Home  »  Skipper Worse  »  Chapter V

Alexander L. Kielland (1849–1906). Skipper Worse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter V

LATE in the autumn, when the sun set in lurid clouds full of storm and rain, the little town was shrouded in a darkness which was only relieved by a small lantern, which glimmered on the wall at the door of the town hall.

Otherwise it was dark, pitch dark, in the narrow, crooked streets, and down by the wharves, where one might fall headlong into the sea if tipsy, or a stranger.

In the small shops train-oil lamps or tallow candles were burning, in the larger ones suspended “moderator” lamps were beginning to be used.

A faint light was thus thrown upon the puddles, and those who were well acquainted with the street could pick their way dryshod.

Most people, however, wore long boots, and came tramping along, so that they could be heard splashing through the mud.

Here and there a small lantern might be observed swinging along, at one moment lowered carefully in order to seek a path in the worst places, at others casting its inquisitive light in the faces of the passers-by, or against the sides of the low wooden buildings.

Ladies with cap baskets, from which knitting needles were sticking out, might be seen going to evening parties; or servant maids carrying lanterns, and followed by little girls with thin white legs and big goloshes on their feet, on their way to the dancing-school.

After seven o’clock there was scarcely any light in the shops, and the streets seemed deserted. Now and then a ray of light was cast upon the mud and puddles when the door of a tavern, where sailors and topers quarrelled and rioted, was thrown open.

About this time the night watch would sally out of the town hall, in order to take up its beat. It was composed generally of old seamen or ship carpenters, who were past their work, men with hoarse, thick voices, bent with age and hard of hearing.

They crept along very slowly, clad in long, thick, frieze coats, bearing lanterns in their left hands, and thumping along the pavement with their ponderous staves.

At certain appointed corners they cried out the hour and the state of the weather, each in his own peculiar fashion, so that he could be understood in his own beat, but nowhere else in the whole world.

When those who had been at parties came home at the usual respectable hour of about ten o’clock, the lanterns reappeared in the streets. When they fell in with a watchman, they wished him good night, the young people asking the hour in order to tease him, the older ones inquiring seriously about the direction of the wind.

After that the town became dark and silent. A drunken man would reel from one side to the other until he fell down a cellar trap-door, into the gutter, or into the sea. If by chance he stumbled upon the watch, he soon found himself in the lock-up.

But it was not so easy to stumble upon the watch; for they had their secret sleeping-corners, from which they only issued in case of emergency, when they thought the time was come for crying out something, or when the shuffling sound of leather boots was heard approaching.

This was the watch which went the rounds, the fire watch of the town consisting of four or five ancient watchmen, who had no voices left.

They wore their coat collars turned up, and their fur caps drawn down, so that they could hardly notice a fire until it singed their very beards. Nevertheless the town reposed in perfect security.

Perchance, however, some one would wake up and begin to think of the quantity of rye which lay in the warehouses, or there came a series of visions, clear and definite, such as appear to us in the darkness of the night; first, an ember somewhere smouldering, spreading, and then setting fire to the walls, seizing and enveloping the house, and consuming the rye, salt, barrels, the store, and everything.

Then a shuffling noise of stiff leather boots and staves along the pavement, all coming nearer every moment, and then passing out of hearing.

Ah! the fire-watch going the rounds. All right, one can sleep now in peace and comfort.

Or perhaps a child would wake up in a troubled dream, and would lay and listen, terrified by hideous imaginations of thieves and robbers climbing in at the kitchen window to kill father and mother with long knives. But outside the watchman cries: “Two o’clock, and a still night.”

Ah! the watch; yes, of course, that was the watch; so no thieves or robbers can come in at the kitchen window. All bad people must stay at home, or the watch will take them to the lock-up. Yes, it was not bad people, only good and kind folks and watchmen.

So it sleeps on again in peace and dreams no more.

But when they did come, those three terrible cannon shots which announced a fire, shaking and even bursting in the windows, unbounded terror prevailed. High above the dark streets the hazy sky was glowing like a sea of fire.

The drummer, Long Jorgen, beat furiously with the thicker ends of his drumsticks; men with hoarse voices, and boys with shrill notes like those of sea-gulls, rushed through the streets shouting: “Fire! fire!” Outside the engine-house, people carrying lanterns were assembling, swearing, and shouting for the keys.

They hang behind the fire inspector’s bed.

Off, then, to the fire inspector’s.

In the pitchy darkness, the messenger encounters him, and running full tilt against him, knocks the bunch of keys into the mud. Whilst search is made for them with three lanterns, some sailors break open the doors, and the engine is run out with a dismal rumbling sound.

Old women in their nightcaps run into the streets, with a washhand basin or a flatiron. In the houses all flock to the parents’ bed-chamber. The smaller children sit up in bed and cry, whilst the elder girls, half dressed, their hair hanging down their backs, and white and trembling with fear, strive to comfort them.

But the mother sets to work to make coffee—hot coffee is good for everything, and under all circumstances.

From time to time the father returns home to report how things are going on.

Long since the boys have dressed themselves and disappeared. It is a holiday to them, a festival of terror. The red sky overhead, the darkness of the night, the flames which now and then pierce the canopy of smoke, the men rushing about and shouting—all this fills them with an excitement equal to ten romances.

Determined to attempt something prodigious, to distinguish themselves by something manly beyond conception, they rush into houses where there is neither fire nor danger, and fasten upon the most immovable and impossible objects.

The fire inspector stands by the engines and takes command; two rows of men and lads pass the water forwards, and return the empty buckets. At the seaside, or down by some well, the younger sailors take it in turn to fill the buckets, until they are wet through and their arms benumbed.

Officers of the Citizen Corps, in their blue tail coats with white facings, run here and there, and with their long swords are in the way both of themselves and of every one else.

But the sailors plunge into the very fire itself; entering the houses, they strive to rescue the contents until the roofs fall in. They climb up on the neighbouring houses with wet sails, and pull down sheds and boardings.

Thomas Randulf and Jacob Worse were known from their boyhood as the most daring on such occasions.

They were always the first on the spot, carrying out the aged and the invalids, and afterwards taking the hottest and most dangerous posts. In fact, they were the real commanders, although the fire inspector had yellow and crimson feathers in his three-cornered hat.

At such time the merchants were in greater anxiety than the rest of the population. Insurance was not usual; indeed, some of the sectaries looked upon it as sinful. Others said that their insurance was in the hands of the Almighty.

But when the wind set in their direction, and the wooden houses blazed up, one after the other, the wisest and the best of them lost their heads, and ran about throwing sacks of corn and flour into the sea, labouring to destroy, whilst they forgot to save the cash in the office close at hand.

Through the flame and smoke, through the uproar and the shouting, is heard the booming of the great cathedral bell. Two or three slow peals, then a long pause, and then more quickly intermittent single peals, a dismal, hope-dispelling sound.

It is not an alarm bell rousing people to come to the rescue, it is rather the church’s prayer for mercy, a despairing appeal to God to stop the raging flames.

But the winter nights could also show a different life in the dark little town. It might be Christmas time, or just after New Year’s Day, when the northwest wind was bringing snow-storms every half hour, the stars shining brightly between whiles.

Suddenly a boat would appear in the inner fjord, another and yet another, then a small smack, followed again by a couple more boats, each steering for its own destination in the harbour, and groping its way to the ring-bolts under the warehouses and along the quays.

A man would jump on shore and run at full speed up into the town, his huge sea-boots leaving marks as of elephants’ feet on the newly fallen snow. The watchman would hold up his lantern and survey the wayfarer, whose boots, trousers, and even his sou-wester, shine with countless starlike, silvery specks.

The watchman smiles, and, as he is a knowing old fellow, cries out, when he reaches the corner by Skipper Worse’s house, “Wind north-west! The herring is on the coast!”

More boats and smacks arrive; the rattling of anchors and chain cables is heard in all directions. Men knock at the walls of the warehouses, and people sally forth with lanterns, doors are thrown open, and the light falls on the men yonder in a boat, and on the heaps of fat, glittering spring herrings.

Up in the town the merchant’s house resounds as the man with the sea-boots picks up a stone and hammers at the wall. He strikes boldly, knowing that he brings welcome news.

All arouse themselves, thinking at first that it is a fire; but the master of the house springing up, throws the window open.

“Ivar Östebö sends his compliments. He has bought four hundred barrels on your account.”

“Do you know the price?”

“Three marks eighteen shillings. We are lying off the northern warehouse with eighty barrels; the rest is close behind.”

“How is the wind?”

“North-westerly, with snow-storms.”

“Run off to Lars up on the hill, and bid him rouse up the women; he knows what to do”

Upon this the window shuts down again, and the man in the sea-boots hurries on, knocking against other men also running in the dark.

The merchant begins to put on his working clothes, which are always at hand. His wife calls to him to put on two of his thickest woollen coats, which he does; for he well knows what it is like in the warehouse, with the wind at north-west with snow-storms.

The wind increases in gusts, and the snow is whirled about.

Boats and smacks arrive in such numbers before the northwest wind, that the harbour is full of noise and shouting, the plashing of the waves, the sound of furling sail, and the clanking of chain cables as they rattle through the hawseholes.

In the upper stories of the warehouses lights appear. Oil lamps are placed in all directions, and people begin to arrive—men, old women, and girls.

The magazine of salt is opened, the cooper rummages among the barrels, and the men in the boats grow impatient; they cry out that they are going to begin, and the first herrings are shot upon the floor. The whole town to its farthest corner is now on the alert; lights shine in the small windows, and innumerable coffee-pots are set by the fires. Bustle and hilarity prevail; the herring has arrived, the herring that all have been expecting, and from which all hope to get something.

The girls and women who have to clean the fish put on their working dresses amidst noise and laughter, although the cold makes their teeth chatter. Over everything they fold thick handkerchiefs, as a protection to the head so that only the eyes and nose are visible; for if the brine of the fish touches the hair, it causes a sore.

When they are ready they hasten in a crowd to the warehouse, where they have entered into a contract beforehand. At once they join the party to which they belong, and take their places in the midst of the herring, which come higher than their wooden shoes, amidst barrels and bowls of brine.

The unfortunate tallow candles placed on sticks in the heap of fish are always in danger of being upset, or of being put out by being snuffed with wet fingers.

They are soon supplied with short, sharp knives, and they proceed to clean the herrings with great rapidity.

The snow is presently covered with huge footmarks, and the new layer brought by each passing shower is soon trampled into mud.

Only up in the town and in the wider streets round about the school is there enough for the boys to carry on their snow-balling, when at last the morning arrives.

When the pale and sallow youngsters at the top of the school come toiling along, with their dull burdens of Greek and Latin books, their thoughts running upon a bygone literature, and their brains crammed with grammar, half consisting of rules and half of exceptions to those rules; and when they meet a troop of girls on their way homewards, after having worked among the herrings half the night, it may happen that the noisy girls will put their heads together and laugh at them.

They have drawn down their handkerchiefs, so that their mouths are now free. Chattering and laughing, they march up the middle of the street, warm and rosy-cheeked after their labours, besprinkled with fish scales up to the eyes.

Many of them are about the same age as the learned young gentlemen, but they feel so much their superiors, that they laugh at the half-admiring, half-contemptuous looks which they provoke.

The students feel this a little, but they find a solace in quoting “Plebs plebis,” or “Semper mutabile,” or some such other classic witticism.

They know that the herrings have come during the night, and they see the harbour swarming with vessels, and the town astir with business.

But what of that? Was it for them to think of vile lucre? Their world lay far above the common herd; they are on the road to Parnassus and despise the grovelling souls—the mob—who toil and drudge, stooping over their work like the beasts that perish, uncheered by a single ray from the sacred altar of the muses.

This contempt for the masses they cherish until they have to descend from Parnassus and enter the public service. Then they learn to discourse eloquently on the benefits of commerce, whilst in reality they are completely indifferent to it.

Scarcely any of the official classes, except the clergy, to whom on such occasions offerings flowed more liberally, rejoiced in a good fishing season. When the herring was abundant, and money was plentiful in the country, so that everybody was able to clear off incumbrances and to lay by something, the lawyers complained of bad times.

But when, on the other hand, the people were badly off, when the fishing or the harvest failed, when a tightness of money stopped supplies, so that bankruptcies, distress warrants, and forced sales by auction, with heavy law charges were frequent, then it was that the lawyers throve.

With the exception of the official class, and of the few families that lived upon pensions or dividends, there was a feeling of joy over all the town when the herrings arrived. All were interested in a prosperous fishing, which should bring the fulfilment of long-cherished hopes, or relief from embarrassments.

First and foremost everything relating to the sea—and this comprised the whole town—was in a state of activity, from the fishermen themselves to the dealers in salt and the speculators. All moved in a sort of delirium so long as the fishing lasted.

Not only skippers, but even young mates, were entrusted with vessels, and the most daring feats were performed in order to arrive first at the fishing-ground, and to secure a full cargo.

Men misled one another with false information, occasionally came to blows, and drank deeply when time and opportunity offered.

In the club, the evenings were noisy; all the rooms were full, and people even sat on the edge of the billiard-tables, which was contrary to rules.

Every new-comer was expected to bring tidings of the fishing, of the prices, and of how many shoals were surrounded by the nets, also, if there were any news from the north.

These were the only available sources of information, and business was regulated accordingly. Sometimes they were correct, sometimes altogether wrong.

Sometimes the fishing was best after it had been declared that the herrings had spawned and gone out to sea. Sometimes, again, there was no fishing, even when enormous shoals were reported; and people were left with dearly purchased salt and empty barrels.

At the club after the dinner hour, and when business was considered over for the day, there was a good deal of drinking and singing.

There was almost always some young skipper who, stepping forward, would, in the deepest and gruffest tones at his command, ask permission to treat the company to a glass. They know that he has made more than a hundred dollars on one cargo, so he can afford to be free with his money.

When the punch-bowl is placed before the seniors of the party, Harbour-master Snell and the master pilot, a song in praise of the herring is struck up; they empty their glasses after the fashion of their forefathers, and sing in honour of “Gamle Norge,” of the shipping trade, and of the constitution.

Late into the night the windows rattled again with the chorus, and the longer they sat the louder they sang, beating time on the table with the thick tumblers.

But there were others in the town who never drank, nor set their feet in the club, and yet whose interest and welfare lay in the fishing. These were the Haugians, the holy ones, as scoffers called them.

Besides Sivert Jespersen and the brothers Egeland, who carried on a large salting business in addition to their store, many other Haugians speculated in herrings. Generally they had been peasant boys, who had come to the town to take service with some of the elders, and had thus learnt the Haugian frugality, exactness, and diligence. As soon as they could start some little business on their own account, they advanced rapidly.

At the fishing, where the life was very wild, they took their part, although they were much ridiculed, because they sang hymns instead of drinking and using bad language.

Gradually people began to see that these good folks were not to be despised. There was nothing whatever against them; they were neither rioters nor spendthrifts; their boats were always ready, and their gear in good order, and although they neither swore nor drank, they would sail a boat with the most daring.

While they bore themselves peaceably and quietly they were ever ready to assert their rights, and people thought twice before they meddled with them.

Sivert Jespersen, too, had been a peasant lad who had worked himself up from nothing. He now owned two large warehouse in the town and several salting-houses in the north. Moreover, he had several shares in sundry vessels.

He no longer went to the fishing himself, as he was over sixty, much bent, and very rheumatic, like most of those who had frequented the winter fishing in their youth.

But when the herring came in, he strolled up to the warehouse in his old-fashioned coat and fur cap, and on such occasions he was radiant with good humour. The whole building is full of people, herrings, salt, and barrels; noise and shouting, the sound of coopering and of hoisting and lowering by ropes.

The floors and steps are wet and slippery with brine and with the blood of herrings dripping down from one floor to another. Fish scales cover the walls, and everywhere there is a smell as if one were in the belly of a whale.

Amidst all this, Sivert Gesvint moves about with a tallow candle in his hand, up and down and round about the whole house, humming a psalm tune as he goes.

There is some disturbance among the fish-girls; they are either quarrelling or playing some practical joke, but so roughly that two barrels packed with herrings are upset, and the contents scattered on the floor and into the salt tubs, making a sad mess.

“Come, come,” says Sivert Jespersen, approaching them, his voice mild and soft as usual; “you must treat the gifts of God with care, so that they may not be injured or wasted. Is it not so, dear children?”

He looks from one to the other with his cold grey eye and fixed smile, while the girls silently busy themselves in gathering up and repacking the fish.

It was always considered much more disagreeable to be called “dear children” by Sivert Jespersen than to be called “young devils” by any one else.

Although in their quiet way they throve, and seemed to conduct their affairs with much prudence and discretion, the business affairs of these Haugians rested upon anything but a solid foundation. Two years of failure in the fishing, or a disastrous fire in their uninsured property, and many apparently large fortunes would melt away almost to nothing.

They felt this themselves sometimes, when the herring were late in coming, or when, in the spring time, they found the till empty and the barrels of herrings unsold, and when everything depended upon the rise or fall of prices in Russia or Prussia.

At such times their hands trembled when the post, which only came once a week, arrived. They spent sleepless nights, and it was especially at such times that they would sing hymns.

When they assembled at daily meetings, they read, they prayed, they sang; and as they sat and looked at one another, each knowing how much his neighbour had at stake, knowing, too, how peaceful and guileless they were, and how God had hitherto protected them, they were satisfied that He would not now abandon them—“if not for my sake,” some speaker would say, “yet for the sake of others.” Then they felt strengthened in prayer, and smiling affectionately at each other, would depart to their homes, greatly comforted.

They were not disappointed; for year after year they throve, and their capital increased. Those who had salted one thousand barrels one year would take three thousand the next. They were on the look-out at all points; they pressed forward at all hazards; and while they seemed so quiet with their psalm-singing and gentle mode of speech, they were, in truth, energetic, even desperate, speculators.

This was thoroughly displeasing to Hans Nilsen Fennefos, not that it was against Hauge’s rule that the Brethren should enter into trade, on the contrary.

But this was not the old style of industry, with its reasonable desire for moderate profits. The money came too easily, and in too great abundance, Fennefos observed also that luxury was beginning to creep in among the Brethren; there were even dinner parties, where the eating was excessive.

The fact was that these frugal people were so unaccustomed to joints and puddings, that when they found they could afford them, they took a half-childish pleasure in ordering dinners like those supplied to the great houses.

Fennefos reasoned with and rebuked them; but although they listened, smiled, and thanked him, no change resulted.

Moreover, in the public life of the town, these quiet men, who had become rich unnoticed, began to assert themselves, and it was found that, for many reasons, they had to be considered. Their gentle manners and humble address ceased to provoke ridicule.

By degrees, as the Haugians advanced in worldly affairs, and lost in spiritual life, a superficial piety, proceeding from them and from their movement, crept into society, both in town and country—a sort of perfunctory formalism, which seemed to prosper.

Such was the condition of the place at that time—an old town of new ideas, narrow, crooked, unenlightened, and yet religious; at the same time fresh and bright, looking down upon the blue sea with its gallant ships and hardy seamen.

It should be seen on a summer day, in bright sunshine and a clear northerly wind, when the gulls fly out over the fjord and backwards and forwards along the front of the white-painted warehouses of the harbour, where they are unloading salt, and the wind bears the sound of the sailors’ chorus, “Amalia Maria, from Lisbon we come,” as the salt rustles along the broad wooden trough down into the lighters alongside, with a never-to-be-forgotten merry sound; the whole town smelling somewhat of herrings, but chiefly of the sea, the fresh North Sea.

Those who had been long away from home, and who had travelled the whole world round, declared that such an air is to be met with nowhere else.