Thorkild Viborg

A LITTLE SAGA OF THE NEW WORLD.

AT the north of the Ringkjöbing Fjord, not far from Nysogn, a wild, ragged-looking castle has dug its talons into the rocks, and stands with a haggard defiance fronting the fjord, which is as immobile and as chill as death. Here for centuries have dwelt the Viborgs, a melancholy race of men born with a prescience of doom. Reckless with their lives, mad in their loves, cursed with disease, they are born for sorrow. And now, in the new time, out of this comfortless home, — for it is never warm enough or light enough or gay enough in Viborg Hold, — all save the eldest born are crowded. Only for him does the jaded ground yield sufficient substance; only for his needs can the work-worn peasants pay sufficient tax.

So at twenty, Thorkild Viborg, the young brother of his brother, said farewell to the fields and the fjord, to the headland, to the room that had been his eerie and from which he had looked out upon the world with the savage eyes of a lonely, egotistical, poverty-hampered youth, and he went his ways.

He carried in his pocket passage money to America; also two great square flawed emeralds framed about with yellow pearls, and a dull blue intaglio, showing the head of Olaf with streaming hair and beard. This swung from a chain of pure gold, curiously wrought, — now two links and now three.

The ship crossed the black January seas, and in the bitter weather Thorkild landed in New York. None knew him. There was no place waiting for him to fill. He had done little all his life but brood, read the old legends of the house, sail over the still waters, or play on the little Italian violin that hung in the hall.

Here, in the new country, he sometimes worked with his hands, and would have done that cheerfully enough if it had not been for the tones of the boss’s voice, when he addressed a command to him, and the brutality of his fellow laborers. At night he sat in his lodginghouse, the melancholy of his race gnawing at his breast like the fox the Spartan boy carried beneath his coat.

But one day, at the worst of his loneliness, visiting the wharves to watch the northern ships come in, he saw a maid who had worked in his brother’s fields, — Kara, with the peaceful face, the brown braids, and the ox eyes. She walked down the gang plank and faced Thorkild. The homesickness in him surged up like a sorrow. He reached out his hands toward her, and she gave a cry of joy and sprang to meet him. In this strange land it was as if these two had been friends or lovers, though in truth they had hardly spoken till that day, but since childhood had stared at each other as they passed on the road. Now they walked away together hand in hand. After their dread, their timidity, they reveled in a sense of safety and companionship. They were prepared to defend each other, and they looked the insolent New World in the face and said boastfully that they were not afraid.

It came about that they were married, and for want of a wedding ring Thorkild hung the intaglio of Olaf about the neck of his bride. Moreover, he sold one of the emeralds with the exquisite moss-flaws, and he and Kara set out toward the West, and traveled till they came to a certain place where the sheep wandered all the year among sand dunes, and where land was almost as free as air. Here they built them a little house by the side of a brackish lake, and they cared nothing that the road which led to it was of drab, drifting, irresponsible sand, so that the winds had their way with it; they cared nothing that the only things that moved along the road were the frantic tumbleweeds, racing with the wind. They had built them a house in the New World, and they looked at each other in wonder at the things they had achieved.

Five hundred common sheep had they by way of herds; and at dawn Thorkild went to keep guard over them, nor did he leave them till they lay down to sleep below the stars, — those intimate, gay stars of the arid wold. So Kara was much alone. She had time to watch the yellow wind-storms rise; to wonder at the scarlet sunsets; to note the eagles that swung with gluttonous eyes above the flocks and the skulking gray wolves on the farther hills. Kara was in no way dismayed. She neither wept for her old home nor sighed for pleasures. She looked about the raw shack with unspeakable pride. A dozen times a day she swept the sand from the floor: and every morning she wiped off the windows that the abounding sunshine might find no obstacle to its free entrance. Sometimes, when all her tasks were done, she flung herself upon the back of her yellow cayuse and rode to the place where her husband herded the sheep. There, among the still places she sang to him, — wild minor songs, known for centuries on the Ringkjöbing Fjord, — or she laughed and chattered in sheer content.

Every day brought her fresh amaze at her marvelous happiness, — at the wonder of her love. To her, her husband was a viking. His great frame, his head, carried so proudly, his white teeth, his rolling blue eyes, moved her like a song or a trumpet call. She could not look at him without a thrill of joy. From immemorial time her people had reverenced his, had followed them to battle, gone with them over seas, toiled in their fields, shouted in their hours of rejoicing, lamented in their hours of grief. That she was as an equal with this man, that he served her, sheltered her, whispered love to her, gave her of his thoughts, grew gay in her presence, filled her with astonishment.

“Can I do nothing for you, Thorkild ? ” she would ask when she rode out to him on the range.

“You may stay with me, Kara. You may talk.”

“Of the old country? ”

“Of any country, any time, any thing. Only talk, Kara my love.”

“I shall talk of our little house. Some time when our sheep are sheared, and you have sold the wool, we shall buy little curtains for the windows. I shall make lace to edge them. I have already made a few yards. I like my fingers to be busy, Thorkild.”

“It is so with women. Only we men are content to sit idle.”

“But we women are foolish. We know not how to rest.”

“ You are the daughters of Hertha, the All-Mother, who never rests.”

“ Thorkild, in the old fields where I worked, Hertha seemed ancient, past age, — all worn and wise and weary. Here the earth seems not yet grown. ”

“It is the presence of men that ages the earth. No man has herded his sheep here before me. Often when my foot falls upon the ground on some high dune I say, ‘ No human foot has rested here before! ’ ”

“If it be the presence of men that makes the earth grow old, perhaps we should be very careful how we step on it.”

You can never make the earth sad, Kara. In the morning you are happy because it is morning. In the evening you sing hymns because the night is at hand. You rejoice because we two are here alone. If we were with many men and women, you would be happy because of them. Will nothing make you unhappy, little love ? ”

“ One thing would make me unhappy, — the loss of you, Thorkild.”

He kissed her on the eyes.

So the months went by. There was no book in the shack. In all the landscape not one telegraph pole was to be seen; and Thorkild must ride forty miles when he wished to visit the post office. Yet sometimes he went; and once he came home with papers telling of the Klondike, the place of gold, the newest, bitterest Eldorado. He read over and over again the news it held, spelling his way slowly through the English words. In the night, with his arms about Kara, there, in their insecure dwelling in the heart of that mocking wilderness, he told her of what he had been thinking.

“ For generations evil has been upon our house, as you know, Kara. But I — I alone escape the curse of disease that has rested upon us. I grow stronger every day. I can stand the heat, the cold, hunger, thirst. I shall not die as my father died, as my brother is dying.”

“Thank the good God, Thorkild! Thank Him every night.”

“ I thank Him, Kara; and I have bethought me that since I am to escape one curse of the house, may I not be the means of lifting another? You know the poverty at Viborg Hold; how we are all as poor as the peasants; how we eat the fare of laborers, laying by all we can save for the fêtes that the ancient customs of the house may not be forgotten. You know how my brother is shamed before his peers; how my mother died in faded grandeur, lacking the comforts that the common born expect. Oh, in what wretched splendor have we starved in that old Hold! But now I have a way ” — and he told her of the gold fields, the ships that had come back from them laden with treasure, the march northward of the goldseekers.

Kara listened with a fluttering heart. She had her own reasons for dreading danger just then; but she had told Thorkild nothing because she was abashed before him. She wondered if, after all, a Viborg would be proud of a son born of a peasant, — Kara, the peasant ! She wanted to tell him now, and turned toward him for that purpose. Then her heart failed, and she only said, —

“ It is as you think. If you go north, though it be into the wildest land, I also will go.”

“ You will stay here, ” he said shortly, and his voice sounded stern because that he had to say was hard in the saying.

“I? Alone, Thorkild? I, in the little house ? I, here with the sheep ? ”

“Word comes that we are about to have neighbors. Two American families are to move near. I can arrange, if they seem honest folk, to have our sheep put with theirs. No one will harm you here. All are kind to women in this part of the world.”

She laid her hands on her breast, and waited awhile before she spoke again. Then she said, —

“ And if you never come back, Thorkild ? ”

“ It shall be as God pleases, ” he said almost sullenly. Then the woman’s heart in her grew proud; she said to herself: “If he sorrows not at leaving me, neither shall he knowhow my heart bleeds. After all, it is not in reason that he should care much for me, — for me, Kara of the fields. It is the lot of women such as I to know only an hour of joy. As for my child — O God! my child, — I shall tell him nothing of that. He might stay with me for pity. I will have no pity.”

And he who had been stern only that he might have courage for the broaching of his wild plan noted her silence and thought: —

“Perhaps it comes to her as a relief. For truly our marriage was hasty, and she may think ill - advised. She has been heavenly sweet to me, but it may be that my melancholy has oppressed her. Perhaps she dreams of some happier and more gallant man, one who has not the curse of a dying race upon him.”

So he spoke no more upon the subject, but made him ready for his journey. With her he left all the money that remained from the sale of the first emerald, and he took with him the second stone, which he proposed to sell at one of the coast cities, that he might equip him for his venture. Then when the Americans came to the neighborhood, he, finding them kindly folk and well disposed, confided his wife and his herds to them and said farewell.

“ He shall not see me weep, ” Kara said over and over to herself. “My viking shall not see me weep.”

So they parted tearless, and as he rode along the sands, beyond the dunes that hid his home from him, he sobbed aloud for torture at the parting; and she, face downward upon her bed, made the rune of the deserted woman: —

“The days of my joy are past. There is only sorrow for me; my day is over and gone.”

Five years passed. The sallow roads still shifted in the winds, the dunes were riffled with delicate wind-flutings, the eagles wheeled, the wolves skulked, the brackish lakelets smiled under the vivid sky. In that part of the world there is at once an instability and an immutability. The pathways do not remain, but the silence is always there. It seems beyond the power of man to destroy. It is as an ocean, which cannot be beaten back.

Winding down between the dunes came two men, one a sheep rancher, the other a stranger clothed in rude furs.

“A very wild place this,” said the stranger. His English had a touch of something foreign in it.

“I thought so,” said the other, “when I first came here. But I — Well, in a small way, I have prospered. The city drove me out. I have eight children, and in the city I was forever struggling. Here my roof is my own, and no man can drive me from it. My sheep make a living for me and mine. We ask little more.”

“Still it seems a poor and lonely place.”

“There are several families of us here. We keep one another company. Every few months some one comes to join us, or a child is born in one of the little homes. A number of young men came out last year and built shacks for themselves. Each has his pipe and his dog. Each has his sheep. It ’s not a bad life for them, take it for all in all.”

“ A dog and a pipe ! Do they not wish wives — these young men? ”

“Wives? They are hard to find in this part of the country. Twenty men woo one woman here. A widow, Kara Viborg, living next to me, has been asked in marriage by every man in the neighborhood.”

The horse of the stranger gave a leap as if he saw an apparition in the widemouthed draw they were approaching.

“ Your horse is not used to this country. He shies at the tumble-weeds. He must get used to those, for they are always drifting up and down.”

“My horse is not used to this country, as you say. But the widow — is she then opposed to marriage ? ”

“ Who can tell ? Perhaps she waits for the right one. Perhaps she hesitates to put another father over her child.”

“Her child? ” The horse had shied again, and was wheeling.

“Yes. A son.”

“ A son, you say ? I cannot keep this brute in the road.”

“You hold him too hard. Give looser rein. I said a son.”

“ And her husband ? What was he ? ”

“A young Dane of high birth, so his wife says. He went away on a search for gold. He has never returned.”

“Does she speak of him? Does she mourn ? ”

“She keeps her tongue in her head and her tears well hidden. One winter she and the boy almost starved, but she told no one. She was too proud. She got on her cayuse and took the child with her, all sewed in blankets, and rode forty miles to send a trinket to a great jeweler’s in the East, — it was a trinket she had always worn about her neck. Only after it was all over did the neighbors know she had been in want.”

“ Ah! A brave woman! ”

“ And a beautiful one, — but more brave than beautiful. All the months of her trial before her child came she lived alone, asking company of none. If she had a woman’s terrors, she said nothing of them. If she feared death, she did not mention it.”

“And when her hour came ” —

“My wife was there. The two women were alone the night through. My wife said a gray wolf kept rooting about the door, and twice he looked in at the window. The wind was high and raged among the dunes, lifting their tops and flinging them in the hollows. All about, the sand drifted like fine rain. At dawn the child was born. I remember that the sun when it rose looked like a foolish ball of clay, so thick was the air with sand.”

“ Is she still so poor, the mother of this child? ”

“Oh, very poor. A blight came to her sheep and they died. Such money as she had must be almost gone. My wife says she is as poor as poor Job. But she says nothing. She never complains. She has had comfort offered her, but she will not take it.”

“A woman unlike other women.”

“Good women are not unusual, — at least I have not found them so. I have a wife who ” —

“ Is that the house there ? — that little shack beyond the dune? ”

“ What excites you, sir? That is it.”

“I shall ask for a lodging there.”

“ The widow will cook you a meal. She takes no wayfarers. But my house has a bed ” —

“ Thank you, fellow traveler. I count it a good chance that we met.”

“ ’T was a good chance for me. The tales you told me will give me something to think of in the long evenings. Good-night — till later. ”

“ Good-night. ”

He knocked at the door of the widow’s shack. Kara opened it. She saw a man slightly stooped, with broad shoulders, a face covered with windbleached beard, scarred across one cheek, and helmeted in a great hood of fur. His eyes had an uncertain movement like those of one who has suffered from the ice glare.

“You give lodgings to strangers? ”

Kara smiled apologetically. “No. But since it is a cold night please enter and rest. I have neighbors farther on who can furnish lodging, and if you are in need of food, there is some here which can be shared with you. As for the fire, it is so much a better fire if a wayfarer sit by it.”

“The widow makes her guests welcome,” muttered the man, somewhat ironically. He came within the door and closed it behind him with the manner of one who does what he pleases. Then he peered at the woman from beneath hanging brows, — noting her abundant brown hair, her mellow smile, her patient ways.

“Madam,” said he, with careful courteousness, — a manner such as the men about the sandhill country did not have,—“how came you — a woman like you — here in this wilderness ? Pardon me for the question. Do not let me offend! ”

She smiled with the unreserve of a child. “ My fate brought me here. This is my home.”

“You live here alone? ”

“ I have my son.”

“ Your son ? ”

“My son Thorkild! ”

“Thorkild?”

“So. Will you take off your coat? Will you be pleased to sit by the fire? ”

She began to move about the shack, preparing the meal, the man watching her frowningly.

“ It must be very lonely for you here, madam. ”

“I have my child; I have my thoughts.”

“Those thoughts — are they memories ? ”

She turned and smiled full at him. “ Memories — and hopes. ”

“And hopes? All women have hopes. When everything in this life fails them, they hope for something in the next.”

She said nothing to that. At last the meal was ready, and the man, the woman, and a young child, who had crept out of the bunk where he had been sleeping, sat together at the table.

The boy seemed to the man to be as beautiful as an angel. Soft golden curls made a halo about his sleep-flushed face. His lips were parted in a half-tremulous smile as he looked at the bearded face of the visitor. There was a charming humidity about his eyes, which made them look like flowers after a summer shower. His little hands moved in the swift and impetuous gestures of childhood. He was tantalizingly lovely and joyous, and one who looked at him might well be forgiven for wishing to snatch him to the breast.

With a singular rudeness the guest had not removed the hood of fur which covered his head, and which closed across the brow and chin. Now that he sat at table he loosened the chinpiece, but he still presented almost the appearance of a masked man, for beneath the eyes was nothing but a confusion of unkempt tawny beard.

He had little appetite, apparently,for the fare set before him. The potatoes, the corn bread, the coffee, the sauce of wild blackberries preserved in sweetened liquor, had no temptation for him. He watched the woman and the child with the avid eye-hunger of one who has been in a prison between blank walls. Kara ’ s hands trembled as she passed the dishes. She tingled with a sense of danger which she could hardly define. She was glad when the meal was finished and her duties permitted her to turn her back upon her singular guest. She threw out a hint that the hour was growing late and that in the darkness it was difficult for a stranger to keep the road. He made no answer, but Kara, chancing to look up suddenly, saw that he had laid one great hand on the shoulder of her son, and was drawing the child toward him. She checked an impulse to spring to little Thorkild and snatch him away from this mysterious guest, who seemed to be compelling her son and herself against their wills. Certainly the little one made no resistance. He went toward the man with the pretty reluctance of a child who is shy and yet fain, and when he was within reach the man snatched him to his arms and laid the golden head against his breast. Then the two were silent, gazing in each other’s eyes. A jealous and frightened pain leaped into Kara’s heart.

“ Give me the child, ” she said. “ It is time for me to put him in his bed.”

“He is bedded, ” said the man, and he turned his gaze back to the little one.

“It is my child,” she said, half in jest and half in defiance. “I know all his little habits, sir, and it is time he was in bed.”

The man motioned to a chair with gentle authority.

“Sit down,” he said. And Kara obeyed.

“ Draw your chair nearer to the fire. ” She did so, her eyes wide and startled. He bent forward and looked in her eyes.

“You are too young a woman to live here alone. It is not for such loneliness as this that you were born. Has no one told you that ? ”

She flushed and sat staring into the fire.

“Ah! You have been told of it, I perceive. And were you not convinced ? Of what use to be beautiful if no one sees? Of what use to have capable hands if they serve no one? Of what use to sing if no one hears ? ”

She answered nothing, but looked longingly at her child as if she wished him to deliver her from the spell of this insinuating voice. The man drew a little bag from the inner pocket of his coat.

“Hold your hands,” he commanded. She spread out her two pink, girlish palms, and he poured into them a heap of glittering stones.

“ Do you like them? ” he asked, still whispering. She nodded, trembling more than before.

“ I shall give them to the woman who will love me, ” he said hoarsely, the eyes with their snow-injured nerves shifting as he spoke. “I am a lonely man and a rich one. I want a wife. Now you, I hear, have been alone for years. Is it likely, do you think, that your husband will come back to you out of that terrible land into which he has gone ? I have been there. I have seen men die by the roadside; I have seen them slip down blue crevasses of the ice. They have died there in unknown numbers of fever and snow madness, of hunger and homesickness, in brawls, in snow-slides, in drunkenness, by the Indians, by smallpox, — on sea, on land, in the ice gorges which are neither sea nor land. Do you think it is likely that he will come back ? ”

She was silent, and the man drew nearer, a look of hard triumph in his eyes. He laid a hand on her arm.

“ Have you always enough food for the child ? Ought he to grow up here, away from the schools ? Ought you to wither here, — you who are made to be loved ? Cease to remember a man who is dead, or who has forgotten you. For if he had not, would he have left you here in poverty? ”

Kara dropped her head forward on her arm, and sat still, bowed like a grieved child. She looked so piteous, so unprotected, that something like compassion came into the man’s face. Then, his purpose returning suddenly, he bent forward and put an arm about her compellingly.

The jewels he had put in her hands ran glittering to the floor; they scattered like drops of sunlit water; they shone out of the gloom of the humble room like minute fallen stars. Kara gave no heed and neither did the man. He put the child in its bunk and followed Kara to the window whither she had fled. She stood there looking out into the darkness, with the slow tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Why do you weep? ” he whispered in her ear. “ I offer you nothing but happiness, — nothing but happiness! ”

Kara turned sternly. Her brown eyes were no longer patient.

“ I love my husband, ” she said below her breath, so as not to disturb the drowsing child. “I love Thorkild Viborg. He may be dead, or he may live and have forgotten me. I was only a peasant in his brother’s fields, and he may have tired of me. But we were happy as angels for a little while, — and I love him still.”

The man leaned heavily against the window casing, and Kara could hear his deep breathing. He seemed to be struggling with an overmastering emotion, and it grew upon her that it was not sorrow!

Then a great trembling came upon Kara. She leaned forward, as if to sense the soul beneath that grim disguise. A light grew in her eyes till it fairly flamed. She moved nearer with an exquisite and rapturous timidity. She lifted her hands and undid the visorlike headpiece of his hood, and drew the garment from him. Laughs, little inarticulate cries, gasps of gladness, came from her parted lips. She dashed some tears from her eyes, — much brighter they were to the man who saw them than the jewels which lay scattered upon the floor, — and she kissed the scar on the cheek, the tangled tawny beard that sun and frost, wind and tempest, had bleached, the eyes the glaciers had blinded.

“You did n’t know about little Thorkild, did you? ” she cried. “Is n’t he wonderful? Is n’t he like Baldur? ”

But the man was sobbing out halfcoherent words.

“How could it all come to me? I have deserved only sorrow. I thought of the glory of my house before the heart of a woman. What a wife ! And I tempted you, — after all my cruelty, I tempted you! I have done what would make any woman save you hate me, and then I provoked you to show that hate, — that I might condemn you. How you have rebuked me! Can you forgive me ? Can you love me, Kara ? ”

She paid no heed to what he was saying. She dragged him toward the bunk where the child lay with his arms tossed wide, and his golden curls glorifying the pillow.

“Is n’t he wonderful!” she cried. “ Our little Thorkild! ”

Elia W. Peattie.