smoke rises from the smithy,
the neighbours say: "The engineer must be a bit better to-day,
since he's at it in the smithy again. If there's anything you want
done, you'd better take it to him. He doesn't charge any more than
Jens up at Lia."

Merle and Peer had been living here a couple of years. Their lives
had gone on together, but there had come to be this difference
between them: Merle still looked constantly at her husband's face,
always hoping that he would get better, while he himself had no
longer any hope. Even when the thump, thumping in his head was
quiet for a time, there was generally some trouble somewhere to
keep him on the rack, only he did not talk about it any more. He
looked at his wife's face, and thought to himself: "She is
changing more and more; and it is you that are to blame. You have
poured out your own misery on her day and night. It is time now
you tried to make some amends." So had begun a struggle to keep
silence, to endure, if possible to laugh, even when he could have
found it in his heart to weep. It was difficult enough, especially
at first, but each victory gained brought with it a certain
satisfaction which strengthened him to take up the struggle again.

In this way, too, he learned to look on his fate more calmly. His
humour grew lighter; it was as if he drew himself up and looked
misfortune in the eyes, saying: "Yes, I know I am defenceless, and
you can plunge me deeper and deeper yet; but for all that, if I
choose to laugh you cannot hinder me."

How much easier all things seemed, now that he looked no longer for
any good to come to him, and urged no claims against anyone either
in heaven or on earth. But when he was tired out with his work at
the forge, there was a satisfaction in saying to his wife: "No,
Merle, didn't I tell you I wouldn't have you carrying the water up?
Give me the bucket." "You?--you look fit for it, don't you?"
"Hang it all, am I a man, or am I not? Get back to your kitchen--
that's the place for a woman." So he carried water, and his mood
was the brighter for it, though he might feel at times as if his
back were breaking. And sometimes, "I'm feeling lazy, to-day,
Merle," he would say. "If you don't mind I'll stay in bed a bit
longer." And she understood. She knew from experience that these
were the days when his nightmare headache was upon him, and that it
was to spare her he called it laziness.

They had a cow now, and a pig and some fowls. It was not exactly
on the same scale as at Loreng, but it had the advantage that he
could manage it all himself. Last year they had raised so many
potatoes that they had been able to sell a few bushels. They did
not buy eggs any more--they sold them. Peer carried them down
himself to the local dealer, sold them at market price, and bought
things they might need with the money. Why not? Merle did not
think it beneath her to wash and scrub and do the cooking. True
enough, things had been different with them once, but it was only
Merle now who ever had moments of dreaming that the old days might
come back. Otherwise, for both him and her it was as if they had
been washed ashore on a barren coast, and must try to live through
the grey days as best they could.

It would happen once in a while that a mowing machine of the new
American type would be sent in by some farmer to the smithy for
repairs. When this happened, Peer would shut his lips close, with
a queer expression, look at the machine for a moment, and swallow
something in his throat. The man who had stolen this thing from
him and bettered it by a hairsbreadth was doubtless a millionaire
by now on the strength of it.

It cost him something of an effort to take these repairs in hand,
but he bowed his head and set to. Merle, poor girl, needed a pair
of shoes.

At times, too, he would turn from the anvil and the darkness within
and come out into the doorway for a breath of air; and here he
would look out upon the day--the great broad empty day.

A man with a sledge-hammer in his hands instinctively looks up at
the heavens. He has inherited that instinct from his great
ancestor, who brought down fire and thought to men, and taught them
to rebel against God.

Peer looked at the sky, and at the clouds, sweeping across it in a
meaningless turmoil. Rebellion against someone up there? But
heaven is empty. There is no one to rebel against.

But then all the injustice, the manifold iniquity! Who is to sit
in judgment on it at the great day?

Who? No one.

What? Think of the millions of all kinds of martyrs, who died
under the bloodiest torments, yet innocent as babes at the breast--
is there to be no day of reparation for them?


But there must be a whole world-full of victims of injustice, whose
souls flit restlessly around, because they died under a weight of
undeserved shame--because they lost a battle in which the right was
theirs--because they suffered and strove for truth, but went down
because falsehood was the stronger. Truth? Right? Is there no
one, then, who will one day give peace to the dead in their graves
and set things in their right places? Is there no one?

No one.

The world rolls on its way. Fate is blind, and God smiles while
Satan works his will upon Job.

Hold your peace and grip your sledge-hammer, idiot. If ever your
conscience should embrace the universe, that day the horror of it
would strike you dead. Remember that you are a vertebrate animal,
and it is by mistake that you have developed a soul.

Cling, clang. The red sparks fly from the anvil. Live out your
life as it is.

But there began to dawn in him a strange longing to be united to
all those unfortunates whom fate had blindly crushed; to gather
them together, not to a common lamentation, but to a common
victory. Not for vengeance, but for a song of praise. Behold,
Thou eternal Omnipotence, how we requite Thy cruelty--we praise
life: see how much more godlike we are than Thou.

A temple, a temple for the modern spirit of man, hungry for
eternity--not for the babbling of prayers, but for a hymn from
man's munificent heart sent pealing up to heaven. Will it come--
will it one day be built?

One evening Peer came home from the post-office apparently in high
spirits. "Hi, Merle, I've got a letter from the Bruseth lady."

Merle glanced at Lorentz, who had instinctively come close to her,
and was looking at his father.

"From Bruseth? How is Louise getting on?" she asked.

"You can see for yourself. Here's the letter," said he.

Merle read it through hurriedly, and glanced at Lorentz once more.

That evening, after the children had gone to bed, the father and
mother sat up talking together in a low voice.

And Merle had to admit that her husband was right. It would be
selfish of them to keep the boy here, when he might be heir to
Bruseth some day if they let him go.

Suppose he stayed and worked here under his father and learned to
be a smith? The blacksmith's day is over--factories do all the
work now.

And what schooling could he get away here in the country? Aunt
Marit offered to send him to a good school.--And so the die was
cast for him too.

But when they went with the boy to see him off at the station, the
mother's handkerchief was at her eyes all the time, do what she

And when they came home she had to lie down in bed, while Peer went
about the place, humming to himself, while he got ready a little
supper and brought it to her bedside.

"I can't understand how you can take it so easily," she burst out.

"No--no," he laughed a little oddly. "The less said about that the
better, perhaps."

But the next day it was Peer who said he felt lazy again and would
lie still a bit. Merle looked at him and stroked his forehead.

And the time went on. They worked hard and constantly to make both
ends meet without help, and they were content to take things as
they came. When the big dairy was started close by, he made a good
deal of money setting up the plant, but he was not above sharpening
a drill for the road-gangs either. He was often to be seen going
down to the country store in a sleeved waistcoat with a knapsack on
his back. He carried his head high, the close-trimmed beard was
shading over into white, his face often had the strained look that
comes from sleeplessness, but his step was light, and he still had
a joke for the girls whom he met.

In summer, the neighbours would often see them shutting up the
house and starting off up the hill with knapsack and coffee-kettle
and with little Asta trotting between them. They were gone, it
might be, to try and recapture some memory of old days, with coffee
in the open air by a picnic fire.

In the autumn, when the great fields yellowed all the hillsides,
Peer and Merle had a little plot of their own that showed golden
too. The dimensions of things had shrunk not a little for these
two. A bushel of corn was much to them now. It hit them hard if
their potato-patch yielded a couple of measures less than they had
reckoned on. But the housewives from the farms near by would often
look in on Merle to see how bright and clean she kept her little
house; and now that she had no one to help her, she found time
herself to teach the peasant girls something of cooking and sewing.

But one habit had grown upon her. She would stand long and long by
the window looking down the valley to where the hills closed it in.
It was as if she were looking constantly for something to come in
sight, something that should bring them better days. It was a kind
of Sunday for her to stand there and look and wait.

And the time went on.

Chapter VII


I write to tell you of what has lately happened to us here, chiefly
in the hope that it may be some comfort to yourself. For I have
discovered, dear friend, that this world-sorrow of ours is
something a man can get over, if only he will learn to see with
his own eyes and not with those of others.

Most men would say things have steadily gone from bad to worse
with me, and certainly I shall not pretend to feel any love for
suffering in itself. On the contrary, it hurts. It does not
ennoble. It rather brutalises, unless it becomes so great that it
embraces all things. I was once Engineer in charge at the First
Cataract--now I am a blacksmith in a country parish. And that
hurts. I am cut off from reading because of my eyes, and from
intercourse with people whose society would be a pleasure because
there are no such people here. All this hurts, even when you've
grown used to it--a good thing in itself it is not. Many times I
have thought that we must have reached the very bottom of the
inclined plane of adversity, but always it proved to be only a
break. The deepest deep was still to come. You work on even when
your head feels like to split; you save up every pin, every match;
and yet the bread you eat often tastes of charity. That hurts.
You give up hoping that things may be better some day; you give up
all hope, all dreams, all faith, all illusions--surely you have
come to the end of all things. But no; the very roots of one's
being are still left; the most precious thing of all is still left.
What can that be, you ask?

That is what I was going to tell you.

The thing that happened came just when things were beginning to
look a little brighter for us. For some time past my head had been
less troublesome, and I had got to work on a new harrow--steel
again; it never lets one rest--and you know what endless
possibilities a man sees in a thing like that. Merle was working
with fresh courage. What do you think of a wife like that? taking
up the cross of her own free will, to go on sharing the life of a
ruined man? I hope you may meet a woman of her sort one day.
True, her hair is growing grey, and her face lined. Her figure is
not so straight as once it was; her hands are red and broken. And
yet all this has a soul of its own, a beauty of its own, in my
eyes, because I know that each wrinkle is a mark left by the time
when some new trouble came upon us, and found us together. Then
one day she smiles, and her smile has grown strained and full of
sadness, but again it brings back to me times when both heaven and
earth breathed cold upon us and we drew closer to each other for
warmth. Our happiness and our sufferings have moulded her into
what she now is. The world may think perhaps that she is growing
old; to me she is only more beautiful than before.

And now I am coming to what I was going to tell you. You will
understand that it was not easy to send away the two children, and
it doesn't make things better to get letters from them constantly
begging us to let them come home again. But we had still one
little girl left, little Asta, who was just five. I wish you could
have seen her. If you were a father and your tortured nerves had
often made you harsh and unreasonable with the two elder ones, you
would try--would you not?--to make it up in loving-kindness to the
one that was left. Asta--isn't it pretty? Imagine a sunburnt
little being with black hair, and her mother's beautiful eyebrows,
always busy with her dolls, or fetching in wood, or baking little
cakes of her own for father when mother's baking bread for us all,
chattering to the birds on the roof, or singing now and then, just
because some stray note of music has come into her head. When
mother is busy scrubbing the floor, little Asta must needs get hold
of a wet rag behind her back and slop away at a chair, until she
has got herself in a terrible mess, and then she gets smacked, and
screams for a moment, but soon runs out and sings herself happy
again. When you're at work in the smithy, there comes a sound of
little feet, and "Father, come to dinner"; and a little hand takes
hold of you and leads you to the door. "Are you going to bath me
to-night, father?" Or "Here's your napkin, father." And though
there might be only potatoes and milk for dinner, she would eat as
if she were seated at the grandest banquet. "Aren't potatoes and
milk your favourite dish, father?" And she makes faces at you in
the eagerness of her questionings. At night she slept in a box at
the foot of our bed, and when I was lying sleepless, it would often
happen that her light, peaceful breathing filled me too with peace;
and it was as if her little hand took mine and led me on to sleep
itself, to beautiful, divine sleep.

And now, as I come to the thing that happened, I find it a little
hard to write--my hand begins to tremble. But my hope is that
there may be some comfort in it for you too, as there has proved to
be for Merle and me in the end.

Our next neighbours here were a brazier and his wife--poor folks,
like ourselves. Soon after we first came I went over to have a
talk with him. I found him a poor wizened little creature,
pottering about with his acids, and making a living as best as he
could, soldering and tinning kettles and pans. "What do you want?"
he asked, looking askance at me; and as I went out, I heard him
bolt the door behind me. Alas! he was afraid--afraid that I was
come to snatch his daily bread from him. His wife was a big-boned
fleshy lump of a woman, insolent enough in her ways, though she had
just been in prison for criminal abetment in the case of a girl
that had got into trouble.

One Sunday morning I was standing looking at some apple trees in
bloom in his garden. One of them grew so close to the fence that
the branches hung over on my side, and I bent one down to smell the
blossom. Then suddenly I heard a cry: "Hi, Tiger! catch him!" and
the brazier's great wolf-dog came bounding down, ready to fly at my
throat. I was lucky enough to get hold of its collar before it
could do me any harm, and I dragged it up to its owner, and told
him that if anything of the sort happened again I'd have the
sheriff's officer after him. Then the music began. He fairly let
himself go and told me what he thought of me. "You hold your jaw,
you cursed pauper, coming here taking the bread out of honest
working people's mouths," and so on. He hissed it out, flourishing
his arms about, and at last it seemed to me he was fumbling about
for a knife or something to throw at my head. I couldn't help
laughing. It was a scene in the grand style between two Great
Powers in the world-competition.

A couple of days later I was standing at the forge, when I heard a
shriek from my wife. I rushed out--what could be the matter?
Merle was down by the fence already, and all at once I saw what it
was--there was Asta, lying on the ground under the body of a great

And then-- Well, Merle tells me it was I that tore the thing away
from the little bundle of clothes beneath it, and carried our
little girl home.

A doctor is often a good refuge in trouble, but though he may sew
up a ragged tear in a child's throat ever so neatly, it doesn't
necessarily follow that it will help much.

There was a mother, though, that would not let him go--that cried
and prayed and clung about him, begging him to try once more if
nothing could be done. And when at last he was gone, she was
always for going after him again, and grovelled on the floor and
tore her hair--could not, would not, believe what she knew was

And that night a father and mother sat up together, staring
strangely in front of them. The mother was quiet now. The child
was laid out, decked and ready. The father sat by the window,
looking out. It was in May, and the night was grey.

Now it was that I began to realise how every great sorrow leads us
farther and farther out on the promontory of existence. I had come
to the outermost point now--there was no more.

And I discovered too, dear friend, that these many years of
adversity had shaped me not in one but in various moulds, for I had
in me the stuff for several quite distinct persons, and now the
work was done, and they could break free from my being and go their
several ways.

I saw a man rush out into the night, shaking his fist at heaven and
earth; a madman who refused to play his part in the farce any more,
and so rushed down towards the river.

But I myself sat there still.

And I saw another, a puny creature, let loose; a humble, ashen-grey
ascetic, that bent his head and bowed under the lash, and said:
"Thy will be done. The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away--" A
pitiful being this, that stole out into the night and disappeared.

But I myself sat there still.

I sat alone on the promontory of existence, with the sun and the
stars gone out, and ice-cold emptiness above me, about me, and in
me, on every side.

But then, my friend, by degrees it dawned on me that there was
still something left. There was one little indomitable spark in
me, that began to glow all by itself--it was as if I were lifted
back to the first day of existence, and an eternal will rose up in
me, and said: Let there be light!

This will it was that by and by grew and grew in me, and made me

I began to feel an unspeakable compassion for all men upon earth,
and yet in the last resort I was proud that I was one of them.

I understood how blind fate can strip and plunder us of all, and
yet something will remain in us at the last, that nothing in heaven
or earth can vanquish. Our bodies are doomed to die, and our
spirit to be extinguished, yet still we bear within us the spark,
the germ of an eternity of harmony and light both for the world and
for God.

And I knew now that what I had hungered after in my best years was
neither knowledge, nor honour, nor riches; nor to be a priest or a
great creator in steel; no, friend, but to build temples; not
chapels for prayers or churches for wailing penitent sinners, but a
temple for the human spirit in its grandeur, where we could lift up
our souls in an anthem as a gift to heaven.

I could never do this now. Perhaps there was nothing that I could
do any more. And yet it seemed to me as I sat there that I had

What happened then? Well, there had been a terrible drought all
that spring--it is often so in this valley. The eternal north wind
sent the dry mould sweeping in clouds over the whole countryside,
and we were threatened with one of our worst years of scarcity if
the rain didn't come.

At last people ventured to sow their corn, but then the frosts set
in, and snow and sleet, and the seed froze in the earth. My
neighbour the brazier had his patch of ground sown with barley--but
now he would have to sow it again, and where was he to get the
seed? He went from farm to farm begging for some, but people hated
the sight of him after what had happened about Asta--no one would
lend him any, and he had no money to buy. The boys on the roads
hooted after him, and some of the neighbours talked of driving him
out of the parish.

I wasn't able to sleep much the next night either, and when the
clock struck two I got up. "Where are you going?" asked Merle. "I
want to see if we haven't a half-bushel of barley left," I said.
"Barley--what do you want with barley in the middle of the night?"
"I want to sow the brazier's plot with it," I said, "and it's best
to do it now, so that nobody will know it was me."

She sat up and stared at me. "What? His--the--the brazier's?"

"Yes," said I. "It won't do us any good, you know, to see his bit
of field lying bare all summer."

"Peer--where are you going?"

"I've told you," said I, and went out. But I knew that she was
dressing and meant to come too.

It had rained during the night, and as I came out the air was soft
and easy to breathe. The morning still lay in a grey half-light
with yellow gleams from the wind-clouds to the north. The scent of
the budding birches was in the air, the magpies and starlings were
up and about, but not a human soul was to be seen; the farms were
asleep, the whole countryside was asleep.

I took the grain in a basket, climbed over the neighbour's fence
and began to sow. No sign of life in the house; the sheriff's
officer had come over and shot the dog the day before; no doubt the
brazier and his wife were lying sleeping, dreaming maybe of enemies
all around, trying their best to do them harm.

Dear friend, is there any need to tell the rest? Just think,
though, how one man may give away a kingdom, and it costs him
nothing, and another may give up a few handfuls of corn, and it
means to him not only all that he has, but a world of struggle and
passion before he can bring his soul to make that gift. Do you
think that is nothing? As for me--I did not do this for Christ's
sake, or because I loved my enemy; but because, standing upon the
ruins of my life, I felt a vast responsibility. Mankind must
arise, and be better than the blind powers that order its ways; in
the midst of its sorrows it must take heed that the god-like does
not die. The spark of eternity was once more aglow in me, and
said: Let there be light.

And more and more it came home to me that it is man himself that
must create the divine in heaven and on earth--that that is his
triumph over the dead omnipotence of the universe. Therefore I
went out and sowed the corn in my enemy's field, that God might

Ah, if you had known that moment! It was as if the air about me
grew alive with voices. It was as though all the unfortunates I
had seen and known were bearing me company; more and more they
came; the dead too were joined to us, an army from times past and
long ago. Sister Louise was there, she played her hymn, and drew
the voices all together into a choir, the choir of the living and
the dead, the choir of all mankind. See, here are we all, your
sisters and brothers. Your fate is ours. We are flung by the
indifferent law of the universe into a life that we cannot order as
we would; we are ravaged by injustice, by sickness and sorrow, by
fire and blood. Even the happiest must die. In his own home he is
but on a visit. He never knows but that he may be gone tomorrow.
And yet man smiles and laughs in the face of his tragic fate. In
the midst of his thraldom he has created the beautiful on earth; in
the midst of his torments he has had so much surplus energy of soul
that he has sent it radiating forth into the cold deeps of space
and warmed them with God.

So marvellous art thou, O spirit of man! So godlike in thy very
nature! Thou dost reap death, and in return thou sowest the dream
of everlasting life. In revenge for thine evil fate thou dost fill
the universe with an all-loving God.

We bore our part in his creation, all we who now are dust; we who
sank down into the dark like flames gone out;--we wept, we exulted,
we felt the ecstasy and the agony, but each of us brought our ray
to the mighty sea of light, each of us, from the negro setting up
the first mark above the grave of his dead to the genius raising
the pillars of a temple towards heaven. We bore our part, from the
poor mother praying beside a cradle, to the hosts that lifted their
songs of praise high up into boundless space.

Honour to thee, O spirit of man. Thou givest a soul to the world,
thou settest it a goal, thou art the hymn that lifts it into
harmony; therefore turn back into thyself, lift high thy head and
meet proudly the evil that comes to thee. Adversity can crush
thee, death can blot thee out, yet art thou still unconquerable and

Dear friend, it was thus I felt. And when the corn was sown, and I
went back, the sun was glancing over the shoulder of the hill.
There by the fence stood Merle, looking at me. She had drawn a
kerchief forward over her brow, after the fashion of the peasant
women, so that her face was in shadow; but she smiled to me--as if
she, too, the stricken mother, had risen up from the ocean of her
suffering that here, in the daybreak, she might take her share in
the creating of God. . . .



For the convenience of readers a few points in which Norwegian
pronunciation differs from English are noted below:

The vowels a, e, and i in the middle of words are pronounced much
as in Italian.

aa = long o, as in "post" or "pole."

e final is sounded, as in German; thus Louise, Merle, etc.

d final is nearly always elided; thus Raastad = Rosta'.

g before e or i is hard; thus Ringeby, not Rinjeby.

j = the English y; thus Bojer = Boyer, Jens = Yens.

l before another consonant is sounded; thus Holm, not Home.


The unit of currency in Norway is the crown (krone), which in
normal conditions is worth something over thirteen pence, so that
about eighteen crowns go to the pound sterling. Thus Peer Holm's
fortune in the Savings Bank represented about L100 in English
money, and a million crowns is equivalent to about $260,000 in
American money.

To avoid encumbering the reader unnecessarily with the details of
Norwegian currency, small amounts have been represented in this
translation by their equivalents in English money.

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