Theodor Storm (18171888). The Rider on the White Horse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
At the word of the mistress, the maid had rushed out; from the room one could see how her skirts were flying. But when she had loosened the hooks, the storm tore the shutter out of her hand and threw it against the window, so that several panes flew splintered into the room and one of the candles went out, smoking. Hauke had to go out himself to help, and only with trouble did they gradually get the shutters fastened in front of the windows. As they opened the door to step back into the house a gust blew after them so that the glass and silver in the sideboard rattled; and upstairs, over their heads the beams trembled and creaked, as if the storm wanted to tear the roof from the walls. But Hauke did not come back into the room; Elke heard him walk across the threshing floor to the stable. The white horse! The white horse, John! Quick! she heard him call. Then he came back into the room with his hair dishevelled, but his gray eyes beaming. The wind has turned! he cried, to the northwest; at half spring tide! Not a windwe have never lived through a storm like this!
Then trotting was heard outside the house door. She fell upon his neck, and for a moment it seemed as if she could not let him go; but that, too, was only for a moment. This is our fight! said Hauke, you are safe here; no flood has ever risen up to this house. And pray to God that He may be with me too!
Outside the neighing of the white horse sounded like trumpets amid the howling of the storm. Elke had stepped out with her husband; the old ash tree creaked, as if it would fall to pieces. Mount, sir! cried the hired man; the horse is like mad; the reins might tear!
He had already leaped onto his horse; the animal rose on its hind legs, then, like a warhorse rushing into battle, it tore down the hill with its rider, out into the night and the howling storm. Father, my father! a plaintive child voice screamed after him, my dear father!
The man Iven Johns brought the crying child back to her mother. She was leaning against the trunk of the ash tree the branches of which were whipping the air above her, and staring absently out into the night where her husband had vanished. When the roaring of the storm and the distant splashing of the sea stopped for a few moments, she started as if in fright; it seemed to her now as if all were seeking to destroy him and would be hushed suddenly when they had seized him. Her knees were trembling, the wind had unloosed and was sporting with her hair. Here is the child, lady, John cried to her; hold her fast! and pressed the little girl into her mothers arms.
The child?I had forgotten you, Wienke! she cried. God forgive me! Then she lifted her to her heart, as close as only love can hold, and with her fell on her knees. Lord God and Thou my Jesus, let us not be widow and orphan! Protect him, oh, good God; only Thou and I, we alone know him! Now the storm had no more pauses; it howled and thundered as if the whole world would pass away in this uproar.
The dikemaster Hauke Haien sped on his white horse to the dike. The small path seemed to have no bottom, for measureless rain had fallen; nevertheless, the wet, sucking clay did not appear to hold back the hoofs of the animal, for it acted as if it felt the solid ground of summer beneath it. As in a wild chase the clouds wandered in the sky; below lay the marshes like an indistinct desert filled with restless shadows. A muffled roaring rose from the water behind the dike, more and more horrible, as if it had to drown all other sounds. Get up, horse! called Hauke, we are riding our worst ride.
Then a scream of death sounded under the hoofs of his horse. He jerked back the reins, and turned round: beside him, close above the ground, half flying, half hurled by the wind, a swarm of white gulls was passing by with derisive cackling; they were seeking shelter on land. One of themthe moon was shining through the clouds for a momentlay trampled by the way: the rider believed that he saw a red ribbon flutter at its throat. Claus! he cried; poor Claus!
Was it the bird of his child? Had it recognised horse and rider and wanted to find shelter with them? The rider did not know. Get up! he cried again; the white horse raised his hoofs to gallop once more. All at once the wind stopped, and in its place there was a deathlike silencebut only for a second, when it began again with renewed rage. But human voices and the forlorn barking of dogs meanwhile fell upon the riders ear, and when he turned his head round to look at his village, he recognised by the appearing moonlight people working round heaped up wagons on the hills and in front of the houses. Instantly he saw other wagons hurriedly driving up to the higher land; he heard the lowing of cattle that were being driven up there out of their warm stables. Thank God! They are saving themselves and their cattle! his heart cried within him; and then with a scream of fear: My wife! My child! No, no; the water doesnt rise up on our hill!
A terrible gust came roaring from the sea, and horse and rider were rushing against it up the small path to the dike. When they were on top, Hauke stopped his horse violently. But where was the sea? Where Jeverssand? Where had the other shore gone? He saw only mountains of water before him that rose threateningly against the dark sky, that were trying to tower above one another in the dreadful dusk and beat over one another against the solid land. With white crests they rushed on, howling, as if they uttered the outcry of all terrible beasts of prey in the wilderness. The horse kicked and snorted out into the uproar; a feeling came over the rider that here all human power was at an end; that now death, night, and chaos must break in.
But he stopped to think: this really was the storm flood; only he himself had never seen it like this. His wife, his child, were safe on the high hill, in the solid house. His dikeand something like pride shot through his breastthe Hauke-Haien dike, as the people called it, now should show how dikes ought to be built!
Butwhat was that? He stopped at the corner between the two dikes; where were the men whom he had placed there to keep watch? He glanced to the north up at the old dike; for he had ordered some there too. But neither here nor there could he see a man. He rode a way further out, but he was still alone; only the blowing of the wind and the roar of the sea all the way from an immeasurable distance beat with deafening force against his ear. He turned his horse back again; he reached the deserted corner and let his eyes wander along the line of the new dike. He discerned clearly that the waves were here rolling on more slowly, less violently; there it seemed almost as if there were a different sea. That will stand all right! he murmured, and something like a laugh rose within him.
But his laughter vanished when his eyes wandered farther along the line of his dike: in the northwestern cornerwhat was that? A dark mass was swarming in confusion; he saw that it was stirring busily and crowdingno doubt, there were people! What were they doing, what were they working for now at his dike? Instantly his spurs dug into the shanks of his horse, and the animal sped thither. The storm rushed on broadside; at times the gusts of wind were so violent, that they would almost have been hurled from the dike into the new landbut horse and rider knew where they were riding. Already Hauke saw that a few dozen men were gathered there in eager work, and now he saw clearly that a groove was dug diagonally across the new dike. Forcibly he stopped his horse: Stop! he shouted, stop! What devils mischief are you doing there?
In their fright they had let their spades rest, when they had suddenly spied the dikemaster among them. The wind had carried his words over to them, and he noticed that several were trying to answer him; but he saw only their violent gestures, for they stood to the left of him and their words were blown away by the wind which here at times was throwing the men reeling against each other, so that they gathered close together. Hauke measured the dug-in groove with his quick glance and the might of the water which in spite of the new profile, splashed almost to the top of the dike and sprayed horse and rider. Only ten minutes more of workhe saw that clearlyand the flood would break through the groove and the Hauke-Haien-land would be drowned by the sea!
Sir, take care! cried one of the crowd and hit his spade against the animal that acted as if it were mad; but a kick of its hoof flung the spade from his hand; another man fell to the ground. Then all at once a scream rose from the rest of the crowda scream such as only the fear of death can call forth from the throat of man. For a moment all, even the dikemaster and the horse were benumbed. Only one workman had stretched out his arm like a road sign and pointed to the northwestern corner of both dikes where the new one joined the old. Nothing could be heard but the raging of the storm and the roar of the water. Hauke turned round in his saddle: what was that? His eyes grew big: Lord God! A break! A break in the old dike!
Haukes face, red with rage, had turned deathly pale; the moon that shone upon it could not make it any paler; his arms hung down limply; he scarcely knew that he was holding his reins. But that, too, was only for a moment. Instantly he pulled himself erect with a heavy moan; then he turned his horse silently, and the white horse snorted and tore away with him eastward upon the dike. The rider glanced sharply to all sides; in his head these thoughts were raging: what fault had he to bear to Gods throne? The digging through of the new dikeperhaps they would have accomplished it, if he had not stopped them; butthere was something else that shot seething into his heart, because he knew it all too wellif only, last summer, Ole Peterss malicious words hadnt kept him backthat was the point. He alone had recognised the weakness of the old dike; he ought to have seen the new repairs through in spite of all. Lord God, yes, I confess it, he cried out aloud suddenly into the storm: I have fulfilled my task badly.
To his left, close to the horses the sea was raging; in front of him, now in complete darkness lay the old enclosed land with its hills and homelike houses. The pale light of the sky had gone out altogether; from one point only a glimmer of light broke through the dark. A solace came into the mans heart: the light must have been shining over from his own house. It seemed like a greeting from wife and child. Thank God, they were safe on their high hill! The others surely were up in the village of the higher land, for more lights were glimmering there than he had ever seen before. Yes, even high up in the air, perhaps from the church steeple, light was piercing the darkness. They must all have leftall! said Hauke to himself; to be sure, on many a hill the houses will lie in ruins; a bad year will come for the flooded fens; sluices and locks will have to be repaired! Well have to bear it and I will help even those who did me harm; only, Lord, my God, be merciful to us human beings!
Then he cast a glance to his side at the new enclosed land; the sea foamed round it, but the land lay as if the peace of night were upon it. An inevitable sense of triumph rose out of the riders breast. The Hauke-Haien dike will hold all right, it will hold after a hundred years!
A thundering roar at his feet waked him out of his dreams; the horse refused to go on. What was that? The horse bounded back, and he felt that a piece of the dike was crashing into the depth right before him. He opened his eyes wide and shook off all his pondering: he was stopping by the old dike; his horse had already planted his forelegs upon it. Instinctively he pulled his horse back. Then the last mantle of clouds uncovered the moon, and the mild light shone on all the horror that was rushing, foaming and hissing into the depth before him, down into the old land.
Hauke stared at it, as if bereft of his senses; this was a deluge to devour beasts and men. Then the light glimmered to his eyes again, the same that he had seen before; it was still burning up on his hill. When he looked down into the land now, encouraged as he was, he perceived that behind the chaotic whirlpool that was pouring down, raging in front of him, only a breadth of about a hundred paces was flooded; beyond he could recognise clearly the path that led through the land. He saw still more: a carriage, no, a two-wheeled cart was driven like mad toward the dike; in it sat a womanyes, a child too. And nowwas that not the barking of a little dog that reached his ears through the storm? Almighty God! It was his wife, his child; already they were coming close, and the foaming mass of water was rushing toward them. A scream, a scream of despair broke forth from the riders breast: Elke! he screamed; Elke! Back! Back!
But the storm and sea were not merciful, their raving scattered his words. The wind had caught his cloak and almost torn him down from his horse; and the cart was speeding on without pause towards the rushing flood. Then he saw that his wife was stretching out her arms as if toward him. Had she recognised him? Had her longing, her deathly fear for him driven her out of her safe house? And nowwas she crying a last word to him? These questions shot through his brain; they were never answered, for from her to him, and from him to her, their words were all lost. Only a roar as if the world were coming to an end filled their ears and let no other sound enter.
My child! Oh, Elke, oh, faithful Elke! Hauke shouted out into the storm. Then another great piece of the dike fell crashing into the depth, and the sea rushed after it, thundering. Once more he saw the head of the horse below, saw the wheels of the cart emerge out of the wild horror and then, caught in an eddy, sink underneath it and drown. The staring eyes of the rider, who was left all alone on the dike, saw nothing more. The end! he said, in a low voice to himself. Then he rode up to the abyss where the water, gurgling gruesomely, was beginning to flood his home village. Still he saw the light glimmer from his house; it was soulless now. He drew himself up erect, and drove the spurs into his horses shanks; the horse reared and would almost have fallen over, but the mans force held it down. Go on! he called once more, as he had called so often when he wanted a brisk ride. Lord God, take me, save the others!
The moon shone from her height, but down on the dike there was no more life, only the wild waters that soon had almost wholly flooded the old land. But the hill of Hauke Haiens farm was still rising above the turmoil, the light was still glimmering there and from the higher land, where the houses were gradually growing darker, the lonely light in the church steeple sent its quivering gleams over the foaming waves.
That is the story of Hauke Haien, my host began again, as I have been able to tell it according to my best knowledge. To be sure, the housekeeper of our dikemaster would have told it differently. For people tell this too: the white horse skeleton was seen after the flood again, just as before, by moonlight on Jevers Island; the whole village is supposed to have seen it. But this is certain: Hauke Haien with wife and child perished in this flood. Not even their graves have I been able to find up in the churchyard; their dead bodies must have been carried by the receding water through the breach into the sea and gradually have been dissolved into their elements on the sea bottomthus they were left in peace by men at last. But the Hauke-Haien dike is still standing after a hundred years, and to-morrow, if you are going to ride to the city and dont mind half an hours longer way, your horse will feel it under its hoofs.
The thanks of a younger generation that Jewe Manners had once promised the builder of the dike he never received, as you have seen. For that is the way, sir: Socrates they gave poison to drink, and our Lord Christ they nailed to the cross. That cant be done so easily nowadays, butmaking a saint out of a tyrant or a bad, stubborn priest, or turning a good fellow, just because he towers above us by a head, into a ghost or a monsterthats still done every day.
When the serious little man had said that, he got up and listened into the night. Some change must have gone on outside, he said, and drew the woolen covering from the window. There was bright moonlight. Look, he went on, there the overseers are coming back; but they are scattering, they are going home. There must have been a break in the dike on the other shore; the water has sunk.
I looked out beside him. The windows up here were above the edge of the dike; everything was just as he had said. I took up my glass and drank the rest: I thank you for this evening. I think now we can sleep in peace.
As I walked downstairs, I met the dikemaster in the hall; he wanted to take home a map that he had left in the tavern. All over! he said. But our schoolmaster, I suppose, has told you a fine storyhe belongs to the enlighteners!