The Great Hunger
Part 4 out of 5
"I--I didn't quite catch--" he stammered. "Did you say two
"Yes. I daresay it seems a trifle to you," said Peer. "Indeed,
I've handled contracts myself that ran to fifty million francs."
"What? How much did you say?" Uthoug began to move restlessly
about the room. He clutched his hair, and gazed at Peer as if
doubting whether he was quite sober.
At the same time he felt it would never do to let himself be so
easily thrown off his balance. He tried to pull himself together.
"And what do you make out of it?" he asked.
"A couple of hundred thousand, I hope."
"Oh!" A profit on this scale again rather startled the old man.
No, he was nothing; he never had been anything in this world!
"How do you know that you will make so much?"
"I've calculated it all out."
"But if--but how can you be sure of it? Suppose you've got your
figures wrong?" His head was thrust forward again into the full
"I'm in the habit of getting my figures right," said Peer.
When he broached the question of security, the old man was in the
act of moving away from him across the room. But he stopped short,
and looked back over his shoulder.
"What? Security? You want me to stand security for two million
"No; the Company asks for a guarantee for four hundred thousand."
After a pause the old man said: "I see. Yes, I see. But--but I'm
not worth as much as that altogether."
"I can put in three hundred thousand of the four myself, in shares.
And then, of course, I have the Loreng property, and the works.
But put it at a round figure--will you guarantee a hundred
There was another pause, and then the reply came from the far end
of the room to which Uthoug had drifted: "Even that's a big sum."
"Of course if you would rather not, I could make other arrangements.
My two friends, who have just been here--" He rose and began to
gather up his papers.
"No, no; you mustn't be in such a hurry. Why, you come down on a
man like an avalanche. You must give me time to think it over--
till to-morrow at least. And the papers--at any rate, I must have
a look at them."
Uthoug passed a restless and troubled night. The solid ground
seemed to have failed him; his mind could find no firm foothold.
His son-in-law must be a great man--he should be the last to doubt
it. But a hundred thousand--to be ventured, not in landed
property, or a big trade deal, but on the success of a piece of
construction work. This was something new. It seemed fantastic--
suited to the great world outside perhaps, or the future. Had he
courage enough to stand in? Who could tell what accidents, what
disasters might not happen? No! He shook his head. He could not.
He dared not. But--the thing tempted him. He had always wanted to
be something more than a whale among the minnows. Should he risk
it? Should he not? It meant staking his whole fortune, his
position, everything, upon the outcome of a piece of engineering
that he understood nothing whatever about. It was sheer
speculation; it was gambling. No, he must say: No. Then he was
only a whale among the minnows, after all. No, he must say: Yes.
Good God! He clenched his hands together; they were clammy with
sweat, and his brain was in a whirl. It was a trial, a temptation.
He felt an impulse to pray. But what good could that do--since he
had himself abolished God.
Next day Merle and Peer were rung up by telephone and asked to come
in to dinner with the old folks.
But when they were all sitting at table, they found it impossible
to keep the conversation going. Everyone seemed shy of beginning
on the subject they were all thinking about. The old man's face
was grey with want of sleep; his wife looked from one to the other
through her spectacles. Peer was calm and smiling.
At last, when the claret came round, Fru Uthoug lifted her glass
and drank to Peer. "Good fortune!" she said. "We won't be the
ones to stand in your way. Since you think it is all right, of
course it is. And we all hope it will turn out well for you,
Merle looked at her parents; she had sat through the meal anxious
and troubled, and now the tears rose into her eyes.
"Thanks," said Peer, lifting his glass and drinking to his host and
hostess. "Thanks," he repeated, bowing to old Uthoug. The matter
was arranged. Evidently the two old folks had talked it over
together and come to an agreement.
It was settled, but all four felt as if the solid ground were
rocking a little under their feet. All their future, their fate,
seemed staked upon a throw.
A couple of days later, a day of mild October sunshine, Peer
happened to go into the town, and, catching sight of his mother-in-
law at the window, he went off and bought some flowers, and took
them up to her.
She was sitting looking out at the yellow sky in the west, and she
hardly turned her head as she took the flowers. "Thanks, Peer,"
she said, and continued gazing out at the sky.
"What are you thinking of, dear mother?" asked Peer.
"Ah! it isn't a good thing always to tell our thoughts," she said,
and she turned her spectacled eyes so as to look out over the lake.
"I hope it was something pleasant?"
"I was thinking of you, Peer. Of you and Merle."
"It is good of you to think of us."
"You see, Peer, there is trouble coming for you. A great deal of
trouble." She nodded her head towards the yellow sky in the west.
"Trouble? Why? Why should trouble come to us?"
"Because you are happy, Peer."
"What? Because I am--?"
"Because all things blossom and flourish about you. Be sure that
there are unseen powers enough that grudge you your happiness."
Peer smiled. "You think so?" he asked.
"I know it," she answered with a sigh, gazing out into the
distance. "You have made enemies of late amongst all those envious
shadows that none can see. But they are all around us. I see them
every day; I have learned to know them, in all these years. I have
fought with them. And it is well for Merle that she has learned to
sing in a house so full of shadows. God grant she may be able to
sing them away from you too."
When Peer left the house he felt as if little shudders of cold were
passing down his back. "Pooh!" he exclaimed as he reached the
street. "She is not right in her head." And he hurried to his
carriole and drove off home.
"Old Rode will be pleased, anyhow," he thought. "He'll be his own
master in the workshop now--the dream of his life. Well, everyone
for himself. And the bailiff will have things all his own way at
Loreng for a year or two. Well, well! Come up, Brownie!"
"Peer, you're surely not going away just now? Oh, Peer, you
mustn't. You won't leave me alone, Peer!"
"Merle, dear, now do be sensible. No, no--do let go, dear." He
tried to disengage her hands that were clasped behind his neck.
"Peer, you have never been like this before. Don't you care for me
any more--or the children?"
"Merle, dearest, you don't imagine that I like going. But you
surely don't want me to have another big breach this year. It
would be sheer ruin, I do assure you. Come, come now; let me go."
But she held him fast. "And what happens to those dams up there is
more to you now than what becomes of me!"
"You will be all right, dear. The doctor and the nurse have
promised to be on the spot the moment you send word. And you
managed so well before. . . . I simply cannot stay now, Merle.
There's too much at stake. There, there, goodbye! Be sure you
telegraph--" He kissed her over the eyes, put her gently down into
a chair, and hurried out of the room, feeling her terrified glance
follow him as he went.
The April sun had cleared away the snow from the lowlands, but when
Peer stepped out of the train up in Espedal he found himself back
in winter--farms and fields still covered, and ridges and peaks
deep in white dazzling snow. And soon he was sitting wrapped in
his furs, driving a miserable dun pony up a side-valley that led
out on to the uplands.
The road was a narrow track through the snow, yellow with horse-
dung, and a mass of holes and ruts, worn by his own teams that had
hauled their heavy loads of cement this way all through that winter
and the last, up to the plateau and across the frozen lakes to
The steel will on. The steel cares nothing for human beings.
Merle must come through it alone.
When a healthy, happy man is hampered and thwarted in a great work
by annoyances and disasters, he behaves like an Arab horse on a
heavy march. At first it moves at a brisk trot, uphill and
downhill, and it goes faster and faster as its strength begins to
flag. And when at last it is thoroughly out of breath and ready to
drop, it breaks into an easy gallop.
This was not the work he had once dreamed of finding. Now, as
before, his hunger for eternal things seemed ever at the side of
his accomplishment, asking continually: Whither? Why? and What
But by degrees the difficulties had multiplied and mounted, till at
last his whole mind was taken up by the one thought--to put it
through. Good or bad in itself--he must make a success of it. He
had undertaken it, and he must see it through. He must not be
And so he fought on. It was merely a trial of strength; a fight
with material difficulties. Aye, but was that all it was? Were
there not times when he felt himself struggling with something
greater, something worse? A new motive force seemed to have come
into his life--misfortune. A power outside his own will had begun
to play tricks with him.
Your calculations may be sound, correct in every detail, and yet
things may go altogether wrong.
Who could include in his calculations the chance that a perfectly
sober engineer will get drunk one day and give orders so crazy that
it costs tens of thousands to repair the damage? Who could foresee
that against all probability a big vein of water would be tapped in
tunnelling, and would burst out, flooding the workings and
overwhelming the workmen--so that the next day a train of unpainted
deal coffins goes winding out over the frozen lakes?
More than once there had been remarks and questions in the
newspapers: "Another disaster at the Besna Falls. Who is to
It was because he himself was away on a business journey and
Falkman had neglected to take elementary precautions that the big
rock-fall occurred in the tunnel, killing four men, and destroying
the new Belgian rock-drill, that had cost a good hundred thousand,
before it had begun to work. This sort of thing was not faulty
calculation--it was malicious fate.
"Come up, boy! We must get there to-night. The flood mustn't have
a chance this year to lay the blame on me because I wasn't on the
And then, to cap the other misfortunes, his chief contractor for
material had gone bankrupt, and now prices had risen far above the
rates he had allowed for--adding fresh thousands to the extra
But he would put the thing through, even if he lost money by it.
His envious rivals who had lately begun to run down his projects in
the technical papers--he would make them look foolish yet.
Well, it may be that the Promethean spirit is preparing a settling
day for the universe somewhere out in infinity. But what concern
is that of mine? What about my own immortal soul?
Silence--push on, push on. There may be a snowstorm any minute.
Come up--get along, you scarecrow.
The dun struggles on to the end of a twelve-mile stage, and then
the valley ends and the full blast from the plateau meets them.
Here lies the posting station, the last farm in the valley. He
swings into the yard and is soon sitting in the room over a cup of
coffee and a pipe.
Merle? How are things with Merle now?
Ah! here comes his own horse, the big black stallion from
Gudbrandsdal. This beast's trot is a different thing from the poor
dun's--the sleigh flies up to the door. And in a moment Peer is
sitting in it again in his furs.
Ah! what a relief to have a fresh horse, and one that makes light
of the load behind him. Away he goes at a brisk trot, with lifted
head and bells jingling, over the frozen lakes. Here and there on
the hillslopes a grey hut or two show out--saeters, which have lain
there unchanged for perhaps a couple of thousand years. But a new
time is coming. The saeter-horns will be heard no longer, and the
song of the turbines will rise in their place.
An icy wind is blowing; the horse throws up its head and snorts.
Big snowflakes come driving on the wind, and soon a regular
snowstorm is raging, lashing the traveller's face till he gasps.
First the horse's mane and tail grow white with snow, then its
whole body. The drifts grow bigger, the black has to make great
bounds to clear them. Bravo, old boy! we must get there before
dark. There are brushwood brooms set out across the ice to mark
the way, but who could keep them in sight in a driving smother like
this? Peer's own face is plastered white now, and he feels stunned
and dazed under the lash of the snow.
He has worked under the burning suns of Egypt--and now here. But
the steel will on. The wave rolls on its way over all the world.
If this snow should turn to rain now, it will mean a flood. And
then the men will have to turn out to-night and work to save the
One more disaster, and he would hardly be able to finish within the
contract time. And that once exceeded, each day's delay means a
penalty of a thousand crowns.
It is getting darker.
At last there is nothing to be seen on the way but a shapeless mass
of snow struggling with bowed head against the storm, wading deep
in the loose drifts, wading seemingly at haphazard--and trailing
after it an indefinable bundle of white--dead white. Behind, a
human being drags along, holding on for dear life to the rings on
the sleigh. It is the post-boy from the last stage.
At last they were groping their way in the darkness towards the
shore, where the electric lights of the station showed faintly
through the snow-fog. And hardly had Peer got out of the sleigh
before the snow stopped suddenly, and the dazzling electric suns
shone over the place, with the workmen's barracks, the assistants'
quarters, the offices, and his own little plank-built house. Two
of the engineers came out to meet him, and saluted respectfully.
"Well, how is everything getting on?"
The greybeard answered: "The men have struck work to-day."
"Struck? What for?"
"They want us to take back the machinist that was dismissed the
other day for drunkenness."
Peer shook the snow from his fur coat, took his bag, and walked
over to the building, the others following. "Then we'll have to
take him back," he said. "We can't afford a strike now."
A couple of days later Peer was lying in bed, when the post-bag was
brought in. He shook the letters out over the coverlet, and caught
sight of one from Klaus Brook.
What was this? Why did his hand tremble as he took it up? Of
course it was only one of Klaus's ordinary friendly letters.
DEAR FRIEND,--This is a hard letter to write. But I do hope you
have taken my advice and got some of your money at any rate over to
Norway. Well, to be as brief as possible! Ferdinand Holm has
decamped, or is in prison, or possibly worse--you know well enough
it's no good asking questions in a country like this when a big man
suddenly disappears. He had made enemies in the highest places; he
was playing a dangerous game--and this is the end of it.
You know what it means when a business goes into liquidation out
here, and no strong man on the spot to look after things. We
Europeans can whistle for our share.
You'll take it coolly, I know. I've lost every penny I had--but
you've still got your place over there and the workshops. And
you're the sort of fellow to make twice as much next time, or I
don't know you. I hope the Besna barrage is to be a success.
P.S.--Of course you'll understand that now my friend has been
thrown overboard it will very likely be my turn next. But I can't
leave now--to try would rouse suspicion at once. We foreigners
have some difficult balancing to do, to escape a fall. Well, if by
chance you don't hear from me again, you'll know something has
Outside, the water was streaming down the channels into the fall.
Peer lay still for a while, only one knee moving up and down
beneath the clothes. He thought of his two friends. And he
thought that he was now a poor man--and that the greater part of
the burden of the security would fall now on old Lorentz D. Uthoug.
Clearly, Fate has other business on hand than making things easy
for you, Peer. You must fight your fight out single-handed.
One evening in the late autumn Merle was sitting at home waiting
for her husband. He had been away for several weeks, so it was
only natural that she should make a little festivity of his return.
The lamps were lit in all the rooms, wood fires were crackling in
all the stoves, the cook was busy with his favourite dishes, and
little Louise, now five years old, had on her blue velvet frock.
She was sitting on the floor, nursing two dolls, and chattering to
them. "Mind you're a good girl now, Josephine. Your grandpa will
be here directly." Merle looked in through the kitchen door:
"Have you brought up the claret, Bertha? That's right. You'd
better put it near the stove to warm." Then she went round all the
rooms again. The two youngest children were in bed--was there
anything more to be done?
It would be an hour at least before he could be here, yet she could
not help listening all the time for the sound of wheels. But she
had not finished yet. She hurried up to the bathroom, turned on
the hot water, undressed, and put on an oilskin cap to keep her
hair dry, and soon she was splashing about with soap and sponge.
Why not make herself as attractive as she could, even if things did
look dark for them just now?
A little stream of talk went on in her brain. Strange that one's
body could be so great a pleasure to another. Here he kissed you--
and here--and here--and often he seemed beside himself with joy.
And do you remember--that time? You held back and were cold often--
perhaps too often--is it too late now? Ah! he has other things to
think of now. The time is gone by when you could be comfort enough
to him in all troubles. But is it quite gone by? Oh yes; last
time he came home, he hardly seemed to notice that we had a new
little girl, that he had never seen before. Well, no doubt it must
be so. He did not complain, and he was calm and quiet, but his
mind was full of a whole world of serious things, a world where
there was no room for wife and children. Will it be the same this
evening again? Will he notice that you have dressed so carefully
to please him? Will it be a joy to him any more to feel his arms
She stood in front of the big, white-framed mirror, and looked
critically at herself. No, she was no longer young as she had
been. The red in her cheeks had faded a little these last few
years, and there were one or two wrinkles that could not be hidden.
But her eyebrows--he had loved to kiss them once--they were surely
much as before. And involuntarily she bent towards the glass, and
stroked the dark growth above her eyes as if it were his hand
She came down at last, dressed in a loose blue dress with a broad
lace collar and blond lace in the wide sleeves. And not to seem
too much dressed, she had put on a red-flowered apron to give
herself a housewifely look.
It was past seven now. Louise came whimpering to her, and Merle
sank down in a chair by the window, and took the child on her lap,
The sound of wheels in the night may mean the approach of fate
itself. Some decision, some final word that casts us down in a
moment from wealth to ruin--who knows? Peer had been to England
now, trying to come to some arrangement with the Company. Sh!--was
that not wheels? She rose, trembling, and listened.
No, it had passed on.
It was eight o'clock now, time for Louise to go to bed; and Merle
began undressing her. Soon the child was lying in her little white
bed, with a doll on either side. "Give Papa a tiss," she babbled,
"and give him my love. And Mama, do you think he'll let me come
into his bed for a bit tomorrow morning?"
"Oh yes, I'm sure he will. And now lie down and go to sleep,
there's a good girl."
Merle sat down again in the room and waited. But at last she rose,
put on a cloak and went out.
The town lay down there in the autumn darkness under a milk-white
mist of light. And over the black hills all around rose a world of
stars. Somewhere out there was Peer, far out maybe upon some
country road, the horse plodding on through the dark at its own
will, its master sitting with bowed head, brooding.
"Help us, Thou above--and help him most, he has had so much
adversity in these last days."
But the starry vault seems icy cold--it has heard the prayers of
millions and millions before--the hearts of men are nothing to the
Merle drooped her head and went in again to the house.
It was midnight when Peer drove up the hill towards his home. The
sight of the great house with its brilliantly lighted windows
jarred so cruelly on his wearied mind that he involuntarily gave
the horse a cut with his whip.
He flung the reins to the stable-boy who had come out with a
lantern, and walked up the steps, moving almost with a feeling of
awe in this great house, as if it already belonged to someone else.
He opened the door of the drawing-room--no one there, but light,
light and comfort. He passed through into the next room, and there
sat Merle, alone, in an armchair, with her head resting on the arm,
Had she been waiting so long?
A wave of warmth passed through him; he stood still, looking at
her; and presently her bowed figure slowly straightened; her pale
face relaxed into a smile. Without waking her, he went on into the
nursery, where the lights were still burning. But here the lights
shone only on three little ones, lying in their clean night-
He went back to the dining-room; more lights, and a table laid for
two, a snowy cloth and flowers, and a single carnation stuck into
his napkin--that must be from Louise--little Louise.
At last Merle was awakened by the touch of his hand on her
"Oh, are you there?"
"Good-evening, Merle!" They embraced, and he kissed her forehead.
But she could see that his mind was busy with other things.
They sat down to table, and began their meal. She could read the
expression of his face, his voice, his calm air--she knew they
meant bad news.
But she would not question him. She would only try to show him
that all things else could be endured, if only they two loved each
But the time had passed when an unexpected caress from her was
enough to send him wild with joy. She sat there now trembling
inwardly with suspense, wondering if he would notice her--if he
could find any comfort in having her with him, still young and with
something of her beauty left.
He looked over to her with a far-away smile. "Merle," he asked,
"what do you think your father is worth altogether?" The words
came like a quiet order from a captain standing on the bridge,
while his ship goes down.
"Oh, Peer, don't think about all that to-night. Welcome home!"
And she smiled and took his hand.
"Thanks," he said, and pressed her fingers; but his thoughts were
still far off. And he went on eating without knowing what he ate.
"And what do you think? Louise has begun the violin. You've no
idea how the little thing takes to it."
"And Asta's got another tooth--she had a wretched time, poor thing,
while it was coming through."
It was as if she were drawing the children up to him, to show him
that at least he still had them.
He looked at her for a moment. "Merle, you ought never to have
married me. It would have been better for you and for your people
"Oh, nonsense, Peer--you know you'll be able to make it all right
They went up to bed, and undressed slowly. "He hasn't noticed me
yet," thought Merle.
And she laughed a little, and said, "I was sitting thinking this
evening of the first day we met. I suppose you never think of it
He turned round, half undressed, and looked at her. Her lively
tone fell strangely on his ears. "She does not ask how I have got
on, or how things are going," he thought. But as he went on
looking at her he began at last to see through her smile to the
anxious heart beneath.
Ah, yes; he remembered well that far-off summer when life had been
a holiday in the hills, and a girl making coffee over a fire had
smiled at him for the first time. And he remembered the first sun-
red night of his love on the shining lake-mirror, when his heart
was filled with the rush of a great anthem to heaven and earth.
She stood there still. He had her yet. But for the first time in
their lives she came to him now humbly, begging him to make the
best of her as she was.
An unspeakable warmth began to flow through his heavy heart. But
he did not rush to embrace her and whirl her off in a storm of
passionate delight. He stood still, staring before him, and,
drawing himself up, swore to himself with fast-closed lips that he
would, he WOULD trample a way through, and save things for them
both, even yet.
The lights were put out, and soon they lay in their separate beds,
breathing heavily in the dark. Peer stretched himself out, with
his face up, thinking, with closed eyes. He was hunting in the
dark for some way to save his dear ones. And Merle lay so long
waiting for one caress from him that at last she had to draw out
her handkerchief and press it over her eyes, while her body shook
with a noiseless sobbing.
Old Lorentz D. Uthoug rarely visited his rich sister at Bruseth,
but to-day he had taken his weary way up there, and the two
masterful old folks sat now facing each other.
"So you've managed to find your way up here?" said Aunt Marit,
throwing out her ample bosom and rubbing her knees like a man.
"Why, yes--I thought I'd like to see how you were getting on," said
Uthoug, squaring his broad shoulders.
"Quite well, thanks. Having no son-in-law, I'm not likely to go
bankrupt, I daresay."
"I'm not bankrupt, either," said old Uthoug, fixing his red eyes on
"Perhaps not. But what about him?"
"Neither is he. He'll be a rich man before very long."
"He!--rich! Did you say rich?"
"Before a year's out," answered the old man calmly. "But you'll
have to help."
"I!" Aunt Marit shifted her chair backwards, gaping. "I, did you
say? Ha-ha-ha! Just tell me, how many hundreds of thousands did
he lose over that ditch or drain or whatever it was?"
"He was six months behind time in finishing it, I know. But the
Company agreed to halve the forfeit for delay when they'd seen what
a masterpiece the work was."
"Ah, yes--and what about the contractors, whom he couldn't pay, I
"He's paid them all in full now. The Bank arranged things."
"I see. After you and he had mortaged every stick and rag you had
in the world. Yes, indeed--you deserve a good whipping, the pair
Uthoug stroked his beard. "From a financial point of view the
thing wasn't a success for him, I'll admit. But I can show you
here what the engineering people say about it in the technical
papers. Here's an article with pictures of him and of the
"Well! he'd better keep his family on pictures in the papers then,"
said the widow, paying no attention to the paper he offered.
"He'll soon be on top again," said her brother, putting the papers
back in his pocket. He sat there in front of her quite unruffled.
He would let people see that he was not the man to be crushed by a
reverse; that there were other things he valued more than money.
"Soon be on top?" repeated Aunt Marit. "Has he got round you again
with some nonsense?"
"He's invented a new mowing machine. It's nearly finished. And
the experts say it will be worth a million."
"Ho! and you want to come over me with a tale like that?" The
widow shifted her chair a little farther back.
"You must help us to carry on through this year--both of us. If
you will stand security for thirty thousand, the bank . . ."
Aunt Marit of Bruseth slapped her knees emphatically. "I'll do
nothing of the sort!"
"For twenty thousand, then?"
"Not for twenty pence!"
Lorentz Uthoug fixed his gaze on his sister's face; his red eyes
began to glow.
"You'll have to do it, Marit," he said calmly. He took a pipe from
his pocket and set to work to fill and light it.
The two sat for a while looking at each other, each on the alert
for fear the other's will should prove the stronger. They looked
at each other so long that at last both smiled involuntarily.
"I suppose you've taken to going to church with your wife now?"
asked the widow at last, her eyes blinking derision.
"If I put my trust in the Lord," he said, "I might just sit down
and pray and let things go to ruin. As it is, I've more faith in
human works, and that's why I'm here now."
The answer pleased her. The widow at Bruseth was no churchgoer
herself. She thought the Lord had made a bad mistake in not giving
her any children.
"Will you have some coffee?" she asked, rising from her seat.
"Now you're talking sense," said her brother, and his eyes
twinkled. He knew his sister and her ways. And now he lit his
pipe and leaned back comfortably in his chair.
Once more Peer stood in his workroom down at the foundry, wrestling
with fire and steel.
A working drawing is a useful thing; an idea in one's head is all
very well. But the men he employed to turn his plans into tangible
models worked slowly; why not use his own hands for what had to be
When the workmen arrived at the foundry in the morning there was
hammering going on already in the little room. And when they left
in the evening, the master had not stopped working yet. When the
good citizens of Ringeby went to bed, they would look out of their
windows and see his light still burning.
Peer had had plenty to tire him out even before he began work here.
But in the old days no one had ever asked if he felt strong enough
to do this or that. And he never asked himself. Now, as before,
it was a question of getting something done, at any cost. And
never before had there been so much at stake.
The wooden model of the new machine is finished already, and the
castings put together. The whole thing looks simple enough, and
yet--what a distance from the first rough implement to this thing,
which seems almost to live--a thing with a brain of metal at least.
Have not these wheels and axles had their parents and ancestors--
their pedigree stretching back into the past? The steel has
brought forth, and its descendants again in turn, advancing always
toward something finer, stronger, more efficient. And here is the
last stage reached by human invention in this particular work up to
now--yet, after all, is it good enough? An invention successful
enough to bring money in to the inventor--that is not all. It must
be more; it must be a world-success, a thing to make its way across
the prairies, across the enormous plains of India and Egypt--that
is what is needed. Sleep? rest? food? What are such things when
so much is at stake!
There was no longer that questioning in his ear: Why? Whither?
What then? Useless to ponder on these things. His horizon was
narrowed down to include nothing beyond this one problem. Once he
had dreamed of a work allied to his dreams of eternity. This,
certainly, was not it. What does the gain amount to, after all,
when humanity has one more machine added to it? Does it kindle a
single ray of dawn the more in a human soul?
Yet this work, such as it was, had now become his all. It must and
should be all. He was fast bound to it.
When he looked up at the window, there seemed to be faces at each
pane staring in. "What? Not finished yet?" they seemed to say.
"Think what it means if you fail!" Merle's face, and the
children's: "Must we be driven from Loreng, out into the cold?"
The faces of old Uthoug and his wife: "Was it for this you came
into an honourable family? To bring it to ruin?" And behind them,
swarming, all the town. All knew what was at stake, and why he was
toiling so. All stared at him, waiting. The Bank Manager was
there too--waiting, like the rest.
One can seize one's neck in iron pincers, and say: You shall!
Tired? difficulties? time too short?--all that doesn't exist. You
shall! Is this thing or that impossible? Well, make it possible.
It is your business to make it possible.
He spent but little time at home now; a sofa in the workshop was
his bed. Often Merle would come in with food for him, and seeing
how pale and grey and worn out he was, she did not dare to question
him. She tried to jest instead. She had trained herself long ago
to be gay in a house where shadows had to be driven off with
But one day, as she was leaving, he held her back, and looked at
her with a strange smile.
"Well, dear?" she said, with a questioning look.
He stood looking at her as before, with the same far-off smile. He
was looking through her into the little world she stood for. This
home, this family that he, a homeless man, had won through her, was
it all to go down in shipwreck?
Then he kissed her eyes and let her go.
And as her footsteps died away, he stood a moment, moved by a
sudden desire to turn to some Power above him with a prayer that he
might succeed in this work. But there was no such Power. And in
the end his eyes turned once more to the iron, the fire, his tools,
and his own hands, and it was as though he sighed out a prayer to
these: "Help me--help me, that I may save my wife and children's
Sleep? rest? weariness? He had only a year's grace. The bank
would only wait a year.
Winter and spring passed, and one day in July he came home and
rushed in upon Merle crying, "To-morrow, Merle! They will be here
"The people to look at the machine. We're going to try it
"Oh, Peer!" she said breathlessly, gazing at him.
"It's a good thing that I had connections abroad," he went on.
"There's one man coming from an English firm, and another from
America. It ought to be a big business."
The morrow came. Merle stood looking after her husband as he drove
off, his hat on the back of his head, through the haze that
followed the night's rain. But there was no time to stand
trembling; they were to have the strangers to dinner, and she must
see to it.
Out in the field the machine stood ready, a slender, newly painted
thing. A boy was harnessing the horses.
Two men in soft hats and light overcoats came up; it was old
Uthoug, and the Bank Manager. They stopped and looked round,
leaning on their sticks; the results of the day were not a matter
of entire indifference to these two gentlemen. Ah! here was the
big carriage from Loreng, with the two strangers and Peer himself,
who had been down to fetch them from the hotel.
He was a little pale as he took the reins and climbed to his seat
on the machine, to drive it himself through the meadow of high,
The horses pricked up their ears and tried to break into a gallop,
the noise of the machine behind them startling them as usual at
first, but they soon settled down to a steady pace, and the steel
arm bearing the shears swept a broad swath through the meadow,
where the grass stood shining after the rain.
The two strangers walked slowly in the rear, bending down now and
again to look at the stubble, and see if the shears cut clean. The
tall man with the heavy beard and pince-nez was the agent for John
Fowler of Leeds; the little clean-shaven one with the Jewish nose
represented Harrow & Co. of Philadelphia.
Now and again they called to Peer to stop, while they investigated
some part of the machine.
They asked him then to try it on different ground; on an uneven
slope, over little tussocks; and at last the agent for Fowler's
would have it that it should be tried on a patch of stony ground.
But that would spoil the shears? Very likely, but Fowler's would
like to know exactly how the shears were affected by stones on the
At last the trials were over, and the visitors nodded thoughtfully
to each other. Evidently they had come on something new here.
There were possibilities in the thing that might drive most other
types out of the field, even in the intense competition that rages
all round the world in agricultural machinery.
Peer read the expression in their eyes--these cold-blooded
specialists had seen the vision; they had seen gold.
But all the same there was a hitch--a little hitch.
Dinner was over, the visitors had left, and Merle and Peer were
alone. She lifted her eyes to his inquiringly.
"It went off well then?" she asked.
"Yes. But there is just one little thing to put right."
"Still something to put right--after you have worked so hard all
these months?" She sat down, and her hands dropped into her lap.
"It's only a small detail," he said eagerly, pacing up and down.
"When the grass is wet, it sticks between the steel fingers above
the shears and accumulates there and gets in the way. It's the
devil and all that I never thought of testing it myself in wet
weather. But once I've got that right, my girl, the thing will be
Once more the machine was set up in his workshop, and he walked
around it, watching, spying, thinking, racking his brain to find
the little device that should make all well. All else was
finished, all was right, but he still lacked the single happy
thought, the flash of inspiration--that given, a moment's work
would be enough to give this thing of steel life, and wings with
which to fly out over the wide world.
It might come at any moment, that happy thought. And he tramped
round and round his machine, clenching his fists in desperation
because it was so slow in coming.
The last touch only, the dot upon an i, was wanting. A slight
change in the shape or position of the fingers, or the length of
the shears--what was it he wanted? How could he sleep that night?
He felt that he stood face to face with a difficulty that could
have been easily solved had he come fresh to the work, but that his
tortured brain was too worn out to overcome.
But when an Arab horse is ready to drop with fatigue, then is the
time when it breaks into a gallop.
He could not wait. There were the faces at the window again,
staring and asking: "Not finished yet?" Merle, the children,
Uthoug and his wife, the Bank Manager. And there were his
competitors the world over. To-day he was a length ahead of them,
but by to-morrow he might be left behind. Wait? Rest? No!
It was autumn now, and sleepless nights drove him to a doctor, who
prescribed cold baths, perfect quiet, sleeping draughts, iron and
arsenic. Ah, yes. Peer could swallow all the prescriptions--the
one thing he could not do was rest or sleep.
He would sit late into the night, prostrate with exhaustion,
watching the dying embers of the forge, the steel, the tools. And
innumerable sparks would begin to fly before his eyes, and masses
of molten iron to creep about like living things over walls and
floor.--And over by the forge was something more defined, a misty
shape, that grew in size and clearness and stood at last a bearded,
naked demigod, with fire in one hand and sledgehammer in the other.
"What? Who is that?"
"Man, do you not know me?"
"Who are you, I ask?"
"I have a thing to tell you: it is vain for you to seek for any
other faith than faith in the evolution of the universe. It will
do no good to pray. You may dream yourself away from the steel and
the fire, but you must offer yourself up to them at last. You are
bound fast to these things. Outside them your soul is nothing.
God? happiness? yourself? eternal life for you? All these are
nothing. The will of the world rolls on towards its eternal goal,
and the individual is but fuel for the fire."
Peer would spring up, believing for a moment that someone was
really there. But there was nothing, only the empty air.
Now and again he would go home to Loreng, but everything there
seemed to pass in a mist. He could see that Merle's eyes were red,
though she sang cheerily as she went about the house. It seemed to
him that she had begged him to go to bed and rest, and he had gone
to bed. It would be delicious to sleep. But in the middle of the
night it was borne in upon him that the fault lay in the shape of
the shears after all, and then there was no stopping him from
getting up and hurrying in to the workshop. Winter has come round
again, and he fights his way in through a snow-storm. And in the
quiet night he lights his lamp, kindles the forge fire, screws off
the blades of the shears once more. But when he has altered them
and fixed them in place again, he knows at once that the defect was
not in them after all.
Coffee is a good thing for keeping the brain clear. He took to
making it in the workshop for himself--and at night especially a
few cups did him good. They were so satisfying too, that he felt
no desire for food. And when he came to the conclusion that the
best thing would be to make each separate part of the machine over
again anew, coffee was great help, keeping him awake through many a
It began to dawn upon him that Merle and his father-in-law and the
Bank Manager had taken to lurking about the place night and day,
watching and spying to see if the work were not nearly done. Why
in the devil's name could they not leave him in peace--just one
week more? In any case, the machine could not be tried before next
summer. At times the workers at the foundry would be startled by
their master suddenly rushing out from his inner room and crying
fiercely: "No one is to come in here. I WILL be left in peace!"
And when he had gone in again, they would look at each other and
shake their heads.
One morning Merle came down and walked through the outer shops, and
knocked at the door of her husband's room. There was no answer;
and she opened the door and went in.
A moment after, the workmen heard a woman's shriek, and when they
ran in she was bending over her husband, who was seated on the
floor, staring up at her with blank, uncomprehending eyes.
"Peer," she cried, shaking his shoulder--"Peer, do you hear? Oh,
for God's sake--what is it, my darling--"
. . . . . .
One April day there was a stir in the little town of Ringeby, and a
stream of people, all in their best clothes (though it was only
Wednesday), was moving out along the fjord road to Loreng. There
were the two editors, who had just settled one of their everlasting
disputes, and the two lawyers, each still intent on snatching any
scraps of business that offered; there were tradesmen and artisans;
and nearly everyone was wearing a long overcoat and a grey felt
hat. But the tanner had put on a high silk hat, so as to look a
Where the road left the wood most of them stopped for a moment to
look up at Loreng. The great white house seemed to have set itself
high on its hill to look out far and wide over the lake and the
country round. And men talked of the great doings, the feasting
and magnificence, the great house had seen in days gone by, from
the time when the place had been a Governor's residence until a few
years back, when Engineer Holm was in his glory.
But to-day the place was up to auction, with stock and furniture,
and people had walked or driven over from far around. For the bank
management felt they would not be justified in giving any longer
grace, now that Peer Holm was lying sick in hospital, and no doctor
would undertake to say whether he would ever be fit to work again.
The courtyard was soon crowded. Inside, in the great hall, the
auctioneer was beginning to put up the lots already, but most
people hung back a little, as if they felt a reluctance to go in.
For the air in there seemed charged with lingering memories of
splendour and hospitality, from the days when cavaliers with
ruffles and golden spurs had done homage there to ladies in
sweeping silk robes--down to the last gay banquets to which the
famous engineer from Egypt had loved to gather all the gentry round
in the days of his prosperity.
Most of the people stood on the steps and in the entrance-hall.
And now and again they would catch a glimpse of a pale woman,
dressed in black, with thick dark eyebrows, crossing the courtyard
to a servant's house or a storehouse to give some order for moving
the things. It was Merle, now mistress here no longer.
Old Lorentz D. Uthoug met his sister, the mighty lady of Bruseth,
on the steps. She looked at him, and there was a gleam of derision
in her narrowed eyes. But he drew himself up, and said as he
passed her, "You've nothing to be afraid of. I've settled things
so that I'm not bankrupt yet. And you shall have your share--in
And he strode in, a broad-shouldered, upright figure, looking
calmly at all men, that all might see he was not the man to be
crushed by a reverse.
Late in the day the chestnut, Bijou, was put up for sale. He was
led across the courtyard in a halter, and as he came he stopped for
a moment, and threw up his head, and neighed, and from the stables
the other horses neighed in answer. Was it a farewell? Did he
remember the day, years ago, when he had come there first, dancing
on his white-stockinged feet, full of youth and strength?
But by the woodshed there stood as usual a little grey old man,
busy sawing and chopping, as if nothing at all was the matter. One
master left, another took his place; one needed firewood, it seemed
to him, as much as the other. And if they came and gave him
notice--why, thank the Lord, he was stone deaf. Thud, thud, the
sound of the axe went on.
A young man came driving up the hill, a florid-faced young man,
with very blue eyes. He took off his overcoat in the passage,
revealing a long black frock coat beneath and a large-patterned
waistcoat. It was Uthoug junior, general agent for English tweeds.
He had taken no part in his brother-in-law's business affairs, and
so he was able to help his father in this crisis.
But the auction at Loreng went on for several days.
Once more a deep valley, with sun-steeped farms on the hillsides
between the river and the mountain-range behind.
One day about midsummer it was old Raastad himself that came down
to meet the train, driving a spring-cart, with a waggon following
behind. Was he expecting visitors? the people at the station asked
him. "Maybe I am," said old Raastad, stroking his heavy beard, and
he limped about looking to his horses. Was it the folk who had
taken the Court-house? "Ay, it's likely them," said the old man.
The train came in, and a pale man, with grey hair and beard, and
blue spectacles, stepped out, and he had a wife and three children
with him. "Paul Raastad?" inquired the stranger. "Ay, that's me,"
said the old man. The stranger looked up at the great mountains to
the north, rising dizzily into the sky. "The air ought to be good
here," said he. "Ay, the air's good enough, by all accounts," said
Raastad, and began loading up the carts.
They drove off up the hill road. The man and his wife sat in the
spring-cart, the woman with a child in her lap, but a boy and a
girl were seated on the load in the baggage-waggon behind Raastad.
"Can we see the farm from here?" asked the woman, turning her head.
"There," said the old man, pointing. And looking, they saw a big
farmstead high up on a sunny hill-slope, close under the crest,
and near by a long low house with a steep slate roof, the sort of
place where the district officers used to live in old days. "Is
that the house we are to live in?" she asked again. "Ay, that's
it, right enough," said old Raastad, and chirruped to his horses.
The woman looked long at the farm and sighed. So this was to be
their new home. They were to live here, far from all their
friends. And would it give him back his health, after all the
doctors' medicines had failed?
A Lapland dog met them at the gate and barked at them; a couple of
pigs came down the road, stopped and studied the new arrivals with
profound attention, then wheeled suddenly and galloped off among
The farmer's wife herself was waiting outside the Court-house, a
tall wrinkled woman with a black cap on her head. "Welcome," she
said, offering a rough and bony hand.
The house was one of large low-ceiled rooms, with big stoves that
would need a deal of firewood in winter. The furniture was a
mixture of every possible sort and style: a mahogany sofa,
cupboards with painted roses on the panels, chairs covered with
"Old Norse" carving, and on the walls appalling pictures of foreign
royal families and of the Crucifixion. "Good Heavens!" said Merle,
as they went round the rooms alone: "how shall we ever get used to
But just then Louise came rushing in, breathless with news.
"Mother--father--there are goats here!" And little Lorentz came
toddling in after her: "Goats, mother," he cried, stumbling over
The old house had stood empty and dead for years. Now it seemed to
have wakened up again. Footsteps went in and out, and the stairs
creaked once more under the tread of feet, small, pattering,
exploring feet, and big feet going about on grown-up errands.
There was movement in every corner: a rattle of pots and pans in
the kitchen; fires blazed up, and smoke began to rise from the
chimney; people passing by outside looked up at it and saw that the
dead old house had come to life again.
Peer was weak still after his illness, but he could help a little
with the unpacking. It took very little, though, to make him out
of breath and giddy, and there was a sledge-hammer continually
thumping somewhere in the back of his head. Suppose--suppose,
after all, the change here does you no good? You are at the last
stage. You've managed to borrow the money to keep you all here for
a year. And then? Your wife and children? Hush!--better not
think of that. Not that; think of anything else, only not that.
Clothes to be carried upstairs. Yes, yes--and to think it was all
to end in your living on other people's charity. Even that can't
go on long. If you should be no better next summer--or two years
hence?--what then? For yourself--yes, there's always one way out
for you. But Merle and the children? Hush, don't think of it!
Once it was your whole duty to finish a certain piece of work in a
certain time. Now it is your duty to get well again, to be as
strong as a horse by next year. It is your duty. If only the
sledge-hammer would stop, that cursed sledge-hammer in the back of
Merle, as she went out and in, was thinking perhaps of the same
thing, but her head was full of so much else--getting things in
order and the household set going. Food had to be bought from the
local shop; and how many litres of milk would she require in the
morning? Where could she get eggs? She must go across at once to
the Raastads' and ask. So the pale woman in the dark dress walked
slowly with bowed head across the courtyard. But when she stopped
to speak to people about the place, they would forget their manners
and stare at her, she smiled so strangely.
"Father, there's a box of starlings on the wall here," said Louise
as she lay in bed with her arms round Peer's neck saying good-
night. "And there's a swallow's nest under the eaves too."
"Oh, yes, we'll have great fun at Raastad--just you wait and see."
Soon Merle and Peer too lay in their strange beds, looking out at
the luminous summer night.
They were shipwrecked people washed ashore here. But it was not so
clear that they were saved.
Peer turned restlessly from side to side. He was so worn to skin
and bone that his nerves seemed laid bare, and he could not rest in
any position. Also there were three hundred wheels whirring in his
head, and striking out sparks that flew up and turned to visions.
Rest? why had he never been content to rest in the days when all
He had made his mark at the First Cataract, yes, and had made big
sums of money out of his new pump; but all the time there were the
gnawing questions: Why? and whither? and what then? He had been
Chief Engineer and had built a railway, and could have had
commissions to build more railways--but again the questions: Why?
and what then? Home, then, home and strike root in his native
land--well, and had that brought him rest? What was it that drove
him away again? The steel, the steel and the fire.
Ah! that day when he had stepped down from the mowing machine and
had been ensnared by the idea of improving it. Why had he ever
taken it up? Did he need money? No. Or was the work at a
standstill? No. But the steel would on; it had need of a man;
it had taken him by the throat and said, "You shall!"
Happiness? Rest? Ah no! For, you see, a stored-up mass of
knowledge and experience turns one fine day into an army of evil
powers, that lash you on and on, unceasingly. You may stumble, you
may fall--what does it matter? The steel squeezes one man dry, and
then grips the next. The flame of the world has need of fuel--bow
thy head, Man, and leap into the fire.
To-day you prosper--to-morrow you are cast down into a hell on
earth. What matter? You are fuel for the fire.
But I will not, I will not be swallowed up in the flame of the
world, even though it be the only godhead in the universe. I will
tear myself loose, be something in and for myself. I will have an
immortal soul. The world-transformation that progress may have
wrought a thousand years hence--what is it to me?
Your soul? Just think of all your noble feelings towards that
true-born half-brother of yours--ha-ha-ha! Shakespeare was wrong.
It's the bastard that gets cheated.
"Dearest Peer, do, for God's sake, try to get to sleep."
"Oh yes. I'll get to sleep all right. But it's so hot." He threw
off the clothes and lay breathing heavily.
"I'm sure you're lying thinking and brooding over things. Can't
you do what the Swedish doctor told you--just try to think that
everything is dark all round you."
Peer turns round, and everything around him is dark. But in the
heart of that darkness waves arise, waves of melody, rolling
nearer, nearer. It is the sound of a hymn--it is Louise standing
playing, his sister Louise. And what peace--O God, what peace and
But soon Louise fades away, she fades away, and vanishes like a
flame blown out. And there comes a roaring noise, nearer and
nearer, grinding, crashing, rattling--and he knows now what it is
only too well: it is the song of the steel.
The roar of steel from ships and from railway-trains, with their
pairs of yellow evil eyes, rushing on, full of human captives,
whither? Faster, faster--driven by competition, by the steel demon
that hunts men on without rest or respite--that hurries on the
pulse of the world to fever, to hallucination, to madness.
Crashing of steel girders falling, the hum of wheels, the clash of
cranes and winches and chains, the clang of steam-hammers at work--
all are in that roar. The fire flares up with hellish eyes in
every dark corner, and men swarm around in the red glow like evil
angels. They are the slaves of steel and fire, lashed onwards,
Is this the spirit of Prometheus? Look, the will of steel is
flinging men up into the air now. It is conquering the heavens.
Why? That it may rush the faster. It craves for yet more speed,
quicker, quicker, dizzier yet, hurrying--wherefore?--whither?
Alas! it knows not itself.
Are the children of the earth grown so homeless? Do they fear to
take a moment's rest? Do they dread to look inward and see their
own emptiness? Are they longing for something they have lost--some
hymn, some harmony, some God?
God? They find a bloodthirsty Jehovah, and an ascetic on the
cross. What gods are these for modern men? Religious history, not
"Peer," says Merle again, "for God's sake try to sleep."
"Merle, do you think I shall get well here?"
"Why, don't you feel already how splendid the air is? Of course
you'll get well."
He twined his fingers into hers, and at last the sound of Louise's
hymn came to him once more, lifting and rocking him gently till his
A little road winds in among the woods, two wheel-tracks only, with
a carpet of brown pine-needles between; but there are trees and the
sky, quiet and peace, so that it's a real blessing to walk there.
It rises and falls so gently, that no one need get out of breath;
indeed, it seems to go along with one all the time, in mere
friendliness, whispering: "Take it easy. Take your time. Have a
good rest here." And so on it goes, winding in among the tree-
trunks, slender and supple as a young girl.
Peer walked here every day. He would stop and look up into the
tops of the fir trees, and walk on again; then sit down for a
moment on a mossy stone; but only for a moment--always he was up
again soon and moving on, though he had nowhere to go. But at
least there was peace here. He would linger watching an insect as
it crept along a fir branch, or listening to the murmur of the
river in the valley far below, or breathing in the health-giving
scent of the resin, thick in the warm air.
This present life of his was one way of living. As he lay, after a
sleepless night, watching the window grow lighter with the dawn, he
would think: Yet another new day--and nothing that I can do in it.
And yet he had to get up, and dress, and go down and eat. His
bread had a slightly bitter taste to him--it tasted of charity and
dependence, of the rich widow at Bruseth and the agent for English
tweeds. And he must remember to eat slowly, to masticate each
mouthful carefully, to rest after meals, and above all not to
think--not to think of anything in the wide world. Afterwards, he
could go out and in like other people, only that all his movements
and actions were useless and meaningless in themselves; they were
done only for the sake of health, or to keep thoughts away, or to
make the time go by.
How had this come to pass? He found it still impossible to grasp
how such senseless things can happen and no Providence interfere to
set them right. Why should he have been so suddenly doomed to
destruction? Days, weeks and months of his best manhood oozing
away into empty nothingness--why? Sleeplessness and tortured
nerves drove him to do things that his will disowned; he would
storm at his wife and children if a heel so much as scraped on the
floor, and the remorse that followed, sometimes ending in childish
tears, did no good, for the next time the same thing, or worse,
would happen again. This was the burden of his days. This was the
life he was doomed to live.
But up here on the little forest track he harms no one; and no
racking noises come thrusting sharp knives into his spine. Here is
a great peace; a peace that does a man good. Down on the grassy
slope below stands a tumble-down grey barn; it reminds him of an
old worn-out horse, lifting its head from grazing to gaze at you--
a lonely forsaken creature it seems--to-morrow it will sink to the
ground and rise no more--yet IT takes its lot calmly and patiently.
Ugh! how far he has got from Raastad. A cold sweat breaks out over
his body for fear he may not have strength to walk back again
uphill. Well, pull yourself together. Rest a little. And he lies
down on his back in a field of clover, and stares up at the sky.
A stream of clean air, fresh from the snow, flows all day long down
the valley; as if Jotunheim itself, where it lies in there beneath
the sky, were breathing in easy well-being. Peer fills his lungs
again and again with long deep draughts, drinking in the air like a
saving potion. "Help me then, oh air, light, solitude! help me
that I may be whole once more and fit to work, for this is the one
and only religion left me to cling to."
High above, over the two mountain ranges, a blue flood stands
immovable, and in its depths eternal rest is brooding. But is
there a will there too, that is concerned with men on earth? You
do not believe in it, and yet a little prayer mounts up to it as
well! Help me--thou too. Who? Thou that hearest. If Thou care
at all for the miserable things called men that crawl upon the
earth--help me! If I once prayed for a great work that could stay
my hunger for things eternal, I repent me now and confess that it
was pride and vanity. Make me a slave, toiling at servile tasks
for food, so that Merle and the children be not taken from me.
Does anyone in heaven find comfort in seeing men tortured by blind
fortune? Are my wife and my children slaves of an unmeaning
chance--and yet can smile and laugh? Answer me, if Thou hearest--
Thou of the many names.
A grasshopper is shrilling in the grass about him. Suddenly he
starts up sitting. A railway-train goes screaming past below.
And so the days go on.
Each morning Merle would steal a glance at her husband's face, to
see if he had slept; if his eyes were dull, or inflamed, or calm.
Surely he must be better soon! Surely their stay here must do him
good. She too had lost faith in medicines, but this air, the
country life, the solitude--rest, rest--surely there must soon be
some sign that these were helping him.
Many a time she rose in the morning without having closed her eyes
all night. But there were the children to look after, the house to
see to, and she had made up her mind to get on without a maid if
she possibly could.
"What has taken you over to the farm so much lately?" she asked one
day. "You have been sitting over there with old Raastad for hours
"I--I go over to amuse myself and pass the time," he said.
"Do you talk politics?"
"No--we play cards. Why do you look at me like that?"
"You never cared for cards before."
"No; but what the devil am I to do? I can't read, because of these
cursed eyes of mine--and the hammering in my head. . . . And I've
counted all the farms up and down the valley now. There are fifty
in all. And on the farm here there are just twenty-one houses, big
and little. What the devil am I to take to next?"
Merle sighed. "It is hard," she said. "But couldn't you wait till
the evening to play cards--till the children are in bed--then I
could play with you. That would be better."
"Thank you very much. But what about the rest of the day? Do you
know what it's like to go about from dawn to dark feeling that
every minute is wasted, and wasted for nothing? No, you can't know
it. What am I to do with myself all through one of these endless,
deadly days? Drink myself drunk?"
"Couldn't you try cutting firewood for a little?"
"Firewood?" He whistled softly. "Well, that's an idea. Ye--yes.
Let's try chopping firewood for a change."
Thud, thud, thud!
But as he straightened his back for a breathing-space, the whirr,
whirr of Raastad's mowing machine came to him from the hill-slope
near by where it was working, and he clenched his teeth as if they
ached. He was driving a mowing machine of his own invention, and
it was raining continually, and the grass kept sticking, sticking--
and how to put it right--put it right? It was as if blows were
falling on festering wounds in his head, making him dance with
pain. Thud, thud, thud!--anything to drown the whirr of that
But a man may use an axe with his hands, and yet have idiotic
fancies all the time bubbling and seething in his head. The power
to hold in check the vagaries of imagination may be gone. From all
sides they come creeping out in swarms, they swoop down on him like
birds of prey--as if in revenge for having been driven away so
often before--they cry: here we are! He stood once more as an
apprentice in the mechanical works, riveting the plates of a
gigantic boiler with a compressed-air tube--cling, clang! The
wailing clang of the boiler went out over the whole town. And now
that same boiler is set up inside his head--cling-clang--ugh! A
cold sweat breaks out upon his body; he throws down the axe; he
must go--must fly, escape somewhere--where, he cannot tell. Faces
that he hates to think of peer out at him from every corner,
yapping out: "Heh!--what did we say? To-day a beggar--to-morrow a
madman in a cell."
But it may happen, too, that help comes in the night. Things come
back to a man that it is good to remember. That time--and that
other. . . . A woman there--and the one you met in such a place.
There is a picture in the Louvre, by Veronese: a young Venetian
woman steps out upon the marble stairway of a palace holding a
golden-haired boy by the hand; she is dressed in black velvet, she
glows with youth and happiness. A lovers' meeting in her garden?
The first kiss! Moonlight and mandolins!
A shudder of pleasure passes through his weary body. Bright
recollections and impressions flock towards him like spirits of
light--he can hear the rushing sound of their wings--he calls to
them for aid, and they encircle him round; they struggle with the
spirits of darkness for his soul. He has known much brightness,
much beauty in his life--surely the bright angels are the stronger
and must conquer. Ah! why had he not lived royally, amidst women
and flowers and wine?
One morning as he was getting up, he said: "Merle, I must and will
hit upon something that'll send me to bed thoroughly tired out."
"Yes dear," she answered. "Do try."
"I'll try wheeling stones to begin with," he said. "The devil's in
it if a day at that doesn't make a man sleep."
So that day and for many days he wheeled stones from some newly
broken land on the hillside down to a dyke that ran along the road.
Calm, golden autumn days; one farm above another rising up towards
the crest of the range, all set in ripe yellow fields. One little
cottage stands right on the crest against the sky itself, and it,
too, has its tiny patch of yellow corn. And an eagle sails slowly
across the deep valley from peak to peak.
People passing by stared at Peer as he went about bare-headed, in
his shirt-sleeves, wheeling stones. "Aye, gentlefolks have queer
notions," they would say, shaking their heads.
"That's it--keep at it," a dry, hacking voice kept going in Peer's
head. "It is idiocy, but you are doomed to it. Shove hard with
those skinny legs of yours; many a jade before you has had to do
the same. You've got to get some sleep tonight. Only ten months
left now; and then we shall have Lucifer turning up at the cross-
roads once more. Poor Merle--she's beginning to grow grey. And
the poor little children--dreaming of father beating them, maybe,
they cry out so often in their sleep. Off now, trundle away. Now
over with that load; and back for another.
"You, that once looked down on the soulless toil for bread, you
have sunk now to something far more miserable. You are dragging at
a load of sheer stupidity. You are a galley-slave, with calamity
for your task-master. As you move the chains rattle. And that is
He straightens himself up, wipes the sweat from his forehead, and
begins heaving up stones into his barrow again.
How long must it last, this life in manacles? Do you remember Job?
Job? Aye, doubtless Jehovah was sitting at some jovial feast when
he conceived that fantasy of a drunken brain, to let Satan loose
upon a happy man. Job? His seven sons and daughters, and his
cattle, and his calves were restored unto him, but we read nothing
of any compensation made him for the jest itself. He was made to
play court fool, with his boils and his tortures and his misery,
and the gods had their bit of sport gratis. Job had his actual
outlay in cattle and offspring refunded, and that was all. Ha-ha!
Prometheus! Is it you after all that are the friend of man among
the gods? Have you indeed the power to free us all some day? When
will you come, then, to raise the great revolt?
Come, come--up with the barrow again--you see it is full.
"Father, it's dinner-time. Come along home," cries little Louise,
racing down the hill with her yellow plaits flying about her ears.
But she stops cautiously a little distance off--there is no knowing
what sort of temper father may be in.
"Thanks, little monkey. Got anything good for dinner to-day?"
"Aha! that's a secret," said the girl in a teasing voice; she was
beaming now, with delight at finding him approachable. "Catch me,
father! I can run quicker than you can!"
"I'm afraid I'm too tired just now, my little girl."
"Oh, poor papa! are you tired?" And she came up and took him by
the hand. Then she slipped her arm into his--it was just as good
fun to walk up the hill on her father's arm like a grown-up young
Then came the frosts. And one morning the hilltops were turned
into leaden grey clouds from which the snow came sweeping down.
Merle stood at the window, her face grey in the clammy light. She
looked down the valley to where the mountains closed it in; it
seemed still narrower than before; one's breath came heavily, and
one's mind seemed stifled under cold damp wrappings.
Ugh! Better go out into the kitchen and set to work again--work--
work and forget.
Then one day there came a letter telling her that her mother was
DEAR KLAUS BROCK,--
Legendary being! Cast down from Khedivial heights one day and up
again on high with Kitchener the next. But, in Heaven's name, what
has taken you to the Soudan? What made you go and risk your life
at Omdurman? The same old desperation, I suppose, that you're
always complaining about. And why, of all things, plant yourself
away in an outpost on the edge of the wilderness, to lie awake at
nights nursing suicidal thoughts over Schopenhauer? You have lived
without principles, you say. And wasted your youth. And are
homeless now all round, with no morals, no country, no religion.
But will you make all this better by making things much worse?
You've no reason to envy me my country life, by the way, and
there's no sense in your going about longing for the little church
of your childhood, with its Moses and hymns and God. Well, longing
does no harm, perhaps, but don't ever try to find it. The fact is,
old fellow, that such things are not to be found any more.
I take it that religion had the same power on you in your childhood
as it had with me. We were wild young scamps, both of us, but we
liked going to church, not for the sake of the sermons, but to bow
our heads when the hymn arose and join in singing it. When the
waves of the organ-music rolled through the church, it seemed--to
me at least--as if something were set swelling in my own soul,
bearing me away to lands and kingdoms where all at last was as it
should be. And when we went out into the world we went with some
echo of the hymn in our hearts, and we might curse Jehovah, but in
a corner of our minds the hymn lived on as a craving, a hunger for
some world-harmony. All through the busy day we might bear our
part in the roaring song of the steel, but in the evenings, on our
lonely couch, another power would come forth in our minds, the
hunger for the infinite, the longing to be cradled and borne up on
the waves of eternity, whose way is past all finding out.
Never believe, though, that you'll find the church of your
childhood now in any of our country places. We have electric light
now everywhere, telephones, separators, labour unions and political
meetings, but the church stands empty. I have been there. The
organ wails as if it had the toothache, the precentor sneezes out a
hymn, the congregation does not lift the roof off with its voice,
for the very good reason that there is no congregation there. And
the priest, poor devil, stands up in his pulpit with his black
moustache and pince-nez; he is an officer in the army reserve, and
he reads out his highly rational remarks from a manuscript. But
his face says all the time--"You two paupers down there that make
up my congregation, you don't believe a word I am saying; but never
mind, I don't believe it either." It's a tragic business when
people have outgrown their own conception of the divine. And we--
we are certainly better than Jehovah. The dogma of the atonement,
based on original sin and the bloodthirstiness of God, is revolting
to us; we shrug our shoulders, and turn away with a smile, or in
disgust. We are not angels yet, but we are too good to worship
such a God as that.
There is some excuse for the priest, of course. He must preach of
some God. And he has no other.
Altogether, it's hardly surprising that even ignorant peasants
shake their heads and give the church a wide berth. What do they
do on Sundays, then? My dear fellow, they have no Sunday. They
sit nodding their heads over a long table, waiting for the day to
pass. They remind one of plough horses, that have filled their
bellies, and stand snoring softly, because there's no work today.
The great evolutionary scheme, with its wonders of steel and
miracles of science, goes marching on victoriously, I grant you,
changing the face of the world, hurrying its pulse to a more and
more feverish beat. But what good will it do the peasant to be
able to fly through the air on his wheelbarrow, while no temple, no
holy day, is left him any more on earth? What errand can he have
up among the clouds, while yet no heaven arches above his soul?
This is the burning question with all of us, with you in the desert
as with us up here under the Pole. To me it seems that we need One
who will make our religion new--not merely a new prophet, but a new
You ask about my health--well, I fancy it's too early yet to speak
about it. But so much I will say: If you should ever be in pain
and suffering, take it out on yourself--not on others.
Greetings from us all.
Christmas was near, the days were all grey twilight, and there was
a frost that set the wall-timbers cracking. The children went
about blue with cold. When Merle scrubbed the floors, they turned
into small skating-rinks, though there might be a big fire in the
stove. Peer waded and waded through deep snow to the well for
water, and his beard hung like a wreath of icicles about his face.
Aye, this was a winter.
Old Raastad's two daughters were in the dairy making whey-cheese.
The door was flung open, there was a rush of frosty air, and Peer
stood there blinking his eyes.
"Huh! what smokers you two are!"
"Are we now?" And the red-haired one and the fair-haired one both
giggled, and they looked at each other and nodded. This queer
townsman-lodger of theirs never came near them that he didn't crack
"By the way, Else, I dreamed last night that we were going to be
Both the girls shrieked with delight at this.
"And Mari, you were married to the bailiff."
"Oh my! That old creature down at Moen?"
"He was much older. Ninety years old he was."
"Uf!--you're always at your nonsense," said the red-haired girl,
stirring away at her huge, steaming cauldron.
Peer went out again. The girls were hardly out of their teens, and
yet their faces seemed set already and stiff with earnestness. And
whenever Peer had managed to set them laughing unawares, they
seemed frightened the next minute at having been betrayed into
doing something there was no profit in.
Peer strode about in the crackling snow with his fur cap drawn down
over his ears. Jotunheim itself lay there up north, breathing an
icy-blue cold out over the world.
And he? Was he to go on like this, growing hunchbacked under a
burden that weighed and bowed him down continually? Why the devil
could he not shake it off, break away from it, and kick out bravely
at his evil fate?
"Peer," asked Merle, standing in the kitchen, "what did you think
of giving the children for a Christmas present?"
"Oh, a palace each, and a horse to ride, of course. When you've
more money than you know what to do with, the devil take economy.
And what about you, my girl? Any objection to a couple of thousand
crowns' worth of furs?"
"No, but seriously. The children haven't any ski--nor a hand-
"Well, have you the money to buy them? I haven't."
"Suppose you tried making them yourself?"
"Ski?" Peer turned over the notion, whistling. "Well, why not?
And a sleigh? We might manage that. But what about little Asta?--
she's too little for that sort of thing."
"She hasn't any bed for her doll."
Peer whistled again. "There's something in that. That's an idea.
I'm not so handless yet that I couldn't--"
He was soon hard at it. There were tools and a joiner's bench in
an outhouse, and there he worked. He grew easily tired; his feet
tried constantly to take him to the door, but he forced himself to
go on. Is there anything in the notion that a man can get well by
simply willing it? I will, will, will. The thought of others
besides himself began to get the upper hand of those birds of prey
ravening in his head. Presents for the children, presents that
father had made himself--the picture made light and warmth in his
mind. Drive ahead then.
When it came to making the iron ribbons for the sleigh runners he
had to go across to the smithy; and there stood a cottar at work
roughing horseshoes. Red glowing iron once more, and steel. The
clang of hammer on anvil seemed to tear his ears; yet it drew him
on too. It was long since last he heard that sound. And there
"Want this welded, Jens? Where's the borax? Look here, this is
the way of it."
"Might ha' been born and bred a smith," said Jens, as he watched
the deft and easy hammer-strokes.
Christmas Eve came, and the grey farm-pony dragged up a big wooden
case to the door. Peer opened it and carried in the things--a
whole heap of good things for Christmas from the Ringeby relations.
He bit his lips when he saw all the bags piled up on the kitchen
table. There had been a time not long ago when Merle and he had
loaded up a sledge at the Loreng storehouse and driven off with
Christmas gifts to all the poor folk round. It was part of the
season's fun for them. And now--now they must even be glad to
receive presents themselves.
"Merle--have WE nothing we can give away this year?"
"I don't know. What do you think?"
"A poor man's Christmas it'll be with a vengeance--if we're only to
take presents, and haven't the least little thing to give away."
Merle sighed. "We must hope it won't happen to us again," she
"I won't have it happen to us now," he said, pacing up and down.
"There's that poor devil of a joiner down at Moen, with
consumption. I'm going down there with a bit of a parcel to chuck
in at his door, if I have to take your shift and the shirt off my
back. You know yourself it won't be any Christmas at all, if we
don't do something."
"Well--if you like. I'll see if we can't find something among the
children's clothes that they can do without."
The end of it was that Merle levied toll on all the parcels from
home, both rice and raisins and cakes, and made up little packets
of them to send round by him. That was Merle's way; let her alone
and she would hit upon something.
The snow creaked and crackled underfoot as Peer went off on his
errand. A starry sky and a biting wind, and light upon light from
the windows of the farms scattered over the dark hillsides. High
above all, against the sky, there was one little gleam that might
be a cottage window, or might be a star.
Peer was flushed and freshened up when he came back into the warmth
of the room. And a chorus of joyful shouts was raised when Merle
announced to the children: "Father's going to bath you all to-
The sawed-off end of a barrel was the bathing-tub, and Peer stood
in the kitchen with his sleeves rolled up, holding the naked little
bodies as they sprawled about in the steaming water.
Mother was busy with something or other in the sitting-room. But
it was a great secret, and the children were very mysterious about
it. "No, no, you mustn't go in," they said to little Asta, who
went whimpering for her mother to the door.
And later in the evening, when the Christmas-tree was lit up, and
the windows shone white with frost, there were great doings all
about the sitting room floor. Louise got her ski on and
immediately fell on her face; Lorentz, astride of the new sleigh,
was shouting "Hi, hi!--clear the course there!", and over in a
corner sat little Asta, busy putting her baby to bed and singing it
Husband and wife looked at each other and smiled.
"What did I tell you?" said Merle.
Slowly, with torturing slowness, the leaden-grey winter days creep
by. For two hours in the middle of the day there is pale twilight--
for two hours--then darkness again. Through the long nights the
north wind howls funeral dirges--hu-u-u-u--and piles up the snow
into great drifts across the road, deep enough, almost, to smother
a sleigh and its driver. The days and nights come and go,
monotonous, unchanged; the same icy grey daylight, and never a
human soul to speak to. Across the valley a great solid mountain
wall hems you in, and you gaze at it till it nearly drives you mad.
If only one could bore a hole through it, and steal a glimpse of
the world beyond, or could climb up to the topmost ridge and for a
moment look far round to a wide horizon, and breathe freely once
At last one day the grey veil lifts a little. A strip of blue sky
appears--and hearts grow lighter at the sight. The snow peaks to
the south turn golden. What? Is it actually the sun? And day by
day now a belt of gold grows broader, comes lower and lower on the
hillside, till the highest-lying farms are steeped in it and glow
red. And at last one day the red flame reaches the Courthouse, and
shines in across the floor of the room where Merle is sitting by
the window patching the seat of a tiny pair of trousers.
What life and cheer it brings with it!
"Mother--here's the sun," cries Louise joyfully from the doorway.
"Yes, child, I see it."
But Louise has only looked in for a moment to beg some cake for
Lorentz and herself, and be off again on her ski to the hill-
slopes. "Thank you, mother--you're a darling!" And with a slice
in each hand she dashes out, glowing with health and the cold air.
If only Peer could glow with health again! But though one day they
might persuade themselves that now--now at last he had turned the
corner--the next he would be lying tossing about in misery, and it
all seemed more hopeless than ever. He had taken to the doctors'
medicines again--arsenic and iron and so forth--and the quiet and
fresh air they had prescribed were here in plenty; would nothing do
him any good? There were not so many months of their year left
And then? Another winter here? And living on charity--ah me!
Merle shook her head and sighed.
The time had come, too, when Louise should go to school.
"Send the children over to me--all three of them, if you like,"
wrote Aunt Marit from Bruseth. No, thanks; Merle knew what that
meant. Aunt Marit wanted to keep them for good.
Lose her children--give away her children to others? Was the day
to come when that burden, too, would be laid upon them?
But schooling they must have; they must learn enough at least to
fit them to make a living when they grew up. And if their own
parents could not afford them schooling, why--why then perhaps they
had no right to keep them?
Merle sewed and sewed on, lifting her head now and again, so that
the sunlight fell on her face.
How the snow shone--like purple under the red flood of sunlight.
After all, their troubles seemed a little easier to bear to-day.
It was as if something frozen in her heart were beginning to thaw.
Louise was getting on well with her violin. Perhaps one day the
child might go out into the world, and win the triumphs that her
mother had dreamed of in vain.
There was a sound of hurried steps in the passage, and she started
and sat in suspense. Would he come in raging, or in despair, or
had the pains in his head come back? The door opened.
"Merle! I have it now. By all the gods, little woman, something's
happened at last!"
Merle half rose from her seat, but sank back again, gazing at his
"I've got it this time, Merle," he said again. "And how on earth I
never hit on it before--when it's as simple as shelling peas!"
He was stalking about the room now, with his hands in his pockets,
"But what is it, Peer?"
"Why, you see, I was standing there chopping wood. And all the
time swarms of mowing machines--nine million of them--were going in
my head, all with the grass sticking fast to the shears and
clogging them up. I was in a cold sweat--I felt myself going
straight to hell--and then, in a flash--a flash of steel--it came
to me. It means salvation for us, Merle, salvation."
"Oh, do talk so that I can understand a little of what you're
"Why, don't you see--all that's wanted is a small movable steel
brush above the shears, to flick away the grass and keep them
clear. Hang it all, a child could see it. By Jove, little woman,
it'll soon be changed times with us now."
Merle laid her work down in her lap and let her hands fall. If
this were true!
"I'll have the machine up here, Merle. Making the brushes and
fixing them on will be no trouble at all--I can do it in a day in
the smithy here."
"What--you had better try! You're just beginning to get a little
better, and you want to spoil it all again!"
"I shall never get well, Merle, as long as I have that infernal
machine in my head balancing between world-success and fiasco. It
presses on my brain like a leaden weight, I shall never have a
decent night's sleep till I get rid of it. Oh, my great God--if
times were to change some day--even for us! Well! Do you think I
wouldn't get well when that day came!"
This time she let him take her in his arms. But when he had gone,
she sat still, watching the sun sink behind the snow-ranges, till
her eyes grew dim and her breath came heavily.
A week later, when the sun was flaming on the white roofs, the grey
pony dragged a huge packing-case up to Raastad. And the same day a
noise of hammer and file at work was heard in the smithy.
What do a few sleepless nights matter now? And they are sleepless
not so much from anxiety--for this time things go well--as because
of dreams. And both of them dream. They have bought back Loreng,
and they wander about through the great light rooms once more, and
all is peace and happiness. All the evil days before are as a
nightmare that is past. Once more they will be young, go out on
ski together, and dine together after, and drink champagne, and
look at each other with love in their eyes. Once more--and many
"Good-night, Peer, and sleep well."
Day after day the hammering went on in the smithy.
A few years back he could have finished the whole business in a
couple of days. But now, half an hour's work was enough to tire
him out. It is exhausting work to concentrate your thoughts upon a
single point, when your brain has long been used to play idly with
stray fancies as they came. He found, too, that there were defects
to be put right in the parts he thought were complete before, and
he had no assistants now, no foundry to get castings from, he must
forge out each piece with his own hands, and with sorry tools.
What did it matter?
He began to discipline his brain, denying himself every superfluous
thought. He drew dark curtains across every window in his
consciousness, save one--the machine. After half an hour's work he
would go back to bed and rest--just close his eyes, and rest. This
too was discipline. Again he flooded all his mind with darkness,
darkness, to save his strength for the half-hour of work next day.
Was Merle fearful and anxious? At all events she said no word
about the work that so absorbed him. He was excited enough as it
was. And now when he was irritable and angry with the children,
she did not even look at him reproachfully. They must bear it,
both she and the children--it would soon be all over now.
In the clear moonlight nights, when the children were in bed, the
two would sometimes be seen wandering about together. They went
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