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   Chapter 3 THE SERVANTS' HALL

The Visionary: Pictures From Nordland By Jonas Lie Characters: 30201

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The ghostly spirit which ran through our house, first had free outlet down in the servants' hall, when the men and maids, and the wayfarers who were putting up for the night, sat in the evening in the red glow from the stove, and told all kinds of tales about shipwrecks and ghosts.

On the bench in the space between the stove and the wall, sat the strong, handsome man Jens with his carpentering and repairs; he used to do his work, and listen in silence to the others. By the stove "Komag-Nils" busied himself with greasing komags [Komag-a peculiar kind of leather boot used by the Fins.] or skins-he had this name, because he made komags. Komag-Nils was a little fellow, with untidy yellow hair, which hung over his eyes, and a face as round as a moon, on which the nose looked like a little button; when he laughed, his wide thin-lipped mouth and large jaws gave him almost the expression of a death's-head. His small, watery eyes blinked at you mysteriously, but showed plainly that he was not wanting in common sense. It was he, in fact, who could tell the greatest number of stories, but still more was it he who could get a stranger to tell stories of the visible or the invisible world just as they occurred to him.

A third man went by a nickname, which, however, they never gave him within his hearing; Anders Lead-head, was so called, because he now and then had bad fits of drinking, and nearly lost his place in consequence. And yet in his way he was extremely capable. In any real dilemma-in a storm-he rose at once to the responsible post of captain in the boat; for there was but one opinion of his capability as a sailor. When the danger was over, he fell back again into the insignificant man.

A girl of twenty years of age, whom we called French Martina, was also one of the regular servants of the house. She seemed of a totally different race of beings from the ordinary Nordlander, was quick and lively, with thick, curly black hair, round a brown oval face with strikingly regular features. She was slenderly built, of middle height, and had a good figure. Her eyes, beneath strongly marked, black eyebrows, were as black as coal; and when she was angry, they could flash fire. She was in love with the silent Jens, and was extremely jealous, without the slightest cause. It was said that these two would make a match when he had been on two or three more fishing expeditions, but the matter was not officially announced at any rate, I think because Jens made a passive resistance as long as he could, and never actually proposed to her. French Martina was, by birth, one of the illegitimate children of those fishing districts, whose fathers are foreign skippers or sailors. Her father was said to have been a French sailor.

I was strictly forbidden by my father to go into the servants' hall in the evening; he knew very well that a good many things were said there that were not fit for children's ears. But then, on the other hand, it was just down there that the most interesting things in the world were talked about. The consequence was that I used to steal down secretly. I remember how, one dark autumn evening, when I had slipped in, I listened, while Komag-Nils-the man with the yellow hair and death's-head grin when he laughed-told a dreadful ghost story from Erlandsen's predecessor's time.

At that time there stood an old store-house not far from the parsonage. One Christmas Eve they sat drinking and merry-making in the warehouse. At eleven o'clock the ale gave out, and a man named Rasmus, who was a strong, courageous fellow, was sent to the store-house, where the beer-cask lay, to fill a large pewter jug, which he took with him. When he got there, Rasmus set the lantern on the cask, and began to draw. When the jug was full, and he was just meditating putting it to his lips, he saw, over the beer barrel, lying with its body in the shadow, where all the barrels stood in a row, a terribly big, broad, dark form, from which there came an icy breath, as if from a door that stood open; it blinked at him with two great eyes like dull, horn lanterns, and said: "A thief at the Christmas ale"! But Rasmus did not neglect his opportunity. He flung the heavy jug right in the goblin's face, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. Outside there was moonlight on the snow; he heard cries and howls down on the shore, and became aware that goblins were pursuing him in ever-increasing numbers. When he came to the churchyard wall they were close upon him, and in his extremity he bethought himself of shouting over the wall: "Help me now, all ye dead!" for the dead are enemies of the goblins. He heard them all rising, and noises and yells as of a battle followed. He himself was closely pursued by a goblin, who was just on the point of springing upon him as he seized the latch of the door, and got safely in. But then he fell fainting on the floor. The next day-the first Christmas Day [In Norway, Christmas Day is called "first Christmas Day"; the day after, "second Christmas Day," and so on to the end of the week.]-the people going to church saw, strewn all around on the graves, pieces of coffin-boards, and all kinds of old sodden oars, and such timbers as usually sink to the bottom after a shipwreck. They were the weapons that the dead and the goblins had used, and from various things it could be gathered that the dead were the victors. They also found both the pewter jug and the lantern down in the store-house. The pewter jug had been beaten flat against the goblin's skull, and the goblin had smashed the lantern when Rasmus escaped.

Komag-Nils could also tell a great deal about people with second sight and their visions of things, sometimes in the spirit world, sometimes in actual life, of which they either feel a warning, or-as if in a kind of atmospheric reflection before their mental vision-can see what is happening at that very moment in far distant places. They may be sitting in merry company, and all at once, becoming pale and disturbed, they gaze absently before them into space. They see all kinds of things, and sometimes an exclamation escapes them, such as: "A fire has broken out in Merchant N.N.'s buildings in --vaagen"! or "Trondhjem is burning now"! Sometimes they see a long funeral procession passing, with such distinctness that they can describe the place and appearance of every man in it, the coffin and the streets through which the procession wends its way. They will say: "A great man is being buried down in Kristiania"; and when the news comes, it always corresponds with their statement. It may happen, at sea, that such a man will say to the captain that he will do well to go out of his course for a little while; and he is always obeyed, for the crew are quite sure that he beholds in front of the ship what none of them perceive, perhaps a goblin in his half-boat, or a spectre, or something else that brings misfortune.

One of Komag-Nils' many stories of this kind had happened to an acquaintance of his during the winter fishing. The weather had been very stormy for two days, but on the third had so far lulled that one of the boats' crews that had been lodging in the fishing hut, thought that it would be quite possible to draw their nets. But the rest did not care to venture. Now it is a custom that the different boats' crews shall give each other a hand in launching the boats, and this was now to be done. When they came down to the ten-oared boat, which was drawn a good way up the beach, they found both oars and thwarts reversed, and, in addition to this, it was impossible, even with their united efforts, to move it. They tried once, twice, three times without avail. And then one of them, who was known to have second sight, said that from what he saw, it was better that they should not touch the boat that day: it was too heavy for human power. In one of the crews that put up in the fishing-hut there was a lively boy of fourteen, who entertained them the whole time with tricks of all kinds, and was never quiet. He took up a huge stone and threw it with all his might into the stern of the boat. Instantly there rushed out, visible to every one, a gnome in seaman's dress with a great bunch of seaweed for a head. It had been sitting at the stern weighing down the boat, and now rushed out into the sea, dashing the water up in spray round it as it went. After that the boat went smoothly into the water. The man with the second sight looked at the boy, and said he ought not to have done as he had; but the boy only laughed and said that he did not believe in goblins or spirits. In the night, when they had come home and lay sleeping in the hut, at about twelve o'clock they heard the boy crying for help. One of the men thought, too, he saw by the dim light of the oil lamp a great hand stretching in from the door up to the bench on which the boy lay. Before they had so far collected themselves as to lay hold of the hand, the boy, crying out and resisting, was already dragged to the door. And now a hard struggle took place in the doorway, the goblin pulling the boy by the legs, while the whole crew held him by the arms and the upper part of his body. In this way, at the hour of midnight, he was dragged backwards and forwards in the half-open doorway, now the men, now the goblin, having the better of the struggle. All at once the goblin let go his hold, so that the whole crew fell over one another backwards on to the floor. But the boy was dead, and they understood that it was only then that the goblin had let go. The following winter they used to hear wailings at midnight in the fishing-hut, and they had no peace until it was moved away to another spot.

The Nordlander has the same, or even a greater pride in owning the fastest sailing-boat, that the East countryman in many places has in having the fastest trotting-horse. A really good boat is talked of in as many districts in the north, as, a really fine trotter would be in the south. All sorts of traditions about the speed and wonderful racing powers of the boats are current in Nordland, and romantic tales are told of some of them. The best boats in Nordland now came from Ranen, where boatbuilding has made great strides. To build a good boat with the correct water-lines requires genius, and cannot be learned theoretically; for it is a matter of special skill on the part of the builder of each boat. Ill-constructed boats are sometimes put together but they are, of course, unsatisfactory and sail only moderately well. The Nordland boat-builders have long since discovered the high fore and aft, sharp-keeled boat, to be the most practical, with one mast and a broad, prettily cut square sail admirably suited to what is most required, rapid sailing in fore and side winds, though less so for tacking. The boat is exactly the same shape under water as the fast-sailing clippers for which the English and Americans have of late become famed. What it has cost the Nordlanders to perfect the form that now enables them almost to fly before the wind, away from mighty curling billows which would bury the boat, if they reached it; how many generations have suffered and toiled and thought over, and corrected this shape under pain of death, so to speak, for every mistake made! In short, the history of the Nordland boat, from the days of men who first waged war with the ocean up there, to this day is a forgotten Nordland saga, full of the great achievements of the steadily toiling workman.

One winter's evening in January, a little while before the fishing began, I heard a story told by a man of one of the large boats' crews who were then spending the night at our house. He was started by two or three of Komag-Nils' stories, and wanted to show us that where he came from, down at D?n? near Ranen, in Helgeland, there were as many and as wonderful stories and boats, as with us in Nordland. The narrator was a little, quick-speaking fellow, who sat the whole time rocking backwards and forwards, and fidgetting upon the bench, while he talked. With his sharp nose, and round, reddish little eyes, he resembled a restless sea-bird on a rock. Every now and then he broke off to dive down into his provision box, as if every time he did so he took out of it a fresh piece of his story. The story was as follows:

On Kvalholmen, in Helgeland, there lived a poor fisherman named Elias, with his wife Karen, who had formerly been servant at the minister's over at Alstadhaug. They had put up a cottage at Kvalholmen, and Elias was now in the Lofoten fishing-trade, working for daily wages.

It was pretty evident that lonely Kvalholmen was haunted. When the husband was away, the wife heard many dismal noises and cries, which could not come from anything good. One day when she was up on the mountain, cutting grass for winter fodder for the two or three sheep they owned, she distinctly heard the sound of talking on the beach below, but dared not look to see who was there.

Every year there came a child, but the parents were both industrious. When seven years had passed there were six children in the cottage; and that same autumn the man had scraped together so much that he thought he could afford to buy a six-oared boat, and henceforward sail to the fishing in his own boat.

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One day as he was walking along with a halibut pike [A long wooden pole with a barbed iron point to spear halibut with.] in his hand, meditating over his intention, he stumbled unexpectedly, upon an immense seal, which lay sunning itself behind a rock down on the shore. The seal was quite as little prepared for the man as the man for it. Elias, however, was not slow; from the rock where he stood he thrust the long heavy pike into its back, just below the head.

And then there was a scene! All at once the seal raised itself upon its tail straight up in the air, as high as a boat-mast, showed its teeth and looked at Elias with two bloodshot eyes, so maliciously and venomously, that he was nearly frightened out of his senses. Then the seal rushed straight into the sea, leaving a track of blood-tinged foam behind it. Elias saw nothing more of it; but the same afternoon the halibut pike, with the iron point broken off, was washed up at the landing-stage in Kval creek where the house stood.

Elias thought no more of the affair. The same autumn he bought his six-oared boat, for which he had put up a little boat-house during the summer.

One night as he lay thinking about this new boat of his, it struck him that in order to make it thoroughly secure he ought, perhaps, to put one more plank to support it on each side. He was so fond of the boat, that it was nothing but a pleasure for him to get up and go with a lantern to look at it.

While he stood holding the light up over the boat, he suddenly caught sight of a face in the corner, upon a heap of fishing-net, that exactly resembled the seal's. The creature showed its teeth angrily at him and the light, its mouth seeming the whole time to grow wider and wider, and then a huge ma

n rushed out through the boat-house door, but not too quickly for Elias to see, by the light of the lantern, that out of his back there stuck a long iron spike. Now Elias began to understand a little; but still he was more afraid on account of his boat than for his own life, and he sat in the boat himself, with the lantern, and kept guard. When his wife came to look for him in the morning she found him sleeping, with the extinguished lantern by his side.

One morning in the following January when he put out to fish with two men in his boat besides himself, he heard in the dark a voice that came from a rock at the entrance to the creek. It laughed scornfully, and said: "When you get a ten-oared boat, take care, Elias!"

However, it was many years before anything happened to the ten-oared boat, and by that time his eldest son, Bernt, was seventeen. That autumn Elias went into Ranen with his whole family in the six-oared boat, to exchange it for a ten-oared boat. Only a newly confirmed Fin girl, whom they had taken in some years before, was left at home.

Elias had in his eye a half-decked ten-oared boat, which the best boat-builder in Ranen had finished and tarred that very autumn. Elias knew very well what a boat should be, and thought he had never seen one so well built under the water-line. Above, on the contrary, it was only fairly good, so that to any one less experienced it looked heavy, and with no beauty to speak of.

The builder knew this just as well as Elias. He said he believed it would be the first boat in Ranen for sailing; but that, all the same, Elias should have it cheap, if he would only promise one thing, and that was, not to make any alteration in it, not so much as to put a line on the tar. Only when Elias had expressly promised this did he get the boat.

But "the fellow," who had taught the builder the shape for his boats below water-line-above it, he was obliged to work as he could by himself, and that was often poorly enough-had probably advised him beforehand, to sell it cheaply, so that Elias should have it, and also to make it a condition that the boat should not be marked in any way. The cross [Customary with fishermen in Nordland to keep evil spirits away.] usually painted fore and aft, did not, therefore, appear on the boat.

Elias now thought of sailing home, but first went to the shop and laid in a supply of Christmas goods including a little keg of brandy for himself and his family. Delighted as he was with his purchase, both he and his wife took that day a little more than was good for them, and Bernt, the son, also had a taste.

Their shopping done, they set out to sail the new boat home. It had no other ballast than himself, his wife and children, and the Christmas fare. His son Bernt sat in the fore-part, his wife, with the help of the second son, held the halliard, and Elias sat at the helm, while the two younger boys, twelve and fourteen years of age, were to take turns at baling.

They had eight miles [About thirty-eight English miles = eight Norwegian sea miles.] to sail, and when they got out to sea, it was pretty evident that they would come to prove the boat the first time she was used. A storm was gradually rising, and the foam-crests began to break on the great waves.

Now Elias saw what sort of a boat he had; she cleared the waves like a sea-bird, without so much as a drop coming in, and he therefore judged that he did not need to take in a reef, which in an ordinary ten-oared boat he would be obliged to do in such weather.

Later in the day he noticed, not far off on the sea, another ten-oared boat fully manned and with four reefs in the sail, exactly as he had. Her course was the same as his, and he thought it rather strange that he had not seen her before. She seemed desirous of racing with him, and when Elias saw this he could not refrain from letting out another reef.

The boat now flew with the speed of an arrow past naze, island and rock, till Elias thought he had never been for such a splendid sail before, and the boat now showed herself to be, as she really was, the first boat in Ranen.

In the meantime the sea had grown rougher, and two considerable waves had already broken over them. They broke in at the bow where Bernt sat, and flowed out to leeward near the stern.

Since it had become darker, the other boat had kept quite close, and they were now so near to one another that a scoop could have been thrown across from one boat to the other.

And thus they sailed, side by side, in the growing storm, throughout the evening. The fourth reef of the sail ought properly to have been taken in, but Elias was loth to give up the race, and he thought he would wait until they took a reef in over in the other boat, where it must be needed quite as much as in his. The brandy keg went round from time to time, for there was now both cold and wet to be kept out.

The phosphorescence that played in the black waves near Elias's boat shone weirdly in the foam round the other boat, which seemed to plough up and roll waves of fire about her sides. By their bright light he could even distinguish the spars and ropes in her. He could also distinctly see the men on board, with sou'westers on their heads; but as their windward side was nearest, they all had their backs turned to him, and were nearly hidden by the gunwale.

Suddenly there broke over the bows, where Bernt sat, a tremendous wave whose white crest Elias had long seen through the darkness. It seemed to stop the whole boat for an instant, the timbers quivered and shook under its weight, and when the boat, which for a few seconds lay half-capsized, righted herself and went on her way again, it streamed out astern. While this was happening, he fancied there were ghastly cries in the other boat. But when it was over, his wife, who sat at the halliard, said in a voice that cut him to the heart: "Good God! Elias, that wave took Martha and Nils with it!"-these were their youngest children, the former nine, the latter seven years old, who had been sitting in the bow, near Bernt. To this Elias only answered: "Don't let go the rope, Karen, or you will lose more!"

It was now necessary to take in the fourth reef, and, when that was done, Elias found that the fifth ought to be taken in too, for the storm was increasing; yet in order to sail the boat free of the ever-increasing seas he dared not, on the other hand, take in more sail than was absolutely necessary. But the little sail they could carry became gradually less and less. The spray dashed in their faces, and Bernt and his next youngest brother Anton, who till now had helped his mother with the halliard, were at last obliged to hold the yard, an expedient resorted to when the boat cannot even bear to go with the last reef-in this case the fifth.

The companion boat, which had in the meantime vanished, now suddenly appeared again beside them with exactly the same amount of sail as Elias's boat; and he began rather to dislike the look of the crew on board of her. The two men who stood there holding the yard, whose pale faces he could distinguish under the sou'westers, seemed to him, in the curious light from the breaking foam, more like corpses than living beings, and apparently they did not speak a word.

A little to windward he saw once more the high white crest of another huge wave coming through the dark, and he prepared for it in time. The boat was laid with her stem in a slanting direction to it, and with as much sail as she could carry, in order to give her sufficient speed to cleave it and sail right through it. In it rushed with the roar of a waterfall; again the boat half heeled over, and when the wave was past his wife no longer sat at the halliard, and Anton no longer stood holding the yard-they had both gone overboard.

This time, too, Elias thought he heard the same horrible cries in the air; but in the midst of them he distinctly heard his wife calling his name in terror. When he comprehended that she was washed overboard, he only said: "In Jesus' name!" and then was silent. His inclination was to follow her, but he felt, too, that he must do what he could to save the rest of the freight he had on board-namely, Bernt and his two other sons, the one twelve, the other fourteen, who had baled the boat for a time, but had now found a place in the stern behind their father.

Bernt now had to mind the sail alone; and he and his father, as far as was possible, helped one another. Elias dared not let go the tiller, and he held it firmly with a hand of iron that had long lost feeling from the strain.

After a while the companion boat appeared again; as before, it had been absent for a time. Now, too, Elias saw more of the big man who sat in the stern in the same place as himself. Out of his back, below the sou'wester, when he turned, stuck a six-inch-long iron spike which Elias thought he ought to know. And now, in his own mind, he had come to a clear understanding upon two points: one was that it was no other than the sea-goblin himself who was steering his half-boat by his side and was leading him to destruction, and the other, that it was so ordained that he was sailing his last voyage that night. For he who sees the goblin on the sea is a lost man. He said nothing to the others for fear of making them lose courage; but he silently committed his soul to God.

For the last few hours he had been obliged to go out of his course for the storm; the air too became thick with snow, and he saw that he would have to wait for dawn before he could find out his whereabouts. In the meantime they sailed on. Now and then the boys in the stern complained of the cold, but there was nothing to be done in the wet, and moreover Elias's thoughts were of very different things. He had such an intense desire for revenge, that, if he had not had the lives of his three remaining children to defend, he would have attempted by a sudden turn of his own boat to run into and sink the other, which still, as if in mockery, kept by his side, and whose evil object he understood only too well. If the halibut pike could wound the goblin before, then surely a knife or a landing-hook might now, and he felt that he would gladly give his life for a good blow at the monster who had so unmercifully taken his dearest from him, and still wanted more victims.

Between three and four in the morning Elias saw, advancing through the dark, another foam-crest, so high that at first he thought they must be near breakers, close to land. But he soon saw that it really was an enormous wave. Then he fancied he distinctly heard laughter over in the other boat, and the words, "Now your boat will capsize, Elias!" Elias, who foresaw the disaster, said aloud: "In Jesus' name!" and told his sons to hold on, with all their might, to the willow bands on the rowlocks when the boat went under, and not to leave go until she rose again. He made the elder boy go forward to Bernt; he himself held the younger close to him, quietly stroking his cheek, and assured himself that he had a good hold. The boat was literally buried under the foam-drift, then gradually lifted at the bow, and went under. When she rose again, keel uppermost, Elias, Bernt, and the twelve-year-old Martin still held on to the willow bands. But the third brother was gone.

The first thing to be done now was to cut the shrouds on one side, so that the mast could float beside them, instead of greatly adding to the unsteadiness of the boat underneath; and the next to get up on to the rolling keel and knock the plug in, which would let out the air underneath, so that the boat could lie still. After great exertion they succeeded in this, and then Elias, who was the first to get on to the keel, helped the others up too.

And there they sat through the long winter night, clinging convulsively with hands and knees to the keel over which the waves washed again and again.

After two or three hours had passed, Martin whom his father had supported as well as he could the whole time, died of exhaustion, and slipped down into the sea. They had already tried calling out for help several times, but gave it up, because they saw it was of no use.

While Elias and Bernt sat alone upon the overturned boat, Elias said to his son that he was quite sure he himself would go to "be with mother," but he had strong hopes that Bernt might yet be saved, if he only held out like a man. Then he told him of the goblin he had wounded in the back with the halibut pike, and how it had revenged itself upon him, and would not give up "until they were quits."

It was about nine in the morning, when the dawn began to show grey. Then Elias handed to Bernt, who sat by his side, his silver watch with the brass chain, which he had broken in two in drawing it out from under his buttoned-up waistcoat. He still sat for a while, but, as it grew lighter, Bernt saw that his father's face was deadly pale, his hair had parted in several places as it often does when death is near, and the skin was torn from his hands by holding on to the keel. The son knew that his father could not last long, and wanted, as well as the pitching would allow, to move along and support him; but when Elias noticed this he said: "Only hold fast, Bernt! In Jesus' name, I am going to mother" and thereupon threw himself backwards off the boat.

When the sea had got its due, it became, as every one knows who has sat long upon an upturned boat, a good deal quieter. It became easier for Bernt to hold on; and with the growing day there came more hope. The storm lulled, and when it became quite light, it seemed to him he ought to know where he was, and that he lay drifting outside his own native place, Kvalholmen.

He began once more to call for help, but hoped most in a current which he knew set in to land at a place where a naze on the island broke the force of the waves, so that there was smooth water within. He did drift nearer and nearer, and at last came so near to one rock that the mast, which was floating by the side of the boat, was lifted up and down the slope of the rock by the waves. Stiff as all his joints were with sitting and holding on, he yet succeeded by great exertion in climbing up on to the rock, where he hauled up the mast and moored the boat.

The Fin servant-maid who was alone in the house, had thought for a few hours that she heard cries of distress, and as they continued she climbed the hill to look out. There she saw Bernt upon the rock, and the boat, bottom upwards, rocking up and down against it. She immediately ran down to the boat-house, launched the old four-oared boat, and rowed it along the shore, round the island, out to him.

Bernt lay ill under her care the whole winter, and did not go fishing that year. People thought, too, after this that he was now and then a little strange.

He had a horror of the sea, and would never go on it again. He married the Fin girl and moved up to Malangen, where he bought a clearing, and is now doing well.

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