Gunnar: A Norse Romance: Part Iv
AFTER the skee-race, all the valley was talking about Gunnar Henjumhei and Ragnhild Rimul. Some people, who believed themselves well informed, knew for certain that there must be something between them, for it was evident enough whom they both alluded to in their stave ; and even it that meant nothing, no one could help noticing that they sought each other’s company more than was proper for persons so wide apart in birth and external circumstances. Others, again, thought the idea too preposterous, and supposed that, at least on Ragnhild’s part, the fondness amounted to nothing more than a common friendship, which, however, might be bad enough ; for all agreed that it was an unpardonable boldness in a low-born houseman’s son to cast his eyes upon a maiden who was worth at least her own weight in gold. At last the parish talk reached Atle Henjum’s ear, and through him the widow of Rimul.
It was a Sunday forenoon. On the hearth, in the large, well-lighted sittingroom at Rimul burned a lively wood fire. The floor was strewn with new juniper, spreading a fresh smell of cleanliness throughout the room. The snow was too deep for women on the church road that morning; therefore Ingeborg Rimul had the old silver-clasped family Bible, where births, marriages, and deaths had been faithfully recorded for many generations, lying open on the table before her. Her eyes fell upon the gospel for the day; reading that, she thought she might at least have some idea of what the text of the sermon would be. She was following down the page with her finger while reading. And still it was hardly the gospel which was foremost in her mind to-day ; for whenever unobserved, her eyes wandered from the book to her daughter, who was sitting at the window, fair and Sunday clad, with her head resting upon her hand, while with an absent look she gazed at the starry figures of the ice on the frozen window. There was no one who did not think Ragnhild beautiful. She was one of those who unconsciously draw all hearts to them. People said she most resembled her father’s family. It was from him she had that gentleness of bearing and those blessed blue eyes, whose purity and depth bore in them a suggestion of the infinite; but the clear forehead, the strong chin, and that truly Northern luxuriance of blond hair were inheritances from the mother. A sad, almost painful expression passed over Ingehorg’s face, as she sat silently watching her,—an expression which had long been strange to her features ; but it was only momentary, and was soon exchanged for her wonted mien, of undisturbed calmness and decision.
Heavy steps were heard in the outer hall, and the noise of some one stamping the snow from his feet. Both the women raised their eyes as the door opened and Atle Henjum stepped in. He went up to Ingeborg and shook hands ; then he came to Ragnhild.
“Thanks for last meeting,” said he.
“ Thanks yourself,” said they.
He took a seat on a bench next to his sister. “Bad weather for lumbering,” remarked he. “ I have two hundred dozen logs ready for floating, but shall probably have to wait until spring before getting them down, if it keeps on snowing at this rate.”
“ We are hardly better off than you, brother,” answered the widow. “ I am afraid we shall have to burn our fences for wood, if next week does not bring a change in the weather.”
“ Little need is there of such a waste, Ingeborg, as long as there is only the river between Henjum and Rimul.”
“ Many thanks for your offer, but it never was my way to borrow. I don’t like to feel that I need anybody, not even my own brother.”
For some time they all sat in silence, with their eyes fixed on the floor, as if lost in the contemplation of the knots in the planks of the floor or the accidental shapes of the juniper-needles. Then at last Atle spoke. “ Well,” began he slowly and with emphasis, “ that day is probably not far off when there shall be no river to separate Henjum from Rimul.” He looked toward Ragnhild as he said this ; and although her face was turned away from him, she felt that his eyes rested on her. She quickly rose and left the room. “ This was what I came to speak to you about, Ingeborg,” continued Atle; “you know it has long been a settled thing between us that Henjum and Rimul should some day be one estate, and the way to bring this about you also know. Now Lars is a stout, well-grown lad, and Ragnhild is no longer a child either. So, if you are willing, I do not see any reason why we should not make the wedding, and the sooner the better. No one knows how many his days will be, and it surely would be a comfort to both of us to see them together before we take our leave.”
“Atle,” said the widow of Rimul, “you have my word, and I thought you knew your sister well enough to feel assured that her word is as good as gold. I can see no reason for hurrying the wedding. We are both folk in our best age, and strong as rocks, so there is but little probability of our dying for many years to come ; and even if one of us should be called away, there would still be one left to execute the other’s will.”
Atle found this reasonable, but still he had other motives for wishing a speedy marriage; and since his sister compelled him to speak what he would rather not have told her, he would no longer keep from her the rumors which were circulating in the valley, and had found their way to his ear. He was of course aware that they had no foundation whatever, for tact and self-respect had always been innate virtues in their family; but still the girl was young, and a mother’s advice might teach her to avoid even the appearances which could give occasion for such foolish gossip. He also told her that Lars, since his sudden disappearance at the skee-race, had hardly seemed the same person. Late the next morning, when he returned, he had refused to give any account of himself, and ever since he had had a strange, bewildered look about him. If Atle had believed in trolds and elf-maids, he should surely have supposed that Lars must have seen something of the kind on his night walk in the forest. Ingeborg exhorted her brother to be at ease ; she should have no difficulty in bringing the affair to the desired result, if he only would give her time ; for the first year there could at least be no question of marriage. The stern, calm assurance in Ingeborg’s words and manner removed Atle’s fears ; he had no doubt her plan was the better, —a concession which he never made to any one but her. With regard to Gunnar, they both agreed that he must have forgotten who he was, and that it was their duty to give him a reminder, before his conceit should run away with him.
It was nearly four weeks after the skee-race, and in all this time Gunnar and Ragnhild had hardly seen each other. The only place where they met was at church, and there they had to keep as far away from each other as possible ; for they both knew that the valley was full of rumors which, if they came to Ingeborg Rimul, would cause them infinite trouble, and possibly crush their hopes forever. Thus weeks went, and months, and neither of them was happy. Wherever Gunnar went, people would stick their heads together and whisper; the young girls giggled when they saw him, and among the men there would fall many a cutting word. He soon understood, too, that it was not by mere accident that he overheard them. This, however, instead of weakening his courage, gave it new growth ; but it was not the healthy growth fostered by a manly trust in his own strength. He was well aware that people did not speak to him as they spoke about him. Since he had grown up he had never been much liked, as he had always been what they called odd, which meant that he was not quite like all others ; and in small communities there can be no crime greater than oddity. Ragnhild Rimul was the best match within four parishes round, and when any one so far below her in birth cast his eyes upon her he must naturally rouse the jealousy at least of those who might have similar intentions. But these were not the only ones who felt hostile to Gunnar. Few were readier to denounce him than those of his own class, who had no lofty aspirations to lead them away from the beaten track of their fathers.
Then it happened that one afternoon he sat dreaming over a plot for a new composition. It was to be the scene from King Olaf Trygveson’s Saga, where the king wakes on his bridal night and sees the shining dagger in the hand of Gudrun, his bride.
“ Gleams so bright above thy head ?
Wherefore standest thou so white
In pale moonlight ? ”
When at night I bind my hair;
It woke me falling on the floor:
’T is nothing more.”1
Olaf, the bold, youthful king, who had roamed eastward and westward on his Viking voyages, and had come home to preach the gospel with his sword, had always been a favorite with Gunnar, and this was not the first incident of the hero’s life which had tempted his artistic fancy. But, strange to say, today the noble sea-king seemed but a commonplace, uncouth barbarian, and Gudrun, Ironbeard’s fair daughter, a stiff, theatrical figure, in which there was neither grace, nor life, nor heroism. However much he turned and twisted her, she still retained a provoking mien of awkward consciousness, as if she were standing up for the special purpose of having her picture taken. In vain he tried to bring unity and harmony into the composition. An hour passed, and struggling through the chaotic shadows dawned slowly but surely a clearer and better day. It had been long coming, but now it stood cloudless and clear in its own light; and Gunnar passed from thought into resolution, from resolution into action. Strange that he had not seen it long ago ! He sprang up, seized his cap and rushed out. The day was dim and foggy. He reached the river, unmoored a boat, and slowly worked his way between the large cakes of floating ice, till he touched the Rimul shore. Upon the hillside, under the leafless forest, lay the mansion wrapped in fog. As he came nearer he could see the windows glittering through the fog, but, as it were, with an expression of warning, not the bright smile with which they were accustomed to greet him in those happy days when, as a boy, he brought his sketches to little Ragnhild, and from her childlike delight drank strength and courage for coming days. These memories now again urged themselves upon him, and even for a moment made him waver in his determination ; but, as if fleeing from his doubts, he hurried onward, and at length left them behind. Truly it was time that he should begin to act like a man. Ragnhild loved him, loved him as only Ragnhild could love ; but, hard as the thought might be, it was not to be denied that she was ashamed to own him before men. And could he wonder ? Had he ever done anything to prove to the world that he was entitled to its respect? And still what a power he felt within him ! He was not the man who would have a woman stoop to own him, who would see her blush at her love for him. All this would he tell Ragnhild this day, tell her that she was no longer bound by any promise to him, that he was now going far away, where she should hear of him no more until he had lived to be something great. Then, perhaps, some time in the far future, when he should have compelled the world to know him and to honor him, he would return to her, if such should be her wish; and if not, he would be gone forever.
These were Gunnar’s thoughts, and as he passed through the gate into the Rimul yard, he wondered again that he had not had the courage to know this and to say it before now. He had hoped to meet Ragnhild in the yard, that he might speak to her alone. This was about the time when she was wont to go to the cow-stables with her milkpails. So he waited for some minutes at the gate, but not seeing her he concluded that she must already have gone, and that he would probably find her in the stable. But on his way thither he met one whom, to say the least, he would rather not have met ; there, on the barn-bridge,2 stood the widow of Rimul, stiff and tall, on the very same spot where he had seen her eight years before, when, as a twelveyears’ old boy, he had come with his father to take charge of her cattle. If she had been a marble statue, and had been standing there ever since, she could hardly have changed less. The same unshaken firmness and decision in the lines about her mouth ; the same erect, commanding stature, the smooth, clear forehead; even the folds of her white semicircular head-gear and the black wadmaal skirt were apparently unchanged : and although Gunnar had grown from a child to a man in those years, he again felt all his courage deserting him as he stood face to face with the widow of Rimul. Indeed, the similarity of this occasion to the one alluded to, for the moment struck him so forcibly that he found it beyond his power to conquer that same boyish bashfulness and embarrassment which he had experienced at their first meeting. He had always prided himself that there was not the man in the parish of whom he was afraid ; and yet here was a woman in whose presence he was and ever must remain a boy. This consciousness irritated him; with a vigorous effort he collected his scattered thoughts, and slowly and deliberately drew nearer. At the foot of the barn-bridge he stopped and took off his cap. “ Thanks for last meeting,” said he. The widow gave no heed to what he said, but continued giving her directions to the threshers who were at work in the barn.
“Do you call this threshing?” said she severely, picking up a sheaf of rye from a large pile which the men had just been clearing off the floor. “Do you call this threshing, I say? Only look here” (and she shook the sheaf vigorously); “ I would undertake to shake more than half a bushel of grain out of this pile which you pretend to have threshed. Mind you, men soon get their passports from Rimul. if they work that way.”
Gunnar, supposing that he had been unobserved, took the last words as a warning to himself, and was already taking his departure when a sharp “Gunnar Henjumbei !” quickly called him back.
“ It is damp weather to-day,” stammered he, as he slowly drew nearer. A few steps from her he stopped, pulled off his cap again, and stood twirling it in his hands, expecting her to speak.
“ Whom do you want to see ? ” asked she, having measured him with her eye from head to foot.
“ Ragnhild, your daughter.”
“ Ragnhild, my daughter, has never yet been so pressed for wooers that she should have to take up with housemen’s sons. So you will understand, Gunnar Henjumhei, that housemen’s sons are no longer welcome at Rimul.”
A quick pain, as if of a sudden sting, ran through his breast. The blood rushed to his face, and he had a proud answer ready ; but as his glance fell upon the stern, stately woman whom he had always been taught to look up to as a kind of superior being, the words died upon his lips.
“She is Ragnhild’s mother,” thought he, and turned to go. He had just gained the foot of the barn-bridge when a loud, scornful laughter struck his ear. He stopped and looked back. There stood Lars Henjum in the barndoor, doubled up with laughter. This time it was hard to calm the boiling blood ; and had it not been for the presence of Ragnhild’s mother, Lars might have had occasion to regret that laughter before nightfall. So Gunnar started again ; but no sooner had he turned his back on Lars than the laughter burst forth again, and grew louder and wilder with the distance, until at last it sounded like a defiant scream. This was more than he could bear. He had tried hard to master himself; now he knew not whither his feet bore him, until he stood face to face with Lars and Ingeborg of Rimul. He clinched his fist and thrust it dose up to the offender’s face. Lars forgot to laugh then, turned pale, and sought refuge behind the widow’s back.
“ Gunnar, Gunnar! ” cried she; for even she was frightened when she met the wild fire in his eye. She was a woman ; it would be a shame to strike when a woman begged for peace.
He sent Lars a fierce parting glance. “You and I will meet again,” said he, and went.
The two remained standing on the same spot, half unconsciously following him with their eyes, until the last dim outline of his figure vanished in the fog.
“Lars,” said Ingeborg, turning abruptly on her nephew, “ you are a coward.”
“ I wonder if you would like to fight with a fellow like him, especially when he was in such a rage,” replied Lars.
“ You are a coward,” repeated the widow emphatically, as if she would bear no contradiction ; and she turned again, and left him to his own reflections. .
In April fog and April sleet the days creep slowly. Every day Gunnar looked longingly toward the mountains, wondering how that great world might be on the other side. Every morning awoke him with new resolutions and plans; every evening closed over a tale of withering courage and fading hopes; and only night brought him rest and consolation, when she let her dream-painted curtain fall over his slumber, like a mirage over the parched desert.
THE WEDDING OF THE WILD-DUCK.
BERG was the name of a fine farm the next west of Rimul. Peer was the name of the man who owned the farm. But the church and the friendly little parsonage were on the Henjum side of the river, and in the summer, therefore, the fjord was the church road of the Rimul people and all who lived on their side of the water. This Peer Berg was a very jovial man, and had a great many daughters, who, as he was wont to say himself, were the only crop he had ever succeeded in raising; in fact, there were more daughters on Berg than were needed to do the work about the place, and it was, therefore, not to be wondered at that Peer Berg never frowned on a wooer ; the saying was, too, that both he and his wife had quite a faculty for alluring that kind of folks to the house. Gunnar knew the Berg daughters ; for wherever there was dancing and merry-making, they were as sure to be as the fiddlers. As far back as he could remember, the church road had never missed the “ Wild-Ducks ” from Berg, as they were generally called, because they all were dressed alike, were all fair and gay, and where one went all the rest would invariably follow. Now one of the Wild-Ducks was to be married to a rich old bachelor from the neighboring valley, and people knew that Peer Berg intended to make a wedding the fame of which should echo through seven parishes round. Summons for the wedding were sent out far and wide, and to Gunnar with the rest.
It was early in the morning when bride and bridegroom from Berg with their nearest kinsfolk cleared their boats, and set out for the church ; on the way one boat of wedding guests after another joined them, and by the time they reached tho landing-place in the “Parsonage Bay” their party counted quite a goodly number. The air was fresh and singularly transparent, and the fjord, partaking of the allpervading air-tone, glittered in changing tints of pale blue and a cool, delicate green. Now and then a faint tremor would skim along its mirror, like the quiver of a slight but delightful emotion. Toward the north the mountains rose abruptly from the water, and with their snow hooded heads loomed up into fantastic heights ; irregular drifts of light, fog-like cloud hung or hovered about the lower crags. Westward the fjord described a wide curve, bounded by a lower plateau, which gradually ascended through the usual pine and birch regions into the eternal snow-fields of immeasurable dimensions ; and through the clefts of the nearest peaks the view was opened into a mountain panorama of indescribable grandeur. There gigantic yokuls measured their strength with the heavens ; wild glaciers shot their icy arms down wards, clutching the landscape in their icy embrace ; and rapid, snow-fed rivers darted down between the precipices where only a misty spray, hovering over the chasm, traced their way toward the fjord.
About half-way between the church and the mouth of the river a headland, overgrown with birch and pine forest, ran far out into the fjord. Here the first four boats of the bridal party stopped on their homeward way to wait for those which had been left behind ; in one sat the bride herself, with breastplate and silver crown on her head, and at her side the bridegroom shining in his best holiday trim, with rows of silver buttons and buckles, according to the custom of the valley ; in his hand he held an ancient war-axe. On the bench in front of them Peer Berg and his merry wife had their places ; and next to them, again, two of the bridegroom’s nearest kin. The second boat contained the remaining Wild-Ducks and other relatives and connections ; and the third and fourth, wedding guests and musicians. But there were at least nine or ten loads missing yet; for the wedding at Berg was to be no ordinary one. In the mean time old Peer proposed to taste the wedding brewage, and bade the musicians to strike up so merry a tune that it should sing through the bone and the marrow. “ For fiddles, like hops, give strength to the beer,” said he, “and then people from afar will hear that the bridal-boats are coming.” And swinging above his head a jug filled to the brim with strong homebrewed Hardanger-beer, he pledged the company, and quaffed the liquor to the last drop. “ So did our old forefathers drink,” cried he; “the horn might stand on either end if their lips had once touched it. And may it be said from this day, that the wedding guests at Berg proved that they had the true old Norse blood in their veins.” A turbulent applause followed this speech of Peer’s, and amid music, singing, and laughter the beer-jugs passed from boat to boat and from hand to hand. Now and then a long, yoddling halloo came floating through the calm air, followed by a clear, manifold echo ; and no sooner had the stillness closed over it than the merry voices from the boats again rose in louder and noisier chorus. All this time the bridal fleet was rapidly increasing, and for every fresh arrival the beer-jugs made another complete round. No one drank without finding something or other to admire, whether it were the liquor itself or the skilfully carved silver jugs in which, as every one knew, Peer Berg took no little pride ; indeed, they had been an heirloom in the family from immemorial times, and the saying was that even kings had drunk from them. There were now eighteen or nineteen boats assembled about the point of the headland, and the twentieth and last was just drawing up its oars for a share of the beer and the merriment. In the stern sat Gunnar, dreamily gazing down into the deep, and at his side his old friend Rhyme-Ola, his winking eyes fixed on him with an anxious expression of almost motherly care and tenderness. In his hands he held some old, time-worn paper, to which he quickly directed his attention whenever Gunnar made the slightest motion, as it he were afraid of being detected. When the customary greetings were exchanged, the bridegroom asked RhymeOla to let the company hear his voice, and the singer, as usual, readily complied. It was the old, mournful tale of Young Kirsten and the Merman ; and as he lent his rich, sympathetic voice to the simplicity of the ballad, its pathos became the more touching, and soon the tears glittered in many a tender-hearted maiden’s eye.
There is a deep, unconscious romance in the daily life of the Norwegian peasant. One might look in vain for a scene like this throughout Europe, if for no other reason than because the fjord is a peculiarly Norwegian feature, being, in life, tone, and character, as different from the friths of Scotland and the bays of the Mediterranean as the hoary, rugged pines of the North are from those slender, smooth-grown things which in the South bear the same name. Imagine those graceful, strongbuilt boats, rocking over their own images reflected in the cool transparence of the fjord ; the fresh, fair-haired maidens scattered in blooming clusters among the elderly, more sedately dressed matrons ; and the old men, whose weather-worn faces and rugged, expressive features told of natures of the genuine mountain mould. The young lads sat on the row-benches, some with the still dripping oars poised under their knees, while they silently listened to the song ; others bending eagerly forward or leaning on their elbows, dividing their attention between Rhyme-Ola and the tittering girls on the benches in front. They all wore red, pointed caps, generally with the tassel hanging down over one side of the forehead, which gave a certain touch of roguishness and light-heartedness to their manly and clear-cut visages. And to complete the picture, there is Rhyme-Ola, as he sits aloft on the beer-kegs in the stern of the boat, now and then striking out with his ragged arms, and weeping and laughing according as the varying incidents of his song affect him. As a background to this scene stands the light birch forest glittering with its fresh sprouts, and filling the air with its springlike fragrance; behind this again the pines raise their dusky heads ; and around the whole picture the mountains close their gigantic arms and warmly press forest, fjord, and bridal party to the mighty heart of Norway.
When the ballad was at an end, it was some time before any one spoke, for no one wished to be the first to break the silence.
“Always the same mournful tales,” said at length one of the old men, but only half aloud, as if he were speaking to himself.
“ Rhyme-Ola,” cried one of the fiddlers, “why don’t you learn to sing something jolly, instead of these sad old things, which could almost make a stone weep ? ”
“You might just as well tell the plover to sing like the lark,” answered Rhyme-Ola.
“ I love the old songs,” said Ragnhild Rimul (for she was there also), “ they always bring tears to my eyes, but sometimes I like better to cry than to laugh.”
Peer Berg now signalled to the oarsmen, and the boats soon shot swiftly in through the fjord. In about an hour the whole company landed on the Berg pier, and marched in procession up to the wedding-house. First came the musicians, then bride and bridegroom, and after them their parents and nearest kin. The guests formed the rear. Among the last couples were Lars Henjum and Ragnhild; last of all came Gunnar and Rhyme-Ola.
Berg was an old-fashioned place, for Peer Berg took a special pride in being old-fashioned. Coming up the hill from the water, Berg appeared more like a small village than a single family dwelling. The mansion itself in which Peer with his wife and his WildDucks resided was of a most peculiar shape. It was very large and had two stories, the upper surrounded by a huge balcony, which made it appear nearly twice as broad as the lower. Over this balcony shot out a most venerable slated roof, completely overgrown with moss, grass, and even shrubs of considerable size ; the railing, which had once been painted and skilfully carved, was so high and so close that it afforded little or no room for the daylight to peep in and cheer the dreary nest of the Wild-Ducks. Round the mansion lay a dozen smaller houses and cottages, scattered in all directions ; if they had grown out from the soil of their own accord, they could hardly have got into more awkward or more irregular positions. One looked north, another west, a third southeast, and no two lay parallel or with their gables facing each other. Every one of these houses, however, had been erected for some special purpose. First, there were, of course, the barns and the stables, which in size and respectability nearly rivalled the mansion. Quite indispensable were the servant-hall, the sheepfold, and the wash-house; and without forge and flax-house Berg could hardly have kept up its reputation as a model establishment.
With gay music and noisy laughter and merriment, the bridal procession passed into the yard, where from the steps of the mansion they were greeted by the master of ceremonies in a highflown speech of congratulation. The doors were then thrown wide open, and soon like a swelling tide the crowd rolled through the house, and the lofty halls shook with the hum and din of the festivity. For at such times the Norsemen are in their lustiest mood ; then the old Saga-spirit is kindled again within them ; and let him beware who durst say then that the Viking blood of the North is extinct. The festal hall at Berg, which occupied the whole lower floor of the building, was decorated for the occasion with fresh leaves and birch branches, for the birch is the bride of the trees ; but as it was still early in the season, it was necessary to keep up a fire on the open hearth. This hearth might indeed, in more than one sense, be said to have given a certain homely color to everything present, not only in the remoter sense, as being the gatheringplace of the family in the long winter evenings, but also in a far nearer one ; its smoke had, perhaps for more than a century, been equally shared by the chimney and the room, and had settled in the form of shining soot on walls, rafters, and ceiling. Two long tables extended across the length of the hall from one wall to an other, laden with the most tempting dishes. The seats of honor, of course, belonged to bride and bridegroom, and they having taken their places, the master of ceremonies urged the guests to the tables and arranged them in their proper order in accordance with their relative dignity or their relationship or acquaintance with the bride. Now the blessing was pronounced and the meal began. It was evident enough that the boating and the march had whetted the guests’ appetites ; huge trays of cream-porridge, masses of dried beef, and enormous wheaten loaves disappeared with astonishing rapidity. Toast upon toast was drunk, lively speeches made and heartily applauded, tales and legends told, and a tone of hearty, good-humored merriment prevailed. The meal was a long one ; when the feasters rose from the tables it was already dusk. In the course of the afternoon the weather had changed ; now it was blowing hard, and the wind was driving huge masses of cloud in through the mountain gorges. Shadows sank over the valley, the torches were lit in the wedding-house, and a lusty wood-fire crackled and roared on the hearth. Then the tables were removed, the music began, and bride and bridegroom trod the springing dance together, according to ancient custom ; others soon followed, and before long the floor and the walls creaked and the flames of the torches rose and flickered in fitful motion, as the whirling aircurrents seized and released them. Those of the men who did not dance joined the crowd round the beer-barrels, which stood in the corner opposite the hearth, and there slaked their thirst with the strong, home-brewed drink which Norsemen have always loved so well, and fell into friendly chat about the result of the late fishery or the probabilities for a favorable lumber and grain year.
It was late, near midnight. The storm was growing wilder without, the dance within. Clouds of smoke and dust arose; and as the hour of midnight drew near, the music of the violins grew wilder and more exciting.
All the evening Lars Henjum had been hovering near Ragnhild, as if watching her; and Gunnar, who rather wished to keep as far away as possible from Lars, had not spoken to her since her arrival. Now, by chance, she was standing next to him in the crowd; Lars had betaken himself to the beervessel, which, it was clear enough, he had already visited too often. As Gunnar stood there he felt a strange sensation steal over him. Ragnhild seemed to be as far away from him as if he had only known her slightly, as if their whole past, with their love and happiness, had only been a strange, feverish dream, from which they had now both waked up to the clear reality. He glanced over to Ragnhild and met a long, unspeakably sad look resting on him. Then, like an electric shock, a great, gushing warmth shot from his heart and diffused itself through every remotest vein and fibre. The fog-veil of doubt was gone ; he was again in the power of his dream, and in the very excess of his emotion ; forgetting all but her, he seized her hand, bent over her and whispered, “ Ragnhild, dearest, do you know me?” It was an absurd question, and he was aware of that himself in the very next minute, but then it was already too late. She, however, had but little difficulty in understanding it; for she only seized his other hand too, turned on him a face beaming with joyful radiance, and said softly, “ Gunnar, where have you been so long ? ” Instead of an answer, he flung his arms around her waist, lifted her up from the floor with a powerful grasp, and away they went like a whirlwind.
“ A devil of a fellow in the dance, that Gunnar Henjumhei,” said one of the lads at the beer-vessel to Lars, who happened to be his next neighbor ; “ never saw I a brisker lad on a dancing-floor as far back as my memory goes. And it is plain enough that the girls think the same.” Lars heard it, he saw Gunnar’s daring leap, saw Ragnhild bending trustfully towards him, and heard the loud shouts of admiration. In another moment he imagined that all eyes were directed toward himself, and his suspicion read a pitying sneer in all faces.
“No use for you to try there any longer,” cried a young fellow, coming up to him, and in the loving mood of half-intoxication laying both his arms round his neck ; “it is clear the houseman’s boy has got the upper hand of you.”
“ And if you did try,” interposed another, “ all you would gain would be a sound thrashing ; and you always were very careful about your skin, Lars.”
Lars bit his lip. Every word went through him like a poisonous sting, but he made no answer. The bridegroom had gone to give the fiddlers a jug of beer, and the music had stopped. Ragnhild sat hot and flushed on a bench by the wall, and Gudrun stood bending over her and eagerly whispering in her ear. Gunnar walked towards the door, and Lars followed a few steps after,— the two lads at some distance. “ Now there will be sport, boys,” said they, laughing.
Gunnar stood on the outer stairs, peering into the dark, impenetrable night. The storm had now reached its height; the wind howled from overhead through the narrow mountain gorges ; it roared and shrieked from below, and died away in long, despairing cries. Then it paused as if to draw its breath, and there was a great, gigantic calm, and again it burst forth with increased violence. To him it was a relief to hear the storm, it was a comfort to feel its power ; for in his own breast there was a storm raging too. When, ah ! when should he summon the courage to break all the ties that bound him to the past ? Before him lay the wide future, great and promising. O, should he never reach that future ? The storm made a fearful rush; the building trembled; something heavy fell over Gunnar’s neck, and he tumbled headlong down into the yard. His first thought was that a plank torn loose by the wind had struck him ; but by the light from the windows he saw a man leap down the steps after him ; he sprang up and prepared to meet him, for he knew the man. “ I might have known it was you, Lars Henjum,” cried he, “for the blow was from behind.”
When Lars saw his rival on his feet he paused for a moment, until a loud, scornful laugh from the spectators again kindled his ire.
“ I knew you would be afraid, Lars Henjum,” shouted a voice from the crowd.
Gunnar was just turning to receive Lars when a blow, heavier than the first, struck him from behind over his left ear. The darkness was thick, and Lars took advantage of the darkness.
The flaring, unsteady light of a hundred torches struggled with the gloom ; men and women, young and old, pressed out with torches and firebrands in their hands, and soon the wedding guests had formed a close ring around the combatants, and stared with large eyes at the wild and bloody play ; for they knew that the end of such a scene is always blood. At windows and doors crowds of young maidens watched the fighters, with fright and eager interest painted in their youthful faces, and clasped each other more tightly for every blow that fell.
By the light of the burninglogs Gunnar now found his opponent. Wildly they rushed at each other, and wild was the combat that followed. Revenge, longcherished hatred, burned in Lars’s eye ; and as the memory of past insults returned, the blood ran hotter through Gunnar’s veins. The blows came quick and strong on either side, and it would have been hard to tell who gave and who received the most. At last a well-directed blow struck Lars in the head ; the blood streamed from his mouth and nostrils, he reeled and fell backward. A subdued murmur ran through the crowd. Two men sprang forward, bent over him, and asked if he was much hurt. Gunnar was about to go, when suddenly he saw the wounded man leap to his feet, a long knife gleaming in his hand; in the twinkling of an eye he was again at his side ; he wrung the weapon from his grasp, and held it threatening over his head. “ Beg now for your life, you cowardly wretch ! ” cried he, pale with rage.
Lars foamed; he made a rush for the knife, but missing it, he flung his arms round Gunnar’s waist and struggled to throw him. Gunnar strove to free himself. In the contest, Lars’s foot slipped, they both tumbled to the ground. A shooting pain ran through Lars’s body ; in another moment he felt nothing. A red stream gushed from his side : he had fallen on his own knife. Gunnar rose slowly, saw and shuddered. The last gleam of the torches flickered, dying.
Wildly howled the storm, but over the storm arose a helpless shriek of despair. “ O Gunnar, Gunnar, what hast thou done ? ” and Ragnhild sprang from the stairs, frantically pressed onward through the throng, and flung herself upon Lars’s bloody body. She lifted her eyes to Gunnar with horror. “ O Gunnar, may God be merciful to thee ! ”
The last spark was quenched. Night lay before him, night behind him. He turned towards the night — and fled.
H. H. Boyesen.