Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
A Norse Radical
By Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (18481895)
[Born in Fredericksvarn, Norway, 1848. Died in New York, N. Y., 1895. From A Child of the AgeVagabond Tales. 1889.]
A DROWSY red light was spreading from the late sun over fiord and valley, as Herluf in his exalted mood marched slowly homeward. There was something strangely unreal in the long-familiar scene, as if he had waked from a dream the vividness of which made reality seem pale and phantasmal. Everything was hushed; water and air were oppressively still; but it was not the spontaneous stillness of sleep, but a sultry silence which rested heavily upon the sense. It was as if Nature were holding her breath. A foreboding of a catastrophe of some sort took possession of Herluf; yet his courage in no wise deserted him. He saw in the anxious look of his wife, who stood waiting for him at the garden gate, that the story of his exploit had preceded him, and that he would thus be spared the trouble of explaining.
O Herluf! she cried tremulously, running to meet him, dont let father see you. He is furious with you, and there is no knowing what he might do, should he find you to-night. The sheriff was here an hour ago, and he has told him something that has incensed him terribly.
He stood for a minute pondering. Listen, Hilda, he said at last; henceforth you must make up your mind whether you will follow me or father. I have my work too in the world, and whether it leads to poverty and shame or to wealth and honor, I have no choice but to do it.
Oh! that is that horrid Björnson, she cried, bursting into a fresh fit of weeping. I know that hateful spirit which I have so long tried to quell in you, and now he has come and undone it all. We were so happy until he came.
No, child, no! He may be honest enough, but I could scarcely continue to please him without being a knave. I am appalled to think how I have, day by day, lapsed from my true standard of rectitude, how I have dragged my manhood in the dirt, how I have become degraded and contemptible in my own eyes, and all in order to please my father. Now I have done with all that; henceforth I intend to please myself.
He spoke with a half-suppressed vehemence which frightened her. He had always been gentle in her presence, and she had insensibly come to look upon him as an easy subject for management. She drew back from him now and regarded him with an air of reproachful dignity.
What terrible riddles you utter, she said, shaking her head. An evil spirit has taken possession of you, and it is useless to talk to you. Only one thing I must beg of you, for your own good, and that is to ask fathers pardon, in case I can induce him to forgive you on that condition. If you will go over to the parsonage and sleep there to-night, I know I can get everything arranged by to-morrow morning.
It would have been amusing, if it had not been sad, to see her implicit trust in her own little shallow arts of management. Men were born to make trouble in the world, she reasoned, and it was the province of women by their superior diplomatic subtlety to smooth things over and reëstablish pleasant relations. The principles which were at stake she calmly ignored as little more than twaddle, fixing her mind the more intently upon the only important issuethe reëstablishment of domestic peace upon the easiest conditions. The grunt of impatience with which her husband greeted her benevolent proposition convinced her still further of the correctness of her view; but perceiving that reasoning would be of no avail, she resolved to resort to a much more effective weapontender cajolery. But unfortunately she had not yet devised a natural transition to affectionate tactics when heavy footsteps were heard on the gravel, and the judges portly figure was seen looming up among the flower-beds and the blooming hawthorn hedges.
He made no answer, but, disengaging himself from her arms, stepped out from the shadow of the tree and faced his father. The old gentleman did not at once see him; he was standing in the gravel walk, meditatively decapitating an aster with his riding-whip. He expended a good deal of energy in the operation, as if giving vent to a latent animosity. As he caught sight of his son standing but a few feet from him, he gave a start, and, clutching his riding-whip tightly, advanced a step; then, at the sight of Hilda, restrained himself.
The judge, disdaining to reply, turned to his son with a peering, malicious look, and remarked in an ominously pleasant tone: You have been distinguishing yourself, I am told, as a patriotic orator. You spoke, I believe, against your father, whom you described as a scamp, and an unscrupulous monster who restrained the dear innocent peasants from the rightful exercise of their suffrage. Wasnt that it?
Ah, how very good of you! The judge here drew a step nearer, holding with a tremulous grasp the whip-handle, which shook perceptibly in his hand. And I too will do nothing of which I have not already given you warning. You know what I promised.
Here he darted forward with the whip raised above his head, but in the same instant Hilda had flung herself upon her husbands neck, shielding him with her body. Herluf remained immovable; he had lifted his arm to ward off the blow, but his face betrayed neither fear nor anger.
And before Herluf could raise his hand again the whip whizzed about his ears, and he felt a stinging pain across his cheek and forehead. Hilda, pale and cowering, fell down upon the grass and hid her face in her hands. The judge, anxious to reach the house before his wrath should give way to shame, strode ruthlessly across the flower-beds and was soon out of sight. Herluf, too stunned, by the moral rather than the physical effect of the blow, to think, stood gazing fixedly into the air; but there was something like a veil before his eyes, and a rushing sound as of water in his ears. Half absently he touched his face, and felt a great welt extending from the left cheek across the nose to his forehead. He bowed his head and groaned; the degradation of it was terrible. His wife, at the sound of his groan, suddenly recovered herself, rose, and went toward him; but at the sight of his face she again burst into tears, put her arms caressingly about him, and kissed his swollen cheek.
Although but dimly comprehending him, she obeyed; it was a relief to have some duty to perform which required motion. The twilight was spreading under the great trees; the sun had sunk behind the mountain-tops, but a dim yellow light lingered in the upper regions of the air and tinged the western cloud-banks. There was something feverish in this light which dazed the sense like the atmosphere of a lurid romance, in which all things seem possible. It seemed easy to Herluf to take a great resolution now, a resolution which he had meditated before, but which in the broad daylight of reason had appeared wild and impossible. He would take his wife and child to America, and there found a new home and a new existence. He had friends in Bergen of whom he could easily borrow enough money to pay their passage. A defiant exultation suddenly broke through his burning sense of wrong, as he imagined his glorious independence of thought and deed on that remote shore, where no paternal authority and no cramping traditions could reach him. He opened the garden gate, walked out upon the pier, and made a boat ready to receive his wife and child: twenty minutes elapsed before they came, and he began to grow impatient. Nearly every trace of Hildas recent emotion had vanished, as she came bearing the child in her arms and with a valise in her disengaged hand. She was again the busy, bustling mother. The mother had conquered the wife.
With reluctant steps she descended the stairs; but as he eagerly held out his arms to receive her, she turned away, and looked up toward the stately pile of masonry which traced its outline darkly against the sky.
With a vigorous thrust of the oar the boat flew out into the water. With an aching heart he stood gazing at her as the distance between them slowly widened. Then he seated himself, and the thud of his measured oar-strokes fell heavily upon Hildas ears. A terrible sense of desolation stole over her. She wished she had chosen differently. She wished she had followed him. But something still restrained her from calling him back. As a last wild hope she sprang up the steps, and from the end of the pier held the child out over the water in her outstretched arms. Herluf! she called with a loud voice of anguish, Herluf!
The black hull of the steamer hove into view, paused in the middle of the fiord, shrieked dismally once, twice, thrice, and again broke a path of foam through the calm waters. Hilda hugged her child tightly to her breast, and gazed out into the thickening twilight. An empty boat came drifting seaward with the tide.
A year had passed since Herlufs flight. It was again summer; the thrushes sang through the long light nights in the birch-groves; the lilies of the valley grew in nodding clusters, filling the mountain glens with their faint fragrance; and the meadows were bright with pansies and violets. During all this time Herlufs name had rarely been mentioned in his fathers house. It was understood that the judge had forbidden it. Since his defeat for the Storthing by a few dozen votes, he felt more bitterly toward his son than ever before. It was he who had encouraged rebellion among the dependants of the estate, and blasted his fathers hopes of political distinction. Such unnatural crimes could not be too severely punished. It cost a considerable effort on the old gentlemans part, however, to persevere in this attitude.
Once or twice, when letters came to Hilda bearing American stamps, he was sorely tempted to break his resolution. He walked nervously up and down the floor, fidgeted with his watch-chain, and cast uneasy glances toward the letter. As for the ladies, they preserved a well-studied indifference in the parlor, but the moment Hilda had retired to her own rooms Miss Catherine was sent by her mother to ascertain how the prodigal fared. And when they heard what a hard time he was having (though this could only be read between the lines), they melted toward him, and kissed the baby and cried over it.
It was evident that Herlufs letters concealed more than they told; but in a half-humorous way which had the singular effect of making the three women cry, he related that he had acquired a number of new accomplishmentsthat, in fact, since his arrival in America he had been a coal-heaver, a brake-man on a railroad, a supernumerary in a negro minstrel show, and that now he had advanced to the position of a miner. He owned a claim in a Colorado mining-camp, which might, for aught he knew, someday make him a millionnaire. It was the wide range of possibility in the thing which fascinated him. He gave descriptions of the life in the camp, full of a kind of lugubrious humor with which it was his wont to cloak his wretchedness. The ladies suspected as much, but each, for fear of distressing the others, refrained from saying what she thought. Each pretended to be delighted at Herlufs cheerfulness, his excellent prospects, and his interesting mode of life; and their sham hilarity was pathetic to observe.
Hardly had they separated before each burst into tears; for everybodys heart had been wondrously softened toward the prodigal since he had gone so far away and seemed lost to them. They reproached themselves in secret for their harsh treatment of him; and the little wife, who had no harsh treatment to reproach herself with, upbraided herself bitterly for having failed him in the hour of his need, for having broken her vow made at the altar. Mrs. Gamborg, who had been one of the foremost believers in his depravity, found herself contemplating his errors in a more lenient spirit, and there were even moments in which she censured her husband for his inconsiderate severity.
Of course, she would not for the world have the judge suspect that she disapproved of his conduct; but really that blow had opened her eyes and set her thinking. It was, after all, but the fathers spirit which was revealing itself in the son, and how could it be that the same line of conduct could be laudable in the one and criminal in the other? Miss Catherine, too, began to have revelations of a similar sort, though, of course, she was too wise to let any one suspect that she was undutiful enough to disapprove of her father. Even the parson, who had preached the celebrated political sermons, began to look askance at the judge, when he saw his daughters pale cheeks and hushed dispirited manner, so different from her joyous energy and light-heartedness in former days.
The line must be drawn somewhere, he remarked to his wife, who always cordially agreed with him; parental authority is no longer unlimited; and to strike a grown-up son on account of a political disagreement is brutal and barbaric. I doubt if we ought to allow our daughter to remain under the roof of a man who is capable of such conduct.
The wife, who cherished a similar doubt, was not slow to second this sentiment, and the result was that Hilda and her child took up their abode at the parsonage. The judge, strange to say, offered no strenuous opposition, although he knew that the large, empty house would be doubly desolate without Hilda and his grandchild. He had aged much within the last months. His combative temper seemed to have deserted him; he was a vain man, and with all his pride very dependent upon the admiration of his fellow-men. His loud self-assertion was not an indication of strength of character, but rather of an exaggerated conceit, nourished by the constant adulation of his family and dependants. The withdrawal of this homage cut the judge to the quick, and his uneasy conscience, which brooded on the wrong he had done his son, saw in every evidence of disrespect the finger of Nemesis.
That much of it was due to the democratic spirit which during the last years had invaded even the remote mountain valleys of Norway, he was incapable of comprehending. Yet, in most instances, he was undoubtedly right; the whole valley had become the champion of his absent son, and his avenger. When he stepped from his carriage at the gate of the churchyard, people turned their backs or walked away to avoid greeting him; the pastor no longer waited to commence his sermon until Mr. Gamborg was in his seat; his boatmen, who rowed him to court in his large twelve-oared barge, answered curtly when he spoke to them, and plainly showed him their ill-will.
It was no consolation to him to know that the story of his maltreatment of his son had been enormously exaggerated; his dignity forbade him to justify himself. He would have liked very well, too, to reinstate the tenants whom he had evicted after the election, had only his dignity permitted; not because he pitied their misery, but as an indirect expiation of the wrong done to his son. But it was that accursed dignity of his which stood in the way of all his good resolves.
In the meanwhile he suffered as he had never suffered before. Not only through his vanity and his thirst for praise did he receive many a wound, but these surface hurts roused the regions of his soul next within, and stirred the depths into tumult. His wife and his daughter, who had always seemed so near to him, and been his stanch partisans through right and wrong, had, somehow, drifted away from him; and the thought tormented him that they undoubtedly had read all Herlufs letters, and deceived him by their pretended ignorance. He would himself have given a year of his life to know what Herluf was doing and how he fared, but how could he divest himself of that cherished dignity of his, and ask the questions which he had himself forbidden?
After much meditation the judge formed a plan which seemed both ingenious and feasible. He invited Hilda and her parents to dinner on Mrs. Gamborgs birthday, and during the evening he absented himself on the plea of pressing business (as he was often in the habit of doing), and hastened along the beach toward the parsonage. Chance favored his design; he entered unobserved by the front door, mounted the broad, dusky stairway to his daughter-in-laws room, and peered cautiously through the half-open door. There was a small spirit-lamp burning on the table; the child was sleeping peacefully in its cradle, and the nurse was absent. The judge was out of breath, and he paused on the threshold to compose himself; his heart ran riot and the blood hammered in his temples.
The floor creaked under the weight of his portly figure as he stooped down to kiss the sleeping child, and with a start he straightened himself and gazed uneasily about him. He stole on tiptoe up to the window where a little mahogany writing-table stood, and placing the lamp upon it, he unlocked one of the drawers and seized a package of letters tied with a pink ribbon. With a tremulous hand he untied the knot, and after having once more satisfied himself that he need have no fear of interruption, he began to read.
It was the first letter, in which Herluf told of his arrival in England and of a dangerous adventure he had had in Liverpool. The coolness and address with which he had acted excited the judges admiration. He read on breathlessly. He had himself never been out of Norway, and his sons description of the great world with its wonderful sights interested him. Then came the next letter, from New York, which dealt chiefly with the voyage and queer types of men from widely separated climes. The descriptions were very clever and full of vivid touches. The judge smiled with pride and delight; he had never known that his son was such a talented man; he (the judge) was himself scarcely capable of writing such a letter.
Time slipped by, but the judge took no note of it; he was now at the coal-heaving period, which was passed over lightly and humorously by the writer, but in which a loving ingenuity would read a pathos too sad for tears. The judge was deeply moved; to such need had his son been reduced, and yet been too proud to appeal to his father for aid. He had preferred to heave coal with hands unused to toil, rather than humiliate himself before a father who had wronged him. Such a feeling the judge could understand; it appealed mightily to him. Vehemently aroused, he arose, heedless of the sleeping baby, and began to pace the floor.
The tears coursed down his cheeks, his broad chest heaved; then, eager to continue the narrative, he flung himself upon the chair at the writing-table and was soon absorbed in the next letter. His features changed with every varying emotion; he had completely forgotten the situation. He did not hear the light creaking of the stairs without, nor did he see the shadow which paused in consternation on the threshold, then slowly stretched across the floor until it reached the white window-curtain, where it bent cautiously over his own. A hand was laid upon the judges shoulder. He started up with a bewildered exclamation. But in an instant he recovered himself, and seizing Hilda by the arm drew her gently up to him.
The pastor, although he was not fond of America, and had often made warning allusions to the Union in his sermons, was nothing loath to accompany his daughter on her daring expedition. It availed him little that he spoke in his farewell sermon of the solemn call of duty, and alluded feelingly to the many dear ties which bound him to his home; his eagerness to get away and take a little jaunt in the world was so great that he caught himself twenty times a day forgetting his role of a martyr to duty. The government, it appeared, valued so highly his political sermons, though they had been somewhat scarce of late, that it could ill afford to spare him, even for a limited time, but agreed with him that such herculean efforts of intellect must involve a terrible expenditure of cerebral tissue, and further concluded that so valiant a servant of the state had well earned his leisure.
The judge in the meanwhile occupied his leisure in divesting himself of his dignity. His first act after his daughter-in-laws departure was to summon his evicted tenants and announce to them that they were at liberty to resume their holdings and to entertain whatever political opinions they pleased.
You know, he said pleasantly, my son and I have not always agreed in political matters. If I could not persuade him, how much less can I expect to control my tenants? I am an old fellow, and perhaps dont see things as clearly as I thought I did. But I have a son who is abreast of the age. He will soon come home and take my place.
He made haste to write to Hilda what he had done, so as to clear away every obstacle to his sons return. He grew as light-hearted as a boy when the letter was sent, and talked freely with everybody about Herlufs American experiences and his expected return. He felt a glow of paternal pride when he related how manfully the boy had struggled with adversity and only made light of it, and it gave him a thrill of pleasure to perceive with what respect his son was regarded in the valley, and how near he seemed to be to the hearts of all.
It was one morning early in October that the judge was seen standing at the end of the pier spying anxiously into the distance through a field-glass. Six small cannon were placed along the beach, and Hans, the groom, stood with a fuse in his hand, watching for the judges signal. The flag was fluttering feebly from the top of the tall flag-pole, and the twelve-oared official barge, gayly decorated, lay gently bobbing upon the water. It was early in the morning, and the sun had not yet appeared above the mountain-peaks, although there was a great yellow blaze in the eastern sky, and the highest peaks to the north had caught some stray shafts of light, and flashed with a dazzling radiance. There was yet a touch of frost in the air, and a light smoke hung over the fiord and drifted seaward. To the westward the fog seemed denser, and as there was scarcely any breeze, the judges field-glass was of no avail.
Suddenly and silently the steamers huge hull loomed out of the fog, and the judge was so amazed that he came near forgetting the signal which was to give the rest of the family warning. Bang, bang, bang, went the cannon, and the steamer, which would not be behindhand in politeness, banged away in return; the twelve oarsmen in the barge cheered; the ladies came running down upon the pier, and were scolded for their tardiness. Then out shot the barge through the light morning mist, and within a few minutes hove alongside the steamer. A stairway was lowered, and the judge ran up the steps like a youth of twenty. A tall, handsome, bearded man grasped his hand at the head of the stairs and pressed it warmly. The judge met his eyes and gazed into them for a moment silently. Both understood the meaning of that glance. Each asked the others forgiveness and received it. Then, with an utterly irrational movement, the judge turned abruptly away and embracedthe pastor. It was a grievous mistake; the embrace had been meant for Hilda. But perhaps the judge was excusable. His eyes were dimmed with tears.