Doctor Molke's Friends

CHAPTER III.

THE MISSIONARY’S STORY.

AFTER we had reached the missionary’s hut, the storm seemed to shriek more fiercely than before, and the wind pressed and beat upon it with such violence, that the slender timbers fairly groaned and shivered; and as the hut was merely stuck upon the rock, I thought we stood a fair chance of going over at any moment, or of being carried up and tossed about among the clouds that were sailing in from the open sea and breaking into phantom shapes among the crags and cliffs. Groups of native dogs crouched among the rocks, crying piteously, under the cold pelting of the storm ; and as the night wore on, great showers of hail came rattling against the window-pane; and the wind rose steadily, and the spray flew still more wildly over the ghostly icebergs in the sea, and the clouds broke into more fantastic shapes, and the icebergs and the cliffs, and everything in sight, grew more weird, and seemed more and more unreal.

But no darkness greater than the darkness of a gloomy midday sky ever came ; and the time of night (the time we call night at home) was measured off upon the dial-plate of a little Dutch clock that ticked against the wall, and told off the seconds as they passed. And this little Dutch clock, with its long chains and weights of brass dangling down (as if they were arms and legs feeling for something real to rest upon), appeared to have a mind of its own upon the situation ; for it ticked away under protest, as it were, and as if it would have you know that there was no occasion for ticking seconds there ; and when midnight came, it set off with a preliminary rumble in its bowels and a gurgle in its throat (a sort of warning to take notice now and mind, or 't would be the worse for you), and sang out with a sharp, cracked voice, “ Where’s the use, where ’s the use. where’s the use, will you tell me, will you tell me, will you tell me, striking midnight, striking midnight, striking midnight, in the daylight, in the davlight, in the daylight?” — ending with another rumble in its bowels, and another gurgle in its throat; and after that it subsided once more into ticking under protest.

And all through this strange night the missionary sat before me, by the fire, talking of himself,—at broken intervals during the first half-hour, more constantly the second, and afterward all the time ; and as he talked, the winds and clouds and rattling hail, and the wild and troubled sea. were quite forgotten by me, and all thought ot phantom things and phantom shapes, and the endless day (that seemed only to be made for Wandering Jews) ceased to trouble my imagination ; for I was deeply curious to learn why this strange man had come to such a place, and he was telling me.

“ I was born,” began the missionary, “ in Copenhagen, and was educated for the law. My family history would not interest you ; and it is enough for me, therefore, to say that I had two sisters and three brothers. My brothers were fond of claiming that the Rolfsons were a very ancient family ; but I never cared to inquire into the matter, deeming it of little consequence. Besides, I have always observed that those who manifest the most concern for their ancestral dignity have usually the least to bless themselves withal ; and, were they wise, they would preserve a prudent silence upon the subject, contenting themselves with the knowledge that they had fathers, without disturbing their minds about their grandfathers, if indeed they ever had any to boast of.

“ My father was a native of Bergen, Norway; but when, after the disastrous campaign of Frederick VI., in which he bore a part, Norway was ceded to the Swedish crown, he quitted Bergen, and came to reside with his family in Copenhagen, to which city he was the more attached that he had helped to defend it against the bombardment of the English. There he continued to live under the old flag and king, — and to none other would he own allegiance.

“The fortune of my father was ample for maintaining his family in comfort, and, indeed, in some elegance. His children had the best opportunities of education ; and he lived to see his two daughters well and happily married, one of his sons established in the army, another in the civil service, another a merchant, and myself, the youngest, prepared, at least in form, to practise the profession which had been selected for me.

“ Between my father and myself there grew up a deep affection ; for to that feeling natural between parent and child there was added a great similarity of taste and disposition, and, indeed, of personal appearance. Those who remembered my father when a young man of my own age declared that I was the exact counterpart of him.

“ He saw fit to make me his constant companion ; and, when his pursuits or my studies would allow of our being together, he would take me with him, generally with no one else in company, on his walks and rides and boating expeditions. His early life having been passed at the romantic old fishing-town of Bergen, (which nestles, with its quaint houses and bright bay, in a great amphitheatre of mountains,) he was, quite naturally, fond of the sea; and I fully shared his disposition in this, as in all other respects. We often visited the scenes of his boyhood; and it was thus, perhaps, that an early familiarity with the bleak coast and almost arctic climate of Norway prepared me for coming hither, when later in life I sought a resting-place.

“ When my legal studies were commenced, I was no longer regular in my attendance at the University; and we arranged our pleasant walks and excursions with a view to my father’s convenience and inclination, rather than to the order of my lectures. Nothing in or about the picturesque and dearly loved Copenhagen escaped our attention. Together we strolled, day after day, through the grand saloons of the palace of Christianberg ; my father, with earnest enthusiasm, pointing out to me the beauties of the paintings, the excellence of the engravings in that fine collection, and the noble sculptures of the great Thorwaldsen; and he led me to the books which I wished to consult in the immense library,— one of the largest in the world. Together we visited the museum of antiquities, and the schools of art and science in Charlottenburg; and in the pleasant summer evenings, when the twilight lingered long, we walked together in the delightful gardens of the old Rosenberg, or strolled across one or the other of the two bridges which lead to Christianshavn, and thence around by the beautiful church of St. Saviour, with its strange tower, to the shipping in the bay, and over to the Old and New Holm where were the arsenals, and dockyards, and vessels of Denmark’s gallant little fleet.

“ How freshly all this comes before me now, as if it had happened yesterday ! How my father, with his cheerful face, and kind voice, and handsome, active figure, stands before me at this distance of time, in this far-off desert place! and as I see him now and remember him, he seems to me, as he seemed then, the dearest friend that I could ever have, and the wisest counsellor, rather than my father ; for I was his companion and confidant, rather than his son. Blest and happy days were those we passed together !

“ My father’s nature was most sensitive, but his soldier’s life and long mingling with men had filled him with worldly wisdom; and, seeing how like himself I was, I have since sometimes wondered whether, in bringing me in daily contact with the world at an early period of my life, he did not think to school me in experience and smooth my future pathway. Perhaps he may have merely wished to see me happy and be himself happy while he might. Perhaps he may have wished to keep me from all serious work and thoughts, knowing that such things would come quite soon enough. Perhaps he may have seen in me only a susceptible, studious, dreamy boy, to love and pity; and then, when I was no more a child in years, and he saw no change, he clung to me still as he had clung before.

“ So I grew to be a man, without fixed aim or purpose ; and another year, and still another and another, passed away, and it was the same dreamy, studious life, devoid of care.

“ And then my father died.

“ The spirit of melancholy laid its hand upon me heavily, and to shake it off I went abroad, — caring little where, — to the Rhine, with its ruins and its vineyards, — to France, with Paris and its sunny wine, — to Rome, to Naples, —back through Italy to Switzerland, with its shepherds and its glaciers, —to Spain, to Holland, to Bremen, — everywhere and anywhere for change ; but still the unhappy spirit clung to me, and I could not shake it off.

“At Bremen I took ship for England ; and one bleak November evening I was on the Thames, and saw the great dome of St. Paul’s above the dense cloud of fog and smoke that swallowed up the great city, and blended streets and houses in chaotic blackness. Away beyond the city, a narrow belt of light lay beneath the cold gray sky, and against this the lofty dome stood black and gloomy as the city at its feet. And then the little belt of light faded away, and the dome was gone, and the city lay before me shapeless in the night, and a heavy, leaden rumble, like the distant roar of the great ocean, filled the ear. The anchor dropped, with a sullen thud, into the noisome stream; and, muffled from the damp night air, I was on the black water in a boat, once more seeking land to rest my foot upon. The boat glided past the vessels in the river, past the wharves and docks,— past great gloomy walls, — past houses covering squalid poverty and tumbling to decay among the masts and hulls of noble ships, to which they bore so great a contrast,— and landing at length on a long strange wharf, with great stacks of boxes and barrels here and there, and broken anchors and scraps of broken chains, and piles of rope, that seemed like myriads of serpents coiled up in tangled knots, to keep each other warm in the chilly night, I passed thence through strange streets, with strange faces flitting by the lamps, and footfalls coming from the darkness into which the faces melted; and with other footfalls following those that vanished, and bringing other faces underneath the lamps, to be seen for a single moment, and for a single moment only to linger on the memory, and then to pass away forevermore. And then in a strange hotel, a stranger in a strange land, in the very heart of the great city, and very sick and very weary,— with no one near me that I had ever seen, no voice that I had ever heard, not one familiar sound, — I realized for the first time truly what it was to be alone, — to be divorced from human sympathy, to be utterly forsaken,— to be left to go and come, and live and die and pass away, with not a soul to care, not one of all the crowd of passers-by, not one of all the throng of men and women in this busiest mart of industry in all the world, to have a thought or wish for me. I was as lonely in the midst of thousands and the endless hum and bustle of the mighty city as if I had wandered to the deepest valley of this desert Arctic land, beyond the reach of sound from crumbling ice or breakers beating on the shore, beneath the reach of winds and beyond the touch of warmth,— buried and lost in the solitude and silence of the Arctic night.

“ A raging fever now tormented me, and for weeks I was in pain, and at times insensible. But I was saved at last; and as I sat in my convalescentchair watching the shadows come and go, and gaining strength from day to day, I came by degrees to learn that in idly bemoaning the loss I had suffered I was accusing Providence. I was made to feel gratitude to Heaven for the blessings that I had ; and when at length, fully restored to health, I set out for home, I was changed and chastened.

“And now, instead of rushing wildly to and fro, without good to mind or body, I travelled for profitable instruction, and found pleasure where I went. After remaining long enough in the British Isles to become familiar with the language and the customs of the people, I crossed back to the Continent, and revisited some of the places that I had passed over so hastily ; and my wanderings led me finally to Cologne.

“While at the University, one of the studies which most interested me was architecture, and especially the Gothic; and I wrote several essays to prove that this was the true Christian style, and should be so called. Although in some sense mere rhapsodies, and in no sense wholly original, these essays were well received. I was particularly impressed with the appropriateness of this name ; and I argued that, while it combined all the subordinate parts of the Grecian and other Pagan styles, the modern Gothic — or Christian, as I wished it might be distinguished—typified in its limitless variety of form and decoration and expansiveness the endless growth and compass of the Christian religion, while its unrestricted loftiness symbolized the boundless aspirations of the Christian soul.

“With these feelings strong upon me, I approached the magnificent cathedral at Cologne, after having visited most of the celebrated Gothic edifices on the Continent and in England ; and you may well imagine the effect which it produced upon me. Originally intending to spend but one clay in the examination of it, I lingered about it for weeks, going away, and returning to it each time with renewed interest. It seemed to possess a fascination for me, and in the end I was as loath to quit it as in the beginning.

“ I am thus particular in mentioning this circumstance to you, that you may see how in all things I was the creature of impulse, and how thoroughly I gave myself up to the impulse of the moment, — whether of joy or grief or restlessness, or of dreamy contemplation. I would have you understand me to mean that I was obeying what was natural to me, and that in this was involved the destiny of my life.

“And let me further pursue the thought by contrasting others with myself. There are those who can view such a work of art as the Cologne Cathedral without deep emotion. They look upon it as an object of great interest, and are not insensible to its sublime proportions and its historic associations ; but the bent of their minds is toward other things, and it would be difficult to imagine any circumstance connected with it which would influence their lives. With me, however, the case was different. The study of such objects was my great delight, — my life, indeed, and, as I thought, my happiness ; and, being thus led away from other pleasures, it was very natural that, while giving free course to my impulses here, I should encounter my destiny.

“ While I lingered one evening in the majestic nave of the cathedral, leaning against one of the massive clustered columns which support it, and watching the effect of the light that streamed through the upper windows from the setting sun, the sound of footsteps (unusual at that hour) startled me. Turning my face in the direction whence the sound proceeded, I saw, standing in the golden light that poured through a richly stained window two human figures. ‘It’s he ; it must be,’ I then heard, to my great surprise. ‘Who?’ cried the other. ‘ Rolfson, — my dear friend Rolfson,’ was the answer.

“For one whole year I had never heard my name pronounced by any one ; and so faintly did the words now reach me, that I could not distinguish the voice that had uttered the welcome sound. But I was not long in doubt. He who had spoken was soon folded in my arms, and I had found a longneglected friend, — my dearest classmate and companion at the University. ‘ Why have you so long forgotten me ? ’ were his only reproving words, after our first greeting was over, but they touched me deeply ; and then, buoyant as of old, and ever fresh as the wine of his own Moselle, he took me away to present me to his sister, whom he had left standing in the golden light.

“ The golden light was stealing through the window, as if it loved to linger on the face before me, as if it loved to twine itself about her auburn hair, and was loath to part from anything so fair and beautiful, and trust it to the shadowy night. But as I came up to her the golden stream fled through the window ; and the one brief glimpse I had of the light and the face together, before the parting came, left a picture printed on my heart and memory that can never, never fade. My hand has painted it imperfectly, and you have seen it hanging on the wall of my poor chamber.

“ The name of my old friend was Frederick Ohlsen ; his sister’s name was Margaret.

“This was to have been the last day of my stay at Cologne. My trunks were packed and at the station, and I had come there for a last look at the great monument of human genius, and, I had almost said, of heavenly beauty. Frederick, with his sister, had arrived that very day and hour, and, preferring to walk across the town to a pleasant villa on the other side, had strolled into the great cathedral as if by chance, for it was directly in their way.

“And thus it was that as I lingered there, obedient to the impulse of the hour, giving myself wholly to the fancy that pleased me at the time, the destiny of my life was wrought out; the good or ill that I might do upon the earth was in the balance, though I was wholly thoughtless of the future and careless of the present time.

“ Frederick wished that I would stay while they were staying, and you may well be sure that I needed no persuasion. My trunks were ordered back ; my old quarters were resumed at the hotel; and days and weeks of greater happiness never came to bless and strengthen any weary traveller on the crooked road of life; for she upon whose face the golden light had stolen down from heaven through the window of the solemn temple knew that I lingered there because of her ; and she knew, upon the other hand, that she had saved me from a selfish and unwholesome brooding over sorrows past, and things obscure to come, — knew that she had saved me from myself. More than this I had no need to wish that she should know, — not more, at least, than that I always saw her standing in the golden light, of which she seemed to me a part, and from which she was inseparable.

“ The days sped on, and as they sped I grew to feel the strength of manhood in me, — grew to see that duty lay in plain realities, and that, if love and happiness should come to bless my days, I must hold my course through life with a steady hand.

“ And so I grew in strength of mind and body, and so I erred upon the other side. I would brook no obstacle in my way, would have my will, and ride rough-shod upon my chosen path.

“ I had won a pure and gentle love, — I had yet to win a bride.

‘‘But there were many difficulties, and, impetuous when I should have been calm and content to wait, I set myself to tearing down what might well have been left to tumble of itself.

“ The first obstacle in my way did not long remain, though, until it became an obstacle, I no more thought to do what I went about, than I thought to stop the rain-drops falling from the clouds. This was to return to Copenhagen, and so arrange my long-abandoned affairs that my property would yield me the largest revenues, and, this proving insufficient, to establish myself in my profession. In both of these I was successful. Not lacking knowledge, and I may perhaps say talent, with family influence to support me, I had no great difficulty in placing myself in respectable standing in the law.

“ Two years passed away, and then I sought my bride, and found everything against me but her heart. Her father, unworthy of such a child, had years ago plotted her sacrifice for rank and fortune. Had she consented ? Yes, as she had told me at Cologne. Yet then she was but a child. Yes, but a child. Would she retract her consent? With her father’s leave, and the leave of him to whom the promise had been given, yes. Not otherwise ? How could she ? She could leave her father’s house that hour, and be my wife before the sun had been an hour set!

“The sun was setting then, and we were standing in the gloomy shelter of the trees, and the trees rose darkly up against a bank of clouds that lay along the land. But a window opened for a moment in the clouds, and the golden light stole once more upon the face before me, as if it again loved to linger there, and loved to twine itself about the auburn hair, and was loath to part from anything so fair and beautiful, and trust it to the shadowy night.

“ I took her hand in mine. She turned from the golden light, and looked into my face and smiled, and the golden stream fled through the window in the clouds, to return never, never more. The smile said, Come ; and the clouds that closed upon the golden light rolled up above our heads, charged with angry mutterings; and thus accompanied, we stole, hand in hand, beneath the shadow of the trees, and fled.

“ I had soon an opportunity to send a message to Margaret’s father, telling him what I had done, and where I might be found, and my message started him and another on our track. This other was her brother, some years older than Frederick, and a fitting son of a sordid father. But I did not know it then. Margaret had never spoken to me of this brother, and he would not reveal himself to me when we met. Was he Margaret’s lover, the count of whom I had often heard ? It mattered not to me who he was, I must give him satisfaction for my conduct. To a stranger ? No! Then he put an affront upon me, which, with the feelings I had at that time, could not be borne.

“ This right arm of mine is strong, and this right hand is skilful. At the University I was apt at all manly exercises, but was especially distinguished as a swordsman. From the very first moment of the encounter I knew that the unknown man was no match for me, and I resolved to terminate the matter with as little harm as possible. But he was clearly bent on mischief, — bent upon my life ; and with the angry, determined lunge of one whose patience is turned to desperation, I ran him through the body, and left him on the ground for dead.

“ When Margaret knew what I had done, sorrow brooded where I had first seen the golden light playing tenderly ; and afterward, when she learned that her father had died from injuries received while in pursuit of her, — died disowning her,— she sank beneath a burden that she had not strength to bear ; and I had no power to help her, for on the hands that I would help her with she saw a brother’s blood, and in every line she read with her sad and silent eyes, as I well saw,— Homicide. The iron that had pierced her brother’s heart, (as I then thought, though wrongly, for he recovered from the wound), had likewise pierced her soul.

“ Whether it was the shock caused by all these multiplying calamities, combined with a feeling that she had done a grievous wrong, I cannot say, but sickness overtook her; and within one month from that evening when the golden light fled to return never, never more, and hand and hand we had stolen away beneath the evening shadows and the muttering clouds, I laid my Margaret to her final rest beside my father in St. Saviour’s Churchyard.

“And now Remorse was written on my very soul, — remorse that I had slain one whom I would have saved from every harm ; remorse that I had sought her brother’s life ; remorse that I had been so impatient and so headstrong, and that I did not wait till in Heaven’s good time the wrong should be set right.

“ What use to travel now ? What use to fly through France, and Spain, and Italy ? What use to go away and bury myself in the great city ? I could see none, and yet I could not endure to rest.

“ I came back a second time from my wanderings changed and chastened once again, but now weaned from earthly passions, hopes, pursuits, and dreams, and idle fancies brooding in the mind through idle days.

“ The missionary college took me in, a humbled man, and in course of time I found an opportunity of coming to this wild place. Some years before, while in Göttingen, I had fallen in with a German student and traveller named Heinrich Nettmann who had an eccentric fancy for going about the world in pursuit of certain insects. This fancy had once already taken him to Greenland, and he was going again, as he told me, when we met a second time ; and, much to his astonishment, I proposed to bear him company.

“The government gave me without hesitation the privilege that I desired, of going in a vessel that was fitting out to found a new colony, and of establishing in that colony a mission and a church. And the Lord has prospered me, and blessed my humble work, although I am painfully and sorrowfully aware that I have done far less than I should have done.

“And thus it was that I came to Greenland, and thus it has happened that I am living here in this rocky desert. I have not found it so lonely, though, as I sometimes found in other days the crowded city ; for to one who serves his Master, there is no utter loneliness. My wants are few, and my thoughts are free, and the golden light no longer seems to flee from me, but lingers where I first saw it long ago, upon the face of a pure and radiant being, — trusting it no more to the shadowy night.”

The night had waned away, and the morning sun shone upon the hills, and the clouds were lifted up and broken, and seemed like balls and knotted skeins and tangled webs of softest fleece, as they mingled with the drifting snow on the mountain-tops, and went tossing up and down and flying wildly through the silver morning light that filled the heavens everywhere, and glistened in the spray of the beating waves and on the great icebergs in the sea. The little hut which sheltered us seemed to stand more firmly, the clock seemed to have grown more reconciled to its office, the dogs had ceased their moaning, and were running playfully about, and everything promised the final breaking of the storm.

“ And now to rest,” said my companion, after remaining for some time quiet, as if lost in his own reflections ; but before he spoke he had risen from his seat, and, looking through the window, he seemed for the first time conscious of any change of weather.

“ To rest, to rest! for the storm is breaking fast, and we are likely to have a pleasant afternoon for another walk. I cannot now go on with the story of my Greenland life.”

“ Heinrich Nettmann, the gnat-catcher, will save you that trouble,” exclaimed a voice behind us.

Much surprised, I turned, and beheld a short round figure, looking like a huge seal-skin muff, tilted up on end, with a great Nuremburg toy stuck through and through the middle of it ; for there was nothing of a man’s form to be seen but two small feet, and a round laughing face that was so very bright, and looked so very merry, that one might have thought it expressly got up by a troop of strolling fairies in imitation of the sun, at the very moment when that luminary had triumphed over the storm.

However, it was verily and truly Heinrich Nettmann, as was proven afterward without any doubt; but as this chapter is already too long for human patience, we will take the inhospitable liberty of leaving sunny-faced Heinrich Nettmann where he stands, with his little feet upon the threshold, — the wild wind driving past him through the half-shut door,— until we open another chapter, and then we ’ll let him fairly in, and give him welcome, if we find him pleasant company.