This etext was prepared by Donald Lainson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE GREAT HUNGER
by JOHAN BOJER
Translated from the Norwegian by
W. J. ALEXANDER WORSTER and C. ARCHER
THE GREAT HUNGER
For sheer havoc, there is no gale like a good northwester, when it roars in, through the long winter evenings, driving the spindrift before it between the rocky walls of the fjord. It churns the water to a froth of rushing wave crests, while the boats along the beach are flung in somersaults up to the doors of the grey fisher huts, and solid old barn gangways are lifted and sent flying like unwieldy birds over the fields. “Mercy on us!” cry the maids, for it is milking-time, and they have to fight their way on hands and knees across the yard to the cowshed, dragging a lantern that WILL go out and a milk-pail that WON’T be held. And “Lord preserve us!” mutter the old wives seated round the stove within doors–and their thoughts are far away in the north with the Lofoten fishermen, out at sea, maybe, this very night.
But on a calm spring day, the fjord just steals in smooth and shining by ness and bay. And at low water there is a whole wonderland of strange little islands, sand-banks, and weed-fringed rocks left high and dry, with clear pools between, where bare- legged urchins splash about, and tiny flat-fish as big as a halfpenny dart away to every side. The air is filled with a smell of salt sea-water and warm, wet beach-waste, and the sea-pie, see- sawing about on a big stone in the water, lifts his red beak cheerily sunwards and pipes: “Kluip, kluip! the spring has come!”
On just such a day, two boys of fourteen or thereabouts came hurrying out from one of the fishermen’s huts down towards the beach. Boys are never so busy as when they are up to some piece of mischief, and evidently the pair had business of this sort in hand. Peer Troen, fair-haired and sallow-faced, was pushing a wheelbarrow; his companion, Martin Bruvold, a dark youth with freckles, carried a tub. And both talked mysteriously in whispers, casting anxious glances out over the water.
Peer Troen was, of course, the ringleader. That he always was: the forest fire of last year was laid at his door. And now he had made it clear to some of his friends that boys had just as much right to lay out deep-sea lines as men. All through the winter they had been kept at grown-up work, cutting peat and carrying wood; why should they be left now to fool about with the inshore fishing, and bring home nothing better than flounders and coal-fish and silly codlings? The big deep-sea line they were forbidden to touch–that was so–but the Lofoten fishery was at its height, and none of the men would be back till it was over. So the boys had baited up the line on the sly down at the boathouse the day before, and laid it out across the deepest part of the fjord.
Now the thing about a deep-sea line is that it may bring to the surface fish so big and so fearsome that the like has never been seen before. Yesterday, however, there had been trouble of a different sort. To their dismay, the boys had found that they had not sinkers enough to weight the shore end of the line; and it looked as if they might have to give up the whole thing. But Peer, ever ready, had hit on the novel idea of making one end fast to the trunk of a small fir growing at the outermost point of the ness, and carrying the line from there out over the open fjord. Then a stone at the farther end, and with the magic words, “Fie, fish!” it was paid out overboard, vanishing into the green depths. The deed was done. True, there were a couple of hooks dangling in mid-air at the shore end, between the tree and the water, and, while they might serve to catch an eider duck, or a guillemot, if any one should chance to come rowing past in the dark and get hung up–why, the boys might find they had made a human catch. No wonder, then, that they whispered eagerly and hurried down to the boat.
“Here comes Peter Ronningen,” cried Martin suddenly.
This was the third member of the crew, a lanky youth with whitish eyebrows and a foolish face. He stammered, and made a queer noise when he laughed: “Chee-hee-hee.” Twice he had been turned down in the confirmation classes; after all, what was the use of learning lessons out of a book when nobody ever had patience to wait while he said them?
Together they ran the boat down to the water’s edge, got it afloat, and scrambled in, with much waving of patched trouser legs. “Hi!” cried a voice up on the beach, “let me come too!”
“There’s Klaus,” said Martin. “Shall we take him along?”
“No,” said Peter Ronningen.
“Oh yes, let’s,” said Peer.
Klaus Brock, the son of the district doctor, was a blue-eyed youngster in knickerbockers and a sailor blouse. He was playing truant, no doubt–Klaus had his lessons at home with a private tutor–and would certainly get a thrashing from his father when he got home.
“Hurry up,” called Peer, getting out an oar. Klaus clambered in, and the white-straked four-oar surged across the bay, rocking a little as the boys pulled out of stroke. Martin was rowing at the bow, his eyes fixed on Peer, who sat in the stern in command with his eyes dancing, full of great things to be done. Martin, poor fellow, was half afraid already; he never could understand why Peer, who was to be a parson when he grew up, was always hitting upon things to do that were evidently sinful in the sight of the Lord.
Peer was a town boy, who had been put out to board with a fisherman in the village. His mother had been no better than she should be, so people said, but she was dead now, and the father at any rate must be a rich gentleman, for he sent the boy a present of ten whole crowns every Christmas, so that Peer always had money in his pocket. Naturally, then, he was looked up to by the other boys, and took the lead in all things as a chieftain by right.
The boat moved on past the grey rocks, the beach and the huts above it growing blue and faint in the distance. Up among the distant hills a red wooden farm-house on its white foundation wall stood out clear.
Here was the ness at last, and there stood the fir. Peer climbed up and loosed the end of the line, while the others leaned over the side, watching the cord where it vanished in the depths. What would it bring to light when it came up?
“Row!” ordered Peer, and began hauling in.
The boat was headed straight out across the fjord, and the long line with its trailing hooks hauled in and coiled up neatly in the bottom of a shallow tub. Peer’s heart was beating. There came a tug–the first–and the faint shimmer of a fish deep down in the water. Pooh! only a big cod. Peer heaved it in with a careless swing over the gunwale. Next came a ling–a deep water fish at any rate this time. Then a tusk, and another, and another; these would please the women, being good eating, and perhaps make them hold their tongues when the men came home. Now the line jerks heavily; what is coming? A grey shadow comes in sight. “Here with the gaff!” cries Peer, and Peter throws it across to him. “What is it, what is it?” shriek the other three. “Steady! don’t upset the boat; a catfish.” A stroke of the gaff over the side, and a clumsy grey body is heaved into the boat, where it rolls about, hissing and biting at the bottom-boards and baler, the splinters crackling under its teeth. “Mind, mind!” cries Klaus–he was always nervous in a boat.
But Peer was hauling in again. They were nearly half-way across the fjord by now, and the line came up from mysterious depths, which no fisherman had ever sounded. The strain on Peer began to show in his looks; the others sat watching his face. “Is the line heavy?” asked Klaus. “Keep still, can’t you?” put in Martin, glancing along the slanting line to where it vanished far below. Peer was still hauling. A sense of something uncanny seemed to be thrilling up into his hands from the deep sea. The feel of the line was strange. There was no great weight, not even the clean tug-tug of an ordinary fish; it was as if a giant hand were pulling gently, very gently, to draw him overboard and down into the depths. Then suddenly a violent jerk almost dragged him over the side.
“Look out! What is it?” cried the three together.
“Sit down in the boat,” shouted Peer. And with the true fisherman’s sense of discipline they obeyed.
Peer was gripping the line firmly with one hand, the other clutching one of the thwarts. “Have we another gaff?” he jerked out breathlessly.
“Here’s one.” Peter Ronningen pulled out a second iron-hooked cudgel.
“You take it, Martin, and stand by.”
“But what–what is it?”
“Don’t know what it is. But it’s something big.”
“Cut the line, and row for your lives!” wailed the doctor’s son. Strange he should be such a coward at sea, a fellow who’d tackle a man twice his size on dry land.
Once more Peer was jerked almost overboard. He thought of the forest fire the year before–it would never do to have another such mishap on his shoulders. Suppose the great monster did come up and capsize them–they were ever so far from land. What a to do there would be if they were all drowned, and it came out that it was his fault. Involuntarily he felt for his knife to cut the line–then thrust it back again, and went on hauling.
Here it comes–a great shadow heaving up through the water. The huge beast flings itself round, sending a flurry of bubbles to the surface. And there!–a gleam of white; a row of great white teeth on the underside. Aha! now he knows what it is! The Greenland shark is the fiercest monster of the northern seas, quite able to make short work of a few boys or so.
“Steady now, Martin–ready with the gaff.”
The brute was wallowing on the surface now, the water boiling around him. His tail lashed the sea to foam, a big, pointed head showed up, squirming under the hook. “Now!” cried Peer, and two gaffs struck at the same moment, the boat heeled over, letting in a rush of water, and Klaus, dropping his oars, sprang into the bow, with a cry of “Jesus, save us!”
Next second a heavy body, big as a grown man, was heaved in over the gunwale, and two boys were all but shot out the other way. And now the fun began. The boys loosed their hold of the gaffs, and sprang apart to give the creature room. There it lay raging, the great black beast of prey, with its sharp threatening snout and wicked red eyes ablaze. The strong tail lashed out, hurling oars and balers overboard, the long teeth snapped at the bottom-boards and thwarts. Now and again it would leap high up in the air, only to fall back again, writhing furiously, hissing and spitting and frothing at the mouth, its red eyes glaring from one to another of the terrified captors, as if saying: “Come on–just a little nearer!”
Meanwhile, Martin Bruvold was in terror that the shark would smash the boat to pieces. He drew his knife and took a step forward–a flash in the air, and the steel went in deep between the back fins, sending up a spurt of blood. “Look out!” cried the others, but Martin had already sprung back out of reach of the black tail. And now the dance of death began anew. The knife was fixed to the grip in the creature’s back; one gaff had buried its hook between the eyes, and another hung on the flank–the wooden shafts were flung this way and that at every bound, and the boat’s frame shook and groaned under the blows.
“She’ll smash the boat and we’ll go to the bottom,” cried Peer.
And now HIS knife flashed out and sent a stream of blood spouting from between the shoulders, but the blow cost him his foothold–and in a moment the two bodies were rolling over and over together in the bottom of the boat.
“Oh, Lord Jesus!” shrieked Klaus, clinging to the stempost. “She’ll kill him! She’ll kill him!”
Peer was half up now, on his knees, but as he reached out a hand to grasp the side, the brute’s jaws seized on his arm. The boy’s face was contorted with pain–another moment and the sharp teeth would have bitten through, when, swift as thought, Peter Ronningen dropped his oars and sent his knife straight in between the beast’s eyes. The blade pierced through to the brain, and the grip of the teeth relaxed.
“C-c-cursed d-d-devil!” stammered Peter, as he scrambled back to his oars. Another moment, and Peer had dragged himself clear and was kneeling by the forward thwart, holding the ragged sleeve of his wounded arm, while the blood trickled through his fingers.
When at last they were pulling homeward, the little boat overloaded with the weight of the great carcase, all at once they stopped rowing.
“Where is Klaus?” asked Peer–for the doctor’s son was gone from where he had sat, clinging to the stem.
“Why–there he is–in the bottom!”
There lay the big lout of fifteen, who already boasted of his love- affairs, learned German, and was to be a gentleman like his father– there he lay on the bottom-boards in the bow in a dead faint.
The others were frightened at first, but Peer, who was sitting washing his wounded arm, took a dipper full of water and flung it in the unconscious one’s face. The next instant Klaus had started up sitting, caught wildly at the gunwale, and shrieked out:
“Cut the line, and row for your lives!”
A roar of laughter went up from the rest; they dropped their oars and sat doubled up and gasping. But on the beach, before going home, they agreed to say nothing about Klaus’s fainting fit. And for weeks afterwards the four scamps’ exploit was the talk of the village, so that they felt there was not much fear of their getting the thrashing they deserved when the men came home.
When Peer, as quite a little fellow, had been sent to live with the old couple at Troen, he had already passed several times from one adopted home to another, though this he did not remember. He was one of the madcaps of the village now, but it was not long since he had been a solitary child, moping apart from the rest. Why did people always say “Poor child!” whenever they were speaking about his real mother? Why did they do it? Why, even Peter Ronningen, when he was angry, would stammer out: “You ba-ba-bastard!” But Peer called the pock-marked good-wife at Troen “mother” and her bandy-legged husband “father,” and lent the old man a hand wherever he was wanted–in the smithy or in the boats at the fishing.
His childhood was passed among folk who counted it sinful to smile, and whose minds were gloomy as the grey sea-fog with poverty, psalm-singing, and the fear of hell.
One day, coming home from his work at the peat bog, he found the elders snuffling and sighing over their afternoon meal. Peer wiped the sweat from his forehead, and asked what was the matter.
The eldest son shoved a spoonful of porridge into his mouth, wiped his eyes, swallowed, and said: “Poor Peer!”
“Aye, poor little chap,” sighed the old man, thrusting his horn spoon into a crack in the wall that served as a rack.
“Neither father nor mother now,” whimpered the eldest daughter, looking over to the window.
“Mother? Is she–“
“Ay, dearie, yes,” sighed the old woman. “She’s gone for sure– gone to meet her Judge.”
Later, as the day went on, Peer tried to cry too. The worst thing of all was that every one in the house seemed so perfectly certain where his mother had gone to. And to heaven it certainly was not. But how could they be so sure about it?
Peer had seen her only once, one summer’s day when she had come out to see the place. She wore a light dress and a big straw hat, and he thought he had never seen anything so beautiful before. She made no secret of it among the neighbours that Peer was not her only child; there was a little girl, too, named Louise, who was with some folks away up in the inland parishes. She was in high spirits, and told risky stories and sang songs by no means sacred. The old people shook their heads over her–the younger ones watched her with sidelong glances. And when she left, she kissed Peer, and turned round more than once to look back at him, flushed under her big hat, and smiling; and it seemed to Peer that she must surely be the loveliest creature in all the world.
But now–now she had gone to a place where the ungodly dwell in such frightful torment, and no hope of salvation for her through all eternity–and Peer all the while could only think of her in a light dress and a big straw hat, all song and happy laughter.
Then came the question: Who was to pay for the boy now? True, his baptismal certificate said that he had a father–his name was Holm, and he lived in Christiania–but, from what the mother had said, it was understood that he had disappeared long ago. What was to be done with the boy?
Never till now had Peer rightly understood that he was a stranger here, for all that he called the old couple father and mother.
He lay awake night after night up in the loft, listening to the talk about him going on in the room below–the good-wife crying and saying: “No, no!”, the others saying how hard the times were, and that Peer was quite old enough now to be put to service as a goat- herd on some up-country farm.
Then Peer would draw the skin-rug up over his head. But often, when one of the elders chanced to be awake at night, he could hear some one in the loft sobbing in his sleep. In the daytime he took up as little room as he could at the table, and ate as little as humanly possible; but every morning he woke up in fear that to-day– to-day he would have to bid the old foster-mother farewell and go out among strangers.
Then something new and unheard of plumped down into the little cottage by the fjord.
There came a registered letter with great dabs of sealing-wax all over it, and a handwriting so gentlemanly as to be almost unreadable. Every one crowded round the eldest son to see it opened–and out fell five ten-crown notes. “Mercy on us!” they cried in amazement, and “Can it be for us?” The next thing was to puzzle out what was written in the letter. And who should that turn out to be from but–no other than Peer’s father, though he did not say it in so many words. “Be good to the boy,” the letter said. “You will receive fifty crowns from me every half-year. See that he gets plenty to eat and goes dry and well shod. Faithfully your, P. Holm, Captain.”
“Why, Peer–he’s–he’s– Your father’s a captain, an officer,” stammered the eldest girl, and fell back a step to stare at the boy.
“And we’re to get twice as much for him as before,” said the son, holding the notes fast and gazing up at the ceiling, as if he were informing Heaven of the fact.
But the old wife was thinking of something else as she folded her hands in thankfulness–now she needn’t lose the boy.
“Properly fed!” No need to fear for that. Peer had treacle with his porridge that very day, though it was only a week-day. And the eldest son gave him a pair of stockings, and made him sit down and put them on then and there; and the same night, when he went to bed, the eldest girl came and tucked him up in a new skin-rug, not quite so hairless as the old one. His father a captain! It seemed too wonderful to be true.
From that day times were changed for Peer. People looked at him with very different eyes. No one said “Poor boy” of him now. The other boys left off calling him bad names; the grown-ups said he had a future before him. “You’ll see,” they would say, “that father of yours will get you on; you’ll be a parson yet, ay, maybe a bishop, too.” At Christmas, there came a ten-crown note all for himself, to do just as he liked with. Peer changed it into silver, so that his purse was near bursting with prosperity. No wonder he began to go about with his nose in the air, and play the little prince and chieftain among the boys. Even Klaus Brock, the doctor’s son, made up to him, and taught him to play cards. But– “You surely don’t mean to go and be a parson,” he would say.
For all this, no one could say that Peer was too proud to help with the fishing, or make himself useful in the smithy. But when the sparks flew showering from the glowing iron, he could not help seeing visions of his own–visions that flew out into the future. Aye, he WOULD be a priest. He might be a sinner now, and a wild young scamp; he certainly did curse and swear like a trooper at times, if only to show the other boys that it was all nonsense about the earth opening and swallowing you up. But a priest he would be, all the same. None of your parsons with spectacles and a pot belly: no, but a sort of heavenly messenger with snowy white robes and a face of glory. Perhaps some day he might even come so far that he could go down into that place of torment where his mother lay, and bring her up again, up to salvation. And when, in autumn evenings, he stood outside his palace, a white-haired bishop, he would lift up his finger, and all the stars should break into song.
Clang, clang, sang the anvil under the hammer’s beat.
In the still summer evenings a troop of boys go climbing up the naked slopes towards the high wooded ranges to fetch home the cows for the milking. The higher they climb, the farther and farther their sight can travel out over the sea. And an hour or two later, as the sun goes down, here comes a long string of red-flanked cattle trailing down, with a faint jangle of bells, over the far- off ridges. The boys halloo them on–“Ohoo-oo-oo!”–and swing their ringed rowan staves, and spit red juice of the alder bark that they are chewing as men chew tobacco. Far below them they see the farm lands, grey in shadow, and, beyond, the waters of the fjord, yellow in the evening light, a mirror where red clouds and white sails and hills of liquid blue are shining. And away out on the farthest headland, the lonely star of the coast light over the grey sea.
On such an evening Peer came down from the hills just in time to see a gentleman in a carriole turn off from the highway and take the by-road down towards Troen. The horse balked suddenly at a small bridge, and when the driver reined him in and gave him a cut with his whip, the beast reared, swung about, and sent the cart fairly dancing round on its high wheels. “Oh, well, then, I’ll have to walk,” cried the gentleman angrily, and, flinging the reins to the lad behind him, he jumped down. Just at this moment Peer came up.
“Here, boy,” began the traveller, “just take this bag, will you? And–” He broke off suddenly, took a step backward, and looked hard at the boy. “What–surely it can’t be– Is it you, Peer?”
“Ye-es,” said Peer, gaping a little, and took off his cap.
“Well, now, that’s funny. My name is Holm. Well, well–well, well!”
The lad in the cart had driven off, and the gentleman from the city and the pale country boy with the patched trousers stood looking at each other.
The newcomer was a man of fifty or so, but still straight and active, though his hair and close-trimmed beard were sprinkled with grey. His eyes twinkled gaily under the brim of his black felt hat; his long overcoat was open, showing a gold chain across his waistcoat. With a pair of gloves and an umbrella in one hand, a light travelling bag in the other, and his beautifully polished shoes–a grand gentleman, thought Peer, if ever there was one. And this was his father!
“So that’s how you look, my boy? Not very big for your age–nearly sixteen now, aren’t you? Do they give you enough to eat?”
“Yes,” said Peer, with conviction.
The pair walked down together, towards the grey cottage by the fjord. Suddenly the man stopped, and looked at it through half- shut eyes.
“Is that where you’ve been living all these years?”
“In that little hut there?”
“Yes. That’s the place–Troen they call it.”
“Why, that wall there bulges so, I should think the whole affair would collapse soon.”
Peer tried to laugh at this, but felt something like a lump in his throat. It hurt to hear fine folks talk like that of father and mother’s little house.
There was a great flurry when the strange gentleman appeared in the doorway. The old wife was kneading away at the dough for a cake, the front of her all white with flour; the old man sat with his spectacles on, patching a shoe, and the two girls sprang up from their spinning wheels. “Well, here I am. My name’s Holm,” said the traveller, looking round and smiling. “Mercy on us! the Captain his own self,” murmured the old woman, wiping her hands on her skirt.
He was an affable gentleman, and soon set them all at their ease. He sat down in the seat of honour, drumming with his fingers on the table, and talking easily as if quite at home. One of the girls had been in service for a while in a Consul’s family in the town, and knew the ways of gentlefolk, and she fetched a bowl of milk and offered it with a curtsy and a: “Will the Captain please to take some milk?” “Thanks, thanks,” said the visitor. “And what is your name, my dear? Come, there’s nothing to blush about. Nicoline? First-rate! And you? Lusiana? That’s right.” He looked at the red-rimmed basin, and, taking it up, all but emptied it at a draught, then, wiping his beard, took breath. “Phu!–that was good. Well, so here I am.” And he looked around the room and at each of them in turn, and smiled, and drummed with his fingers, and said, “Well, well–well, well,” and seemed much amused with everything in general. “By the way, Nicoline,” he said suddenly, “since you’re so well up in titles, I’m not ‘Captain’ any more now; they’ve sent me up this way as Lieutenant-Colonel, and my wife has just had a house left her in your town here, so we may be coming to settle down in these parts. And perhaps you’d better send letters to me through a friend in future. But we can talk about all that by and by. Well, well–well, well.” And all the time he was drumming with his fingers on the table and smiling. Peer noticed that he wore gold sleeve-links and a fine gold stud in his broad white shirt-front.
And then a little packet was produced. “Hi, Peer, come and look; here’s something for you.” And the “something” was nothing less than a real silver watch–and Peer was quite unhappy for the moment because he couldn’t dash off at once and show it to all the other boys. “There’s a father for you,” said the old wife, clapping her hands, and almost in tears. But the visitor patted her on the shoulder. “Father? father? H’m–that’s not a thing any one can be so sure about. Hahaha!” And “hahaha” echoed the old man, still sitting with the awl in his hand. This was the sort of joke he could appreciate.
Then the visitor went out and strolled about the place, with his hands under his coat tails, and looked at the sky, and the fjord, and murmured, “Well, well–well, well,” and Peer followed him about all the while, and gazed at him as he might have gazed at a star. He was to sleep in a neighbour’s house, where there was a room that had a bed with sheets on it, and Peer went across with him and carried his bag. It was Martin Bruvold’s parents who were to house the traveller, and people stood round staring at the place. Martin himself was waiting outside. “This a friend of yours, Peer? Here, then, my boy, here’s something to buy a big farm with.” This time it was a five-crown note, and Martin stood fingering it, hardly able to believe his eyes. Peer’s father was something like a father.
It was a fine thing, too, to see a grand gentleman undress. “I’ll have things like that some day,” thought Peer, watching each new wonder that came out of the bag. There was a silver-backed brush, that he brushed his hair and beard with, walking up and down in his underclothes and humming to himself. And then there was another shirt, with red stripes round the collar, just to wear in bed. Peer nodded to himself, taking it all in. And when the stranger was in bed he took out a flask with a silver cork, that screwed off and turned into a cup, and had a dram for a nightcap; and then he reached for a long pipe with a beaded cord, and when it was drawing well he stretched himself out comfortably and smiled at Peer.
“Well, now, my boy–are you getting on well at school?”
Peer put his hands behind him and set one foot forward. “Yes–he says so–teacher does.”
“How much is twelve times twelve?”
That was a stumper! Peer hadn’t got beyond ten times ten.
“Do they teach you gymnastics at the school?”
“Gym–? What’s that?”
“Jumping and vaulting and climbing ropes and drilling in squads– what?”
“But isn’t it–isn’t that wicked?”
“Wicked! Hahaha! Wicked, did you say? So that’s the way they look at things here, is it? Well, well–well, well! Hahaha! Hand me that matchbox, my boy. H’m!” He puffed away for a while in silence. Then, suddenly:
“See here, boy. Did you know you’d a little sister?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Half-sister, that is to say. I didn’t quite know how it was myself. But I may as well tell you, my boy, that I paid the same for you all along, the same as now. Only I sent the money by your mother, and she–well, she, poor girl, had another one to look after, and no father to pay for it. So she made my money do for both. Hahaha! Well, poor girl, we can’t blame her for that. Anyhow, we’ll have to look after that little half-sister of yours now, I suppose, till she grows up. Don’t you think so yourself?”
Peer felt the tears coming. Think so!–indeed he did.
Next day Peer’s father went away. He stood there, ready to start, in the living-room at Troen, stiff felt hat and overcoat and all, and said, in a tone like the sheriff’s when he gives out a public notice at the church door:
“And, by the way, you’re to have the boy confirmed this year.”
“Yes, to be sure we will,” the old mother hastened to say.
“Then I wish him to be properly dressed, like the best of the other youngsters. And there’s fifty crowns for him to give the school- teacher and the parson as a parting gift.” He handed over some more notes.
“Afterwards,” he went on, “I mean, of course, to look after him until he can make his own way in a respectable position. But first we must see what he has a turn for, and what he’d like to be himself. He’d better come to town and talk it over with me–but I’ll write and arrange all that after he’s confirmed. Then in case anything unexpected should happen to me, there’s some money laid by for him in a savings bank account; he can apply to a friend of mine, who knows all about it. Well, good-bye, and very many thanks!”
And the great man smiled to right and left, and shook them all by the hand, and waved his hat and was gone.
For the next few days Peer walked on air, and found it hard to keep his footing at all on the common earth. People were for ever filling his head with talk about that savings bank account–it might be only a few thousands of crowns–but then again, it might run up to a million. A million! and here he was, eating herrings for dinner, and talking to Tom, Dick, and Harry just like any one else. A million crowns!
Late in the autumn came the confirmation, and the old wooden church, with its tarred walls, nestled among its mighty tree-tops, sent its chimes ringing and ringing out into the blue autumn air. It seemed to Peer like some kindly old grandmother, calling so lovingly: “Come, come–old and young–old and young–from fjord and valley–northways and southways; come, come–this day of all days–this day of all days–come, come, come!” So it had stood, ringing out the chimes for one generation after another through hundreds of years, and now it is calling to us. And the young folks are there, looking at one another in their new clothes, and blowing their noses on clean white handkerchiefs, so carefully folded. There comes Peter Ronningen, passed by good luck this year, but forced to turn out in a jacket borrowed from Peer, as the tailor wasn’t ready with his own new things. The boys say “how-do- you-do” and try to smile like grown-up folks. One or two of them may have some little account dating from old school-fights waiting to be settled–but, never mind–just as well to forget old scores now. Peer caught sight of Johan Koja, who stole a pencil from him last summer, but, after all, even that didn’t seem worth making a fuss about. “Well, how’ve you been getting on since last summer?” they ask each other, as they move together up the stone steps to the big church door, through which the peal of the organ comes rolling out to meet them.
How good it seems, and how kind, the little church, where all you see bids you welcome! Through the stained-glass windows with their tiny leaded panes falls a light so soft that even poor ugly faces seem beautiful. The organ tones are the very light itself turned into sweet sound. On one side of the nave you can see all the boys’ heads, sleek with water; on the other the little mothers to be, in grown-up dress to-day for the first time, kerchief on head and hymn-book in hand, and with careful faces. And now they all sing. The elder folks have taken their places farther back to-day, but they join in, looking up now and again from the book to those young heads in front, and wondering how they will fare in life. And the young folk themselves are thinking as they sing, “To-day is the beginning of new things. Play and frolic are over and done with; from today we’re grown-up.” But the church and all in it seemed to say: “If ever you are in heavy trouble, come hither to me.” Just look at that altar-piece there–the wood-carvings are a whole Bible in themselves–but Moses with the Tables of the Law is gentle of face to-day; you can see he means no harm after all. St. Peter, with the keys, pointing upwards, looks like a kind old uncle, bringing something good home from market. And then the angels on the walls, pictured or carved in wood, have borrowed the voice of the organ and the tones of the hymn, and they widen out the vaulted roof into the dome of heaven; while light and song and worshippers melt together and soar upwards toward the infinite spaces.
Peer was thinking all the time: I don’t care if I’m rich as rich, I WILL be a priest. And then perhaps with all my money I can build a church that no one ever saw the like of. And the first couple I’ll marry there shall be Martin Bruvold and little sister Louise–if only he’ll have her. Just wait and see!
A few days later he wrote to his father, asking if he might come into town now and go to school. A long time passed, and then at last a letter came in a strange hand-writing, and all the grown folks at Troen came together again to read it. But what was their amazement when they read:
“You will possibly have learned by now from the newspapers that your benefactor, Colonel Holm, has met his death by a fall from a horse. I must therefore request you to call on me personally at your earliest convenience, as I have several matters to settle with you. Yours faithfully, J. Grundt, Senior Master.”
They stood and looked at one another.
Peer was crying–chiefly, it must be admitted, at the thought of having to bid good-bye to all the Troen folks and the two cows, and the calf, and the grey cat. He might have to go right on to Christiania, no later than to-morrow–to go to school there; and when he came back–why, very likely the old mother might not be there any more.
So all three of them were heavy-hearted, when the pock-marked good- wife, and the bow-legged old man, came down with him to the pier. And soon he was standing on the deck of the fjord steamer, gazing at the two figures growing smaller and smaller on the shore. And then one hut after another in the little hamlet disappeared behind the ness–Troen itself was gone now–and the hills and the woods where he had cut ring staves and searched for stray cattle–swiftly all known things drew away and vanished, until at last the whole parish was gone, and his childhood over.
As evening fell, he saw a multitude of lights spread out on every side far ahead in the darkness. And next, with his little wooden chest on his shoulder, he was finding his way up through the streets by the quay to a lodging-house for country folk, which he knew from former visits, when he had come to the town with the Lofoten boats.
Next morning, clad in his country homespun, he marched up along River Street, over the bridge, and up the hill to the villa quarter, where he had to ask the way. At last he arrived outside a white-painted wooden house standing back in a garden. Here was the place–the place where his fate was to be decided. After the country fashion he walked in at the kitchen door.
A stout servant maid in a big white apron was rattling the rings of the kitchen range into place; there was a pleasing smell of coffee and good things to eat. Suddenly a door opened, and a figure in a dressing-gown appeared–a tall red-haired man with gold spectacles astride on a long red nose, his thick hair and scrubby little moustaches touched with grey. He gasped once or twice and then started sneezing–hoc-hoc-put-putsch!–wiped his nose with a large pocket-handkerchief, and grumbled out: “Ugh!–this wretched cold– can’t get rid of it. How about my socks, Bertha, my good girl; do you think they are quite dry now?”
“I’ve had them hung up ever since I lit the fire this morning,” said the girl, tossing her head.
“But who is this young gentleman, may I ask?” The gold spectacles were turned full on Peer, who rose and bowed.
“Said he wanted to speak to you, sir,” put in the maid.
“Ah. From the country, I see. Have you anything to sell, my lad?”
“No,” said Peer. He had had a letter. . . .
The red head seemed positively frightened at this–and the dressing-gown faltered backwards, as if to find support. He cast a hurried glance at the girl, and then beckoned with a long fore- finger to Peer. “Yes, yes, perfectly so. Be so good as to come this way, my lad.”
Peer found himself in a room with rows of books all round the walls, and a big writing-table in the centre. “Sit down, my boy.” The schoolmaster went and picked out a long pipe, and filled it, clearing his throat nervously, with an occasional glance at the boy. “H’m–so this is you. This is Peer–h’m.” He lit his pipe and puffed a little, found himself again obliged to sneeze–but at last settled down in a chair at the writing-table, stretched out his long legs, and puffed away again.
“So that’s what you look like?” With a quick movement he reached for a photograph in a frame. Peer caught a glimpse of his father in uniform. The schoolmaster lifted his spectacles, stared at the picture, then let down his spectacles again and fell to scrutinising Peer’s face. There was a silence for a while, and then he said: “Ah, indeed–I see–h’m.” Then turning to Peer:
“Well, my lad, it was very sudden–your benefactor’s end–most unexpected. He is to be buried to-day.”
“Benefactor?” thought Peer. “Why doesn’t he say ‘your father’?”
The schoolmaster was gazing at the window. “He informed me some time ago of–h’m–of all the–all the benefits he had conferred on you–h’m! And he begged me to keep an eye on you myself in case anything happened to him. And now”–the spectacles swung round towards Peer–“now you are starting out in life by yourself, hey?”
“Yes,” said Peer, shifting a little in his seat.
“You will have to decide now what walk in life you are to–er– devote yourself to.”
“Yes,” said Peer again, sitting up straighter.
“You would perhaps like to be a fisherman–like the good people you’ve been brought up among?”
“No.” Peer shook his head disdainfully. Was this man trying to make a fool of him?
“Some trade, then, perhaps?”
“Oh, then I suppose it’s to be America. Well, you will easily find company to go with. Such numbers are going nowadays–I am sorry to say. . . .”
Peer pulled himself together. “Oh, no, not that at all.” Better get it out at once. “I wish to be a priest,” he said, speaking with a careful town accent.
The schoolmaster rose from his seat, holding his long pipe up in the air in one hand, and pressing his ear forward with the other, as though to hear better. “What?–what did you say?”
“A priest,” repeated Peer, but he moved behind his chair as he spoke, for it looked as if the schoolmaster might fling the pipe at his head.
But suddenly the red face broke into a smile, exposing such an array of greenish teeth as Peer had never seen before. Then he said in a sort of singsong, nodding: “A priest? Oh, indeed! Quite a small matter!” He rose and wandered once or twice up and down the room, then stopped, nodded, and said in a fatherly tone– to one of the bookshelves: “H’m–really–really–we’re a little ambitious, are we not?”
He turned on Peer suddenly. “Look here, my young friend–don’t you think your benefactor has been quite generous enough to you already?”
“Yes, indeed he has,” said Peer, his voice beginning to tremble a little.
“There are thousands of boys in your position who are thrown out in the world after confirmation and left to shift for themselves, without a soul to lend them a helping hand.”
“Yes,” gasped Peer, looking round involuntarily towards the door.
“I can’t understand–who can have put these wild ideas into your head?”
With an effort Peer managed to get out: “It’s always been what I wanted. And he–father–“
“Who? Father–? Do you mean your benefactor?”
“Well, he was my father, wasn’t he?” burst out Peer.
The schoolmaster tottered back and sank into a chair, staring at Peer as if he thought him a quite hopeless subject. At last he recovered so far as to say: “Look here, my lad, don’t you think you might be content to call him–now and for the future–just your benefactor? Don’t you think he deserves it?”
“Oh, yes,” whispered Peer, almost in tears.
“You are thinking, of course–you and those who have put all this nonsense into your head–of the money which he–h’m–“
“Yes–isn’t there a savings bank account–?”
“Aha! There we are! Yes, indeed. There is a savings bank account–in my care.” He rose, and hunted out from a drawer a small green-covered book. Peer could not take his eyes from it. “Here it is. The sum entered here to your account amounts to eighteen hundred crowns.”
Crash! Peer felt as if he had fallen through the floor into the cellarage. All his dreams vanished into thin air–the million crowns–priest and bishop–Christiania–and all the rest.
“On the day when you are in a fair way to set up independently as an artisan, a farmer, or a fisherman–and when you seem to me, to the best of my judgment, to deserve such help–then and not till then I place this book at your disposal. Do you understand what I say?”
“I am perfectly sure that I am in full agreement with the wishes of the donor in deciding that the money must remain untouched in my safe keeping until then.”
“Yes,” whispered Peer.
“What?–are you crying?”
“No, pray don’t go yet. Sit down. There are one or two things we must get settled at once. First of all–you must trust me, my good boy. Do you believe that I wish you well, or do you not?”
“Then it is agreed that all these fancies about going to college and so forth must be driven out of your head once for all?”
“You can see yourself that, even supposing you had the mental qualifications, such a sum, generous as it is in itself, would not suffice to carry you far.”
“On the other hand, if you wish it, I will gladly arrange to get you an apprentice’s place with a good handicraftsman here. You would have free board there, and–well, if you should want clothes the first year or so, I dare say we could manage that. You will be better without pocket-money to fling about until you can earn it for yourself.”
Peer sighed, and drooped as he stood. When he saw the green-backed book locked into its drawer again, and heard the keys rattle as they went back into a pocket under the dressing-gown, he felt as if some one were pointing a jeering finger at him, and saying, “Yah!”
“Then there’s another thing. About your name. What name have you thought of taking, my lad–surname, I mean?”
“My name is Peer Holm!” said the boy, instinctively drawing himself up as he had done when the bishop had patted his head at the confirmation and asked his name.
The schoolmaster pursed up his lips, took off his spectacles and wiped them, put them on again, and turned to the bookshelves with a sigh. “Ah, indeed!–yes–yes–I almost thought as much.”
Then he came forward and laid a hand kindly on Peer’s shoulder.
“My dear boy–that is out of the question.”
A shiver went through Peer. Had he done something wrong again?
“See here, my boy–have you considered that there may be others of that name in this same place?”
“Wait a minute–and that you would occasion these–others–the deepest pain and distress if it should become known that–well, how matters stand. You see, I am treating you as a grown-up man–a gentleman. And I feel sure you would not wish to inflict a great sorrow–a crushing blow–upon a widow and her innocent children. There, there, my boy, there’s nothing to cry about. Life, my young friend, life has troubles that must be faced. What is the name of the farm, or house, where you have lived up to now?”
“Troen–a very good name indeed. Then from to-day on you will call yourself Peer Troen.”
“And if any one should ask about your father, remember that you are bound in honour and conscience not to mention your benefactor’s name.”
“Well, then, as soon as you have made up your mind, come at once and let me know. We shall be great friends yet, you will see. You’re sure you wouldn’t like to try America? Well, well, come along out to the kitchen and see if we can find you some breakfast.”
Peer found himself a moment after sitting on a chair in the kitchen, where there was such a good smell of coffee. “Bertha,” said the schoolmaster coaxingly, “you’ll find something good for breakfast for my young friend here, won’t you?” He waved a farewell with his hand, took down his socks from a string above the stove, and disappeared through the door again.
When a country boy in blue homespun, with a peaked cap on his blond head, goes wandering at random through the streets of a town, it is no particular concern of any one else. He moves along, gazing in at shop windows, hands deep in his pockets, whistling, looking at everything around him–or at nothing at all. And yet–perhaps in the head under that peaked cap it seems as if a whole little world had suddenly collapsed, and he may be whistling hard to keep from crying in the streets for people to see. He steps aside to avoid a cart, and runs into a man, who drops his cigar in the gutter. “Confounded country lout!” says the man angrily, but passes on and has forgotten boy and all the next moment. But a little farther on a big dog comes dashing out of a yard and unluckily upsets a fat old woman on the pavement, and the boy with the peaked cap, for all his troubles, cannot help doubling up and roaring with laughter.
That afternoon, Peer sat on one of the ramparts below the fortress, biting at a stalk of grass, and twirling the end in his fingers. Below him lay town and fjord in the mild October sunlight; the rumble of traffic, the noises from workshops and harbour, came up to him through the rust-brown luminous haze. There he sat, while the sentry on the wall above marched back and forth, with his rifle on his shoulder, left–right–left.
You may climb very high up indeed, and fall down very deep, and no such terrible harm done after all, as long as you don’t absolutely break your neck. And gradually Peer began to realise that he was still alive, after all. It is a bad business when the world goes against you, even though you may have some one to turn to for advice and sympathy. But when all the people round you are utter strangers, there is nothing to be done but sit down and twirl a straw, and think things out a bit for yourself. Peer’s thoughts were of a thing in a long dressing-gown that had taken his bank book and locked it up and rattled the keys at him and said “Yah!” and deposed him from his bishopric and tried to sneeze and squeeze him into a trade, where he’d have to carry a pressing-iron all his life and be Peer Troen, Tailor. But he wouldn’t have that. He sat there bracing himself up, and trying to gather together from somewhere a thing he had never had much need of before–to wit, a will of his own, something to set up against the whole wide world. What was he to do now? He felt he would like to go back to Troen first of all, and talk things over with the old father and mother; they would be sorry for him there, and say “Poor boy,” and pray for him–but after a day or two, he knew, they would begin to glance at him at meals, and remember that there was no one to pay for him now, and that times were hard. No, that was no refuge for him now. But what could he do, then? Clearly it was not such a simple matter to be all alone in the world.
A little later he found himself on a hillside by the Cathedral churchyard, sitting under the yellowing trees, and wondering dreamily where his father was to be buried. What a difference between him and that schoolmaster man! No preaching with him; no whining about what his boy might call himself or might not. Why must he go and die?
It was strange to think of that fine strong man, who had brushed his hair and beard so carefully with his silver-backed brush–to think that he was lying still in a coffin now, and would soon be covered up with earth.
People were coming up the hill now, and passing in to the churchyard. The men wore black clothes and tall shiny hats–but there were some officers too, with plumes and sashes. And then a regimental band–with its brass instruments. Peer slipped into the churchyard with the crowd, but kept apart from the rest, and took up his stand a little way off, beside a big monument. “It must be father’s funeral,” he thought to himself, and was broad awake at once.
This, he guessed, must be the Cadet School, that came marching in, and formed up in two lines from the mortuary chapel to the open grave. The place was nearly full of people now; there were women holding handkerchiefs to their eyes, and an elderly lady in black went into the chapel, on the arm of a tall man in uniform. “That must be father’s wife,” thought Peer, “and the young ladies there in black are–my half-sisters, and that young lieutenant–my half- brother.” How strange it all was! A sound of singing came from the chapel. And a little later six sergeants came out, carrying a coffin all heaped with flowers. “Present arms!” And the soldiers presented, and the band played a slow march and moved off in front of the coffin, between the two lines of soldiers. And then came a great following of mourners. The lady in black came out again, sobbing behind her handkerchief, and hardly able to follow, though she clung to the tall officer’s arm. But in front of the pair, just behind the coffin itself, walked a tall man in splendid uniform, with gold epaulettes, plumed hat, and sword, bearing a cushion with two jewelled stars. And the long, long train of mourners moved slowly, gently on, and there–there by the grave, stood the priest, holding a spade.
Peer was anxious to hear what the priest would have to say about his father. Involuntarily he stole a little nearer, though he felt somehow that it would not do to come too close.
A hymn was sung at the graveside, the band accompanying. Peer took off his cap. He was too taken up to notice that one of the mourners was watching him intently, and presently left the group and came towards him. The man wore spectacles, and a shiny tall hat, and it was not until he began to sneeze that Peer recognised him. It was the schoolmaster, glaring at him now with a face so full of horror and fury that the spectacles almost seemed to be spitting fire.
“You–you– Are you mad?” he whispered in Peer’s face, clenching his black gloved hands. “What are you doing here? Do you want to cause a catastrophe to-day of all days? Go–get away at once, do you hear me? Go! For heaven’s sake, get away from here before any one sees.” Peer turned and fled, hearing behind him as he went a threatening “If ever you dare–again–,” while the voices and the band, swelling higher in the hymn, seemed to strike him in the back and drive him on.
He was far down in the town before he could stop and pull himself together. One thing was clear–after this he could never face that schoolmaster again. All was lost. Could he even be sure that what he had done wasn’t so frightfully wrong that he would have to go to prison for it?
Next day the Troen folk were sitting at their dinner when the eldest son looked out of the window and said: “There’s Peer coming.”
“Mercy on us!” cried the good-wife, as he came in. “What is the matter, Peer? Are you ill?”
Ah, it was good that night to creep in under the old familiar skin- rug once more. And the old mother sat on the bedside and talked to him of the Lord, by way of comfort. Peer clenched his hands under the clothes–somehow he thought now of the Lord as a sort of schoolmaster in a dressing-gown. Yet it was some comfort all the same to have the old soul sit there and talk to him.
Peer had much to put up with in the days that followed–much tittering and whispers of “Look! there goes the priest,” as he went by. At table, he felt ashamed of every mouthful he took; he hunted for jobs as day-labourer on distant farms so as to earn a little to help pay for his keep. And when the winter came he would have to do as the others did–hire himself out, young and small as he was, for the Lofoten fishing.
But one day after church Klaus Brock drew him aside and got him to talk things over at length. First, Klaus told him that he himself was going away–he was to begin in one of the mechanical workshops in town, and go from there to the Technical College, to qualify for an engineer. And next he wanted to hear the whole truth about what had happened to Peer that day in town. For when people went slapping their thighs and sniggering about the young would-be priest that had turned out a beggar, Klaus felt he would like to give the lot of them a darned good hammering.
So the two sixteen-year-old boys wandered up and down talking, and in the days to come Peer never forgot how his old accomplice in the shark-fishing had stood by him now. “Do like me,” urged Klaus. “You’re a bit of a smith already, man; go to the workshops, and read up in your spare time for the entrance exam to the Technical. Then three years at the College–the eighteen hundred crowns will cover that–and there you are, an engineer–and needn’t even owe any one a halfpenny.”
Peer shook his head; he was sure he would never dare to show his face before that schoolmaster again, much less ask for the money in the bank. No; the whole thing was over and done with for him.
“But devil take it, man, surely you can see that this ape of a schoolmaster dare not keep you out of your money. Let me come with you; we’ll go up and tackle him together, and then–then you’ll see.” And Klaus clenched his fists and thrust out one shoulder fiercely.
But when January came, there was Peer in oil-skins, in the foc’s’le of a Lofoten fishing-smack, ploughing the long sea-road north to the fishing-grounds, in frost and snow-storms. All through that winter he lived the fisherman’s life: on land, in one of the tiny fisher-booths where a five-man crew is packed like sardines in an air so thick you can cut it with a knife; at sea, where in a fair wind you stand half the day doing nothing and freezing stiff the while–and a foul wind means out oars, and row, row, row, over an endless plain of rolling icy combers; row, row, till one’s hands are lumps of bleeding flesh. Peer lived through it all, thinking now and then, when he could think at all, how the grand gentlefolk had driven him out to this life because he was impertinent enough to exist. And when the fourteen weeks were past, and the Lofoten boats stood into the fjord again on a mild spring day, it was easy for Peer to reckon out his earnings, which were just nothing at all. He had had to borrow money for his outfit and food, and he would be lucky if his boy’s share was enough to cover what he owed.
A few weeks later a boy stood by the yard gate of an engineering works in the town just as the bell was ringing and the men came streaming out, and asked for Klaus Brock.
“Hullo, Peer–that you? Been to Lofoten and made your fortune?”
The two boys stood a moment taking stock of one another: Klaus grimy-faced and in working-clothes–Peer weather-beaten and tanned by storm and spray.
The manager of the factory was Klaus’s uncle, and the same afternoon his nephew came into the office with a new hand wanting to be taken on as apprentice. He had done some smithy work before, he said; and he was taken on forthwith, at a wage of twopence an hour.
“And what’s your name?”
“Peer–er”–the rest stuck in his throat.
“Holm,” put in Klaus.
“Peer Holm? Very well, that’ll do.”
The two boys went out with a feeling of having done something rather daring. And anyway, if trouble should come along, there would be two of them now to tackle it.
In a narrow alley off Sea Street lived Gorseth the job-master, with a household consisting of a lean and skinny wife, two half-starved horses, and a few ramshackle flies and sledges. The job-master himself was a hulking toper with red nose and beery-yellow eyes, who spent his nights in drinking and got home in the small hours of the morning when his wife was just about getting up. All through the morning she went about the place scolding and storming at him for a drunken ne’er-do-well, while Gorseth himself lay comfortably snoring.
When Peer arrived on the scene with his box on his shoulder, Gorseth was on his knees in the yard, greasing a pair of leather carriage-aprons, while his wife, sunken-lipped and fierce-eyed, stood in the kitchen doorway, abusing him for a profligate, a swine, and the scum of the earth. Gorseth lay there on all-fours, with the sun shining on his bald head, smearing on the grease; but every now and then he would lift his head and snarl out, “Hold your jaw, you damned old jade!”
“Haven’t you a room to let?” Peer asked.
A beery nose was turned towards him, and the man dragged himself up and wiped his hands on his trousers. “Right you are,” said he, and led the way across the yard, up some stairs, and into a little room with two panes of glass looking on to the street and a half-window on the yard. The room had a bed with sheets, a couple of chairs, and a table in front of the half-window. Six and six a month. Agreed. Peer took it on the spot, paid down the first month’s rent, and having got rid of the man sat down on his chest and looked about him. Many people have never a roof to their heads, but here was he, Peer, with a home of his own. Outside in the yard the woman had begun yelping her abuse again, the horses in the stable beneath were stamping and whinnying, but Peer had lodged in fisher-booths and peasants’ quarters and was not too particular. Here he was for the first time in a place of his own, and within its walls was master of the house and his own master.
Food was the next thing. He went out and bought in supplies, stocking his chest with plain country fare. At dinner time he sat on the lid, as fishermen do, and made a good solid meal of flat bannocks and cold bacon.
And now he fell-to at his new work. There was no question of whether it was what he wanted or not; here was a chance of getting up in the world, and that without having to beg any one’s leave. He meant to get on. And it was not long before his dreams began to take a new shape from his new life. He stood at the bottom of a ladder, a blacksmith’s boy–but up at the top sat a mighty Chief Engineer, with gold spectacles and white waistcoat. That was where he would be one day. And if any schoolmaster came along and tried to keep him back this time–well, just let him try it. They had turned him out of a churchyard once–he would have his revenge for that some day. It might take him years and years to do it, but one fine day he would be as good as the best of them, and would pay them back in full.
In the misty mornings, as he tramped in to his work, dinner-pail in hand, his footsteps on the plank bridge seemed hammering out with concentrated will: “To-day I shall learn something new–new–new!”
The great works down at the harbour–shipyard, foundry, and machine shops–were a whole city in themselves. And into this world of fire and smoke and glowing iron, steam-hammers, racing wheels, and bustle and noise, he was thrusting his way, intent upon one thing, to learn and learn and ever learn. There were plenty of those by him who were content to know their way about the little corner where they stood–but they would never get any farther. They would end their days broken-down workmen–HE would carve his way through till he stood among the masters. He had first to put in some months’ work in the smithy, then he would be passed on to the machine shops, then to work with the carpenters and painters, and finally in the shipyard. The whole thing would take a couple of years. But the works and all therein were already a kind of new Bible to him; a book of books, which he must learn by heart. Only wait!
And what a place it was for new adventures! Many times a day he would find himself gazing at some new wonder; sheer miracle and revelation–yet withal no creation of God’s grace, but an invention of men. Press a button, and behold, a miracle springs to life. He would stare at the things, and the strain of understanding them would sometimes keep him awake at night. There was something behind this, something that must be–spirit, even though it did not come from God. These engineers were priests of a sort, albeit they did not preach nor pray. It was a new world.
One day he was put to riveting work on an enormous boiler, and for the first time found himself working with a power that was not the power of his own hands. It was a tube, full of compressed air, that drove home the rivets in quick succession with a clashing wail from the boiler that sounded all over the town. Peer’s head and ears ached with the noise, but he smiled all the same. He was used to toil himself, in weariness of body; now he stood here master, was mind and soul and directing will. He felt it now for the first time, and it sent a thrill of triumph through every nerve of his body.
But all through the long evenings he sat alone, reading, reading, and heard the horses stamping in the stable below. And when he crept into bed, well after midnight, there was only one thing that troubled him–his utter loneliness. Klaus Brock lived with his uncle, in a fine house, and went to parties. And he lay here all by himself. If he were to die that very night, there would be hardly a soul to care. So utterly alone he was–in a strange and indifferent world.
Sometimes it helped him a little to think of the old mother at Troen, or of the church at home, where the vaulted roof had soared so high over the swelling organ-notes, and all the faces had looked so beautiful. But the evening prayer was no longer what it had been for him. There was no grey-haired bishop any more sitting at the top of the ladder he was to climb. The Chief Engineer that was there now had nothing to do with Our Lord, or with life in the world to come. He would never come so far now that he could go down into the place of torment where his mother lay, and bring her up with him, up to salvation. And whatever power and might he gained, he could never stand in autumn evenings and lift up his finger and make all the stars break into song.
Something was past and gone for Peer. It was as if he were rowing away from a coast where red clouds hung in the sky and dream- visions filled the air–rowing farther and farther away, towards something quite new. A power stronger than himself had willed it so.
One Sunday, as he sat reading, the door opened, and Klaus Brock entered whistling, with his cap on the back of his head.
“Hullo, old boy! So this is where you live?”
“Yes, it is–and that’s a chair over there.”
But Klaus remained standing, with his hands in his pockets and his cap on, staring about the room. “Well, I’m blest!” he said at last. “If he hasn’t stuck up a photograph of himself on his table!”
“Well, did you never see one before? Don’t you know everybody has them?”
“Not their own photos, you ass! If anybody sees that, you’ll never hear the last of it.”
Peer took up the photograph and flung it under the bed. “Well, it was a rubbishy thing,” he muttered. Evidently he had made a mistake. “But what about this?”–pointing to a coloured picture he had nailed up on the wall.
Klaus put on his most manly air and bit off a piece of tobacco plug. “Ah! that!” he said, trying not to laugh too soon.
“Yes; it’s a fine painting, isn’t it? I got it for fourpence.”
“Painting! Ha-ha! that’s good! Why, you silly cow, can’t you see it’s only an oleograph?”
“Oh, of course you know all about it. You always do.”
“I’ll take you along one day to the Art Gallery,” said Klaus. “Then you can see what a real painting looks like. What’s that you’ve got there–English reader?”
“Yes,” put in Peer eagerly; “hear me say a poem.” And before Klaus could protest, he had begun to recite.
When he had finished, Klaus sat for a while in silence, chewing his quid. “H’m!” he said at last, “if our last teacher, Froken Zebbelin, could have heard that English of yours, we’d have had to send for a nurse for her, hanged if we wouldn’t!”
This was too much. Peer flung the book against the wall and told the other to clear out to the devil. When Klaus at last managed to get a word in, he said:
“If you are to pass your entrance at the Technical you’ll have to have lessons–surely you can see that. You must get hold of a teacher.”
“Easy for you to talk about teachers! Let me tell you my pay is twopence an hour.”
“I’ll find you one who can take you twice a week or so in languages and history and mathematics. I daresay some broken-down sot of a student would take you on for sevenpence a lesson. You could run to that, surely?”
Peer was quiet now and a little pensive. “Well, if I give up butter, and drink water instead of coffee–“
Klaus laughed, but his eyes were moist. Hard luck that he couldn’t offer to lend his comrade a few shillings–but it wouldn’t do.
So the summer passed. On Sundays Peer would watch the young folks setting out in the morning for the country, to spend the whole day wandering in the fields and woods, while he sat indoors over his books. And in the evening he would stick his head out of his two- paned window that looked on to the street, and would see the lads and girls coming back, flushed and noisy, with flowers and green boughs in their hats, crazy with sunshine and fresh air. And still he must sit and read on. But in the autumn, when the long nights set in, he would go for a walk through the streets before going to bed, as often as not up to the white wooden house where the manager lived. This was Klaus’s home. Lights in the windows, and often music; the happy people that lived here knew and could do all sorts of things that could never be learned from books. No mistake: he had a goodish way to go–a long, long way. But get there he would.
One day Klaus happened to mention, quite casually, where Colonel Holm’s widow lived, and late one evening Peer made his way out there, and cautiously approached the house. It was in River Street, almost hidden in a cluster of great trees, and Peer stood there, leaning against the garden fence, trembling with some obscure emotion. The long rows of windows on both floors were lighted up; he could hear youthful laughter within, and then a young girl’s voice singing–doubtless they were having a party. Peer turned up his collar against the wind, and tramped back through the town to his lodging above the carter’s stable.
For the lonely working boy Saturday evening is a sort of festival. He treats himself to an extra wash, gets out his clean underclothes from his chest, and changes. And the smell of the newly-washed underclothing calls up keenly the thought of a pock-marked old woman who sewed and patched it all, and laid it away so neatly folded. He puts it on carefully, feeling almost as if it were Sunday already.
Now and again, when a Sunday seemed too long, Peer would drift into the nearest church. What the parson said was all very good, no doubt, but Peer did not listen; for him there were only the hymns, the organ, the lofty vaulted roof, the coloured windows. Here, too, the faces of the people looked otherwise than in the street without; touched, as it were, by some reflection from all that their thoughts aspired to reach. And it was so homelike here. Peer even felt a sort of kinship with them all, though every soul there was a total stranger.
But at last one day, to his surprise, in the middle of a hymn, a voice within him whispered suddenly: “You should write to your sister. She’s as much alone in the world as you are.”
And one evening Peer sat down and wrote. He took quite a lordly tone, saying that if she wanted help in any way, she need only let him know. And if she would care to move in to town, she could come and live with him. After which he remained, her affectionate brother, Peer Holm, engineer apprentice.
A few days later there came a letter addressed in a fine slanting hand. Louise had just been confirmed. The farmer she was with wished to keep her on as dairymaid through the winter, but she was afraid the work would be too heavy for her. So she was coming in to town by the boat arriving on Sunday evening. With kind regards, his sister, Louise Hagen.
Peer was rather startled. He seemed to have taken a good deal on his shoulders.
On Sunday evening he put on his blue suit and stiff felt hat, and walked down to the quay. For the first time in his life he had some one else to look after–he was to be a father and benefactor from now on to some one worse off than himself. This was something new. The thought came back to him of the jolly gentleman who had come driving down one day to Troen to look after his little son. Yes, that was the way to do things; that was the sort of man he would be. And involuntarily he fell into something of his father’s look and step, his smile, his lavish, careless air. “Well, well– well, well–well, well,” he seemed saying to himself. He might almost, in his fancy, have had a neat iron-grey beard on his chin.
The little green steamboat rounded the point and lay in to the quay, the gangways were run out, porters jumped aboard, and all the passengers came bundling ashore. Peer wondered how he was to know her, this sister whom he had never seen.
The crowd on deck soon thinned, and people began moving off from the quay into the town.
Then Peer was aware of a young peasant-girl, with a box in one hand and a violin-case in the other. She wore a grey dress, with a black kerchief over her fair hair; her face was pale, and finely cut. It was his mother’s face; his mother as a girl of sixteen. Now she was looking about her, and now her eyes rested on him, half afraid, half inquiring.
“Is it you, Louise?”
“Is that you, Peer?”
They stood for a moment, smiling and measuring each other with their eyes, and then shook hands.
Together they carried the box up through the town, and Peer was so much of a townsman already that he felt a little ashamed to find himself walking through the streets, holding one end of a trunk, with a peasant-girl at the other. And what a clatter her thick shoes made on the pavement! But all the time he was ashamed to feel ashamed. Those blue arch eyes of hers, constantly glancing up at him, what were they saying? “Yes, I have come,” they said–“and I’ve no one but you in all the world–and here I am,” they kept on saying.
“Can you play that?” he asked, with a glance at her violin-case.
“Oh well; my playing’s only nonsense,” she laughed. And she told how the old sexton she had been living with last had not been able to afford a new dress for her confirmation, and had given her the violin instead.
“Then didn’t you have a new dress to be confirmed in?”
“But wasn’t it–didn’t you feel horrible, with the other girls standing by you all dressed up fine?”
She shut her eyes for a moment. “Oh, yes–it WAS horrid,” she said.
A little farther on she asked: “Were you boarded out at a lot of places?”
“Five, I think.”
“Pooh–why, that’s nothing. I was at nine, I was.” The girl was smiling again.
When they came up to his room she stood for a moment looking round the place. It was hardly what she had expected to find. And she had not been in town lodgings before, and her nose wrinkled up a little as she smelt the close air. It seemed so stuffy, and so dark.
“We’ll light the lamp,” he said.
Presently she laughed a little shyly, and asked where she was to sleep.
“Lord bless us, you may well ask!” Peer scratched his head. “There’s only one bed, you see.” At that they both burst out laughing.
“The one of us’ll have to sleep on the floor,” suggested the girl.
“Right. The very thing,” said he, delighted. “I’ve two pillows; you can have one. And two rugs–anyway, you won’t be cold.”
“And then I can put on my other dress over,” she said. “And maybe you’ll have an old overcoat–“
“Splendid! So we needn’t bother any more about that.”
“But where do you get your food from?” She evidently meant to have everything cleared up at once.
Peer felt rather ashamed that he hadn’t money enough to invite her to a meal at an eating-house then and there. But he had to pay his teacher’s fees the next day; and his store-box wanted refilling too.
“I boil the coffee on the stove there overnight,” he said, “so that it’s all ready in the morning. And the dry food I keep in that box there. We’ll see about some supper now.” He opened the box, fished out a loaf and some butter, and put the kettle on the stove. She helped him to clear the papers off the table, and spread the feast on it. There was only one knife, but it was really much better fun that way than if he had had two. And soon they were seated on their chairs–they had a chair each–having their first meal in their own home, he and she together.
It was settled that Louise should sleep on the floor, and they both laughed a great deal as he tucked her in carefully so that she shouldn’t feel cold. It was not till afterwards, when the lamp was out, that they noticed that the autumn gales had set in, and there was a loud north-wester howling over the housetops. And there they lay, chatting to each other in the dark, before falling asleep.
It seemed a strange and new thing to Peer, this really having a relation of his own–and a girl, too–a young woman. There she lay on the floor near by him, and from now on he was responsible for what was to become of her in the world. How should he put that job through?
He could hear her turning over. The floor was hard, very likely.
“Did you ever see mother?”
“Or your father?”
“My father?” She gave a little laugh.
“Yes, haven’t you ever seen him either?”
“Why, how should I, silly? Who says that mother knew herself who it was?”
There was a pause. Then Peer brought out, rather awkwardly: “We’re all alone, then–you and I.”
“Yes–we are that.”
“Louise! What are you thinking of taking to now?”
“What are you?”
So Peer told her all his plans. She said nothing for a little while–no doubt she was lying thinking of the grand things he had before him.
At last she spoke. “Do you think–does it cost very much to learn to be a midwife?”
“A midwife–is that what you want to be, girl?” Peer couldn’t help laughing. So this was what she had been planning in these days– since he had offered to help her on in the world.
“Do you think my hands are too big?” she ventured presently–he could just hear the whisper.
Peer felt a pang of pity. He had noticed already how ill the red swollen hands matched her pale clear-cut face, and he knew that in the country, when any one has small, fine hands, people call them “midwife’s hands.”
“We’ll manage it somehow, I daresay,” said Peer, turning round to the wall. He had heard that it cost several hundred crowns to go through the course at the midwifery school. It would be years before he could get together anything like that sum. Poor girl, it looked as if she would have a long time to wait.
After that they fell silent. The north-wester roared over the housetops, and presently brother and sister were asleep.
When Peer awoke the next morning, Louise was about already, making coffee over the little stove. Then she opened her box, took out a yellow petticoat and hung it on a nail, placed a pair of new shoes against the wall, lifted out some under-linen and woollen stockings, looked at them, and put them back again. The little box held all her worldly goods.
As Peer was getting up: “Gracious mercy!” she cried suddenly, “what is that awful noise down in the yard?”
“Oh, that’s nothing to worry about,” said Peer. “It’s only the job-master and his wife. They carry on like that every blessed morning; you’ll soon get used to it.”
Soon they were seated once more at the little table, drinking coffee and laughing and looking at each other. Louise had found time to do her hair–the two fair plaits hung down over her shoulders.
It was time for Peer to be off, and, warning the girl not to go too far from home and get lost, he ran down the stairs.
At the works he met Klaus Brock, and told him that his sister had come to town.
“But what are you going to do with her?” asked Klaus.
“Oh, she’ll stay with me for the present.”
“Stay with you? But you’ve only got one room and one bed, man!”
“Well–she can sleep on the floor.”
“She? Your sister? She’s to sleep on the floor–and you in the bed!” gasped Klaus.
Peer saw he had made a mistake again. “Of course I was only fooling,” he hastened to say. “Of course it’s Louise that’s to have the bed.”
When he came home he found she had borrowed a frying-pan from the carter’s wife, and had fried some bacon and boiled potatoes; so that they sat down to a dinner fit for a prince.
But when the girl’s eyes fell on the coloured print on the wall, and she asked if it was a painting, Peer became very grand at once. “That–a painting? Why, that’s only an oleograph, silly! No, I’ll take you along to the Art Gallery one day, and show you what real paintings are like.” And he sat drumming with his fingers on the table, and saying: “Well, well–well, well, well!”
They agreed that Louise had better look out at once for some work to help things along. And at the first eating-house they tried, she was taken on at once in the kitchen to wash the floor and peel potatoes.
When bedtime came he insisted on Louise taking the bed. “Of course all that was only a joke last night,” he explained. “Here in town women always have the best of everything–that’s what’s called manners.” As he stretched himself on the hard floor, he had a strange new feeling. The narrow little garret seemed to have widened out now that he had to find room in it for a guest. There was something not unpleasant even in lying on the hard floor, since he had chosen to do it for some one else’s sake.
After the lamp was out he lay for a while, listening to her breathing. Then at last:
“Is your father–was his name Hagen?”
“Yes. It says so on the certificate.”
“Then you’re Froken Hagen. Sounds quite fine, doesn’t it?”
“Uf! Now you’re making fun of me.”
“And when you’re a midwife, Froken Hagen might quite well marry a doctor, you know.”
“Silly! There’s no chance–with hands like mine.”
“Do you think your hands are too big for you to marry a doctor?”
“Uf! you ARE a crazy thing. Ha-ha-ha!”
They both snuggled down under the clothes, with the sense of ease and peace that comes from sharing a room with a good friend in a happy humour.
“Well, good-night, Louise.”
So things went on till winter was far spent. Now that Louise, too, was a wage-earner, and could help with the expenses, they could dine luxuriously at an eating-house every day, if they pleased, on meat-cakes at fourpence a portion. They managed to get a bed for Peer that could be folded up during the day, and soon learned, too, that good manners required they should hang up Louise’s big woollen shawl between them as a modest screen while they were dressing and undressing. And Louise began to drop her country speech and talk city-fashion like her brother.
One thought often came to Peer as he lay awake. “The girl is the very image of mother, that’s certain–what if she were to go the same way? Well, no, that she shall not. You’re surely man enough to see to that. Nothing of that sort shall happen, my dear Froken Hagen.”
They saw but little of each other during the day, though, for they were apart from early in the morning till he came home in the evening. And when he lectured her, and warned her to be careful and take no notice of men who tried to speak to her, Louise only laughed. When Klaus Brock came up one day to visit them, and made great play with his eyes while he talked to her, Peer felt much inclined to take him by the scruff of the neck and throw him downstairs.
When Christmas-time was near they would wander in the long evenings through the streets and look in at the dazzlingly lit shop-windows, with their tempting, glittering show of gold and finery. Louise kept asking continually how much he thought this thing or that cost–that lace, or the cloak, or the stockings, or those gold brooches. “Wait till you marry that doctor,” Peer would say, “then you can buy all those things.” So far neither of them had an overcoat, but Peer turned up his coat-collar when he felt cold, and Louise made the most of her thick woollen dress and a pair of good country gloves that kept her quite warm. And she had adventured on a hat now, in place of her kerchief, and couldn’t help glancing round, thinking people must notice how fine she was.
On Christmas Eve he carried up buckets of water from the yard, and she had a great scrubbing-out of the whole room. And then they in their turn had a good wash, helping each other in country fashion to scrub shoulders and back.
Peer was enough of a townsman now to have laid in a few little presents to give his sister; but the girl, who had not been used to such doings, had nothing for him, and wept a good deal when she realised it. They ate cakes from the confectioner’s with syrup over them, and drank chocolate, and then Louise played a hymn-tune, in her best style, on her violin, and Peer read the Christmas lessons from the prayer-book–it was all just like what they used to do at Troen on Christmas Eve. And that night, after the lamp was put out, they lay awake talking over plans for the future. They promised each other that when they had got well on in the world, he in his line and she in hers, they would manage to live near each other, so that their children could play together and grow up good friends. Didn’t she think that was a good idea? Yes, indeed she did. And did he really mean it? Yes, of course he meant it, really.
But later on in the winter, when she sat at home in the evenings waiting for him–he often worked overtime–she was sometimes almost afraid. There was his step on the stairs! If it was hurried and eager she would tremble a little. For the moment he was inside the door he would burst out: “Hurrah, my girl! I’ve learnt something new to-day, I tell you!” “Have you, Peer?” And then out would pour a torrent of talk about motors and power and pressures and cylinders and cranes and screws, and such-like. She would sit and listen and smile, but of course understood not a word of it all, and as soon as Peer discovered this he would get perfectly furious, and call her a little blockhead.
Then there were the long evenings when he sat at home reading, by himself or with his teacher and she had to sit so desperately still that she hardly dared take a stitch with her needle. But one day he took it into his head that his sister ought to be studying too; so he set her a piece of history to learn by the next evening. But time to learn it–where was that to come from? And then he started her writing to his dictation, to improve her spelling–and all the time she kept dropping off to sleep. She had washed so many floors and peeled so many potatoes in the daytime that now her body felt like lead.
“Look here, my fine girl!” he would storm at her, raging up and down the room, “if you think you can get on in the world without education, you’re most infernally mistaken.” He succeeded in reducing her to tears–but it wasn’t long before her head had fallen forward on the table again and she was fast asleep. So he realised there was nothing for it but to help her to bed–as quietly as possible, so as not to wake her up.
Some way on in the spring Peer fell sick. When the doctor came, he looked round the room, sniffed, and frowned. “Do you call this a place for human beings to live in?” he asked Louise, who had taken the day off. “How can you expect to keep well?”
He examined Peer, who lay coughing, his face a burning red. “Yes, yes–just as I expected. Inflammation of the lungs.” He glanced round the room once more. “Better get him off to the hospital at once,” he said.
Louise sat there in terror at the idea that Peer was to be taken away. And then, as the doctor was going, he looked at her more closely, and said: “You’d do well to be a bit careful yourself, my good girl. You look as if you wanted a change to a decent room, with a little more light and air, pretty badly. Good-morning.”
Soon after he was gone the hospital ambulance arrived. Peer was carried down the stairs on a stretcher, and the green-painted box on wheels opened its door and swallowed him up; and they would not even let her go with him. All through the evening she sat in their room alone, sobbing.
The hospital was one of the good old-fashioned kind that people don’t come near if they can help it, because the walls seem to reek of the discomfort and wretchedness that reign inside. The general wards–where the poor folks went–were always so overcrowded that patients with all sorts of different diseases had to be packed into the same rooms, and often infected each other. When an operation was to be performed, things were managed in the most cheerfully casual way: the patient was laid on a stretcher and carried across the open yard, often in the depth of winter, and as he was always covered up with a rug, the others usually thought he was being taken off to the dead-house.
When Peer opened his eyes, he was aware of a man in a white blouse standing by the foot of his bed. “Why, I believe he’s coming-to,” said the man, who seemed to be a doctor. Peer found out afterwards from a nurse that he had been unconscious for more than twenty-four hours.
He lay there, day after day, conscious of nothing but the stabbing of a red-hot iron boring through his chest and cutting off his breathing. Some one would come every now and then and pour port wine and naphtha into his mouth; and morning and evening he was washed carefully with warm water by gentle hands. But little by little the room grew lighter, and his gruel began to have some taste. And at last he began to distinguish the people in the beds near by, and to chat with them.
On his right lay a black-haired, yellow-faced dock labourer with a broken nose. His disease, whatever it might be, was clearly different from Peer’s. He plagued the nurse with foul-mouthed complaints of the food, swearing he would report about it. On the other side lay an emaciated cobbler with a soft brown beard like the Christ pictures, and cheeks glowing with fever. He was dying of cancer. At right angles with him lay a man with the face and figure of a prophet–a Moses–all bushy white hair and beard; he was in the last stage of consumption, and his cough was like a riveting machine. “Huh!” he would groan, “if only I could get across to Germany there’d be a chance for me yet.” Beside him was a fellow with short beard and piercing eyes, who was a little off his head, and imagined himself a corporal of the Guards. Often at night the others would be wakened by his springing upright in bed and calling out: “Attention!”
One man lay moaning and groaning all the time, turning from side to side of a body covered with sores. But one day he managed to swallow some of the alcohol they used as lotion, and after that lay singing and weeping alternately. And there was a red-bearded man with glasses, a commercial traveller; he had put a bullet into his head, but the doctors had managed to get it out again, and now he lay and praised the Lord for his miraculous deliverance.
It was strange to Peer to lie awake at night in this great room in the dim light of the night-lamp; it seemed as if beings from the land of the dead were stirring in those beds round about him. But in the daytime, when friends and relations of the patients came a- visiting, Peer could hardly keep from crying. The cobbler had a wife and a little girl who came and sat beside him, gazing at him as if they could never let him go. The prophet, too, had a wife, who wept inconsolably–and all the rest seemed to have some one or other to care for them. But where was Louise–why did Louise never come?
The man on the right had a sister, who came sweeping in, gorgeous in her trailing soiled silk dress. Her shoes were down at heel, but her hat was a wonder, with enormous plumes. “Hallo, Ugly! how goes it?” she said; and sat down and crossed her legs. Then the pair would talk mysteriously of people with strange names: “The Flea,” “Cockroach,” “The Galliot,” “King Ring,” and the like, evidently friends of theirs. One day she managed to bring in a small bottle of brandy, a present from “The Hedgehog,” and smuggle it under the bedclothes. As soon as she had gone, and the coast was clear, Peer’s neighbour drew out the bottle, managed to work the cork out, and offered him a drink. “Here’s luck, sonny; do you good.” No–Peer would rather not. Then followed a gurgling sound from the docker’s bed, and soon he too was lying singing at the top of his voice.
At last one day Louise came. She was wearing her neat hat, and had a little bundle in her hand, and as she came in, looking round the room, the close air of the sick-ward seemed to turn her a little faint. But then she caught sight of Peer, and smiled, and came cautiously to him, holding out her hand. She was astonished to find him so changed. But as she sat down by his pillow she was still smiling, though her eyes were full of tears.
“So you’ve come at last, then?” said Peer.
“They wouldn’t let me in before,” she said with a sob. And then Peer learned that she had come there every single day, but only to be told that he was too ill to see visitors.
The man with the broken nose craned his head forward to get a better view of the modest young girl. And meanwhile she was pulling out of the bundle the offering she had brought–a bottle of lemonade and some oranges.
But it was a day or two later that something happened which Peer was often to remember in the days to come.