Home  »  Skipper Worse  »  Chapter X

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

Chapter X

A LONG table was spread in the low, old-fashioned room of Sivert Jespersen. Although the table-cloth and the napkins were of fine damask, the knives were of a common sort, and the forks of steel. Here and there, at long intervals, stood a bottle of Medoc; besides this there was nothing but water, salt, and bread upon the table.

The host, however, was afraid that even this might appear too sumptuous. In ordinary life an oil-cloth covered his dining-table, and he was in the habit of taking potatoes out of the dish with his fingers, and peeling them with his pocket-knife. The dinner party to-day was to celebrate Hans Nilsen’s return. No one could tell how strict he might not have become.

The elders had arranged that, at first, Fennefos should be invited to meet a limited circle of the most confidential and trustworthy of the community, in order to ascertain his present state of mind.

It was not worth while to let him speak at the meetings just yet. In fact, they were all afraid of him, and all felt a little conscience stricken.

Fennefos had been three or four days in the town, but nobody had seen much of him. He stayed a good deal at home, conversing with Madame Torvestad; he had also visited Worse’s portion of the building across the yard.

When he and Sarah met for the first time, they were alone, and when she fixed her dark eyes upon him, there was a tremor in his voice. However, he soon overcame it, and talked calmly and earnestly, without looking much at her.

Sarah said scarcely anything, she was only listening to his voice. Skipper Worse entered, and gave a hearty welcome to Hans Nilsen, who was startled when he observed how old he had grown of late, for his mouth had fallen in and his face was sallow.

As they talked of the party which was to be given at Sivert Jespersen’s next day, Worse walked up and down, rubbing his hair. It was evident that there was something on his mind.

“H’m, h’m,” he repeated at intervals during the conversation. “It’s the 24th of June to-morrow—yes that it is. Yes, it’s St. John’s Eve.”

“Has St. John’s Eve any particular interest for Captain Worse?” inquired Fennefos, who was anxious to be civil to Sarah’s husband.

“Any interest? I should rather think it had, Hans Nilsen. Yes, for many years. It is Randulf’s birthday, you see; and ever since we were boys—— Well, it is not worth mentioning; those times have gone by.”

“Probably, then, you would prefer being with Skipper Randulf to-morrow to going to Sivert Jespersen’s?”

“I am ashamed to confess it, but I really would rather.”

“No one, I think, will mind it if you do not go to Sivert Jespersen’s,” said Sarah, glancing at Hans Nilsen.

She was not sorry to be rid of her husband for a day.

Jacob Worse was as pleased as a child at this unexpected turn of events, and hurried off to Randulf, to tell him he had got leave to come.

Sarah and Fennefos remained together, and there was a little pause.

“Is your husband unwell?”

“Yes. I fancy he has some internal malady.”

“You allude to his body. I am thinking of his soul. Is he still in his sins?”

“Yes, Hans Nilsen, I fear he is. The Word has no power over him.”

“Have you tried to help him, Sarah?”

“Yes, indeed, but without much success.”

“Perhaps you have not tried in the right way. He has been a strong man, and strong measures may be required to subdue him.”

She would have discussed this further with him, but at this point they were interrupted by Madame Torvestad, who came to fetch Fennefos. They had an engagement to visit an orphanage for girls, which had been established by the Haugians.

Sarah accompanied them, not entirely to her mother’s satisfaction. Latterly she had been thrust so much into the shade by her daughter, that she was doing all in her power to keep Fennefos to herself.

In the mean time, she pretended to be pleased, and all three went off together. Sarah felt a particular satisfaction in the company of Fennefos, although he devoted himself entirely to her mother, who talked to him in a low voice about the people they met on their way.

When they returned, Hans Nilsen bade Madame Torvestad farewell outside the house and followed Sarah to her own home.

They conversed for some time, Sarah telling him much about the Brethren, and informing him of what had occurred during his absence.

As she soon observed that he took a more severe and a darker view of everything, she herself also was led to give a worse aspect to what had occurred. She spoke of the great lukewarmness that prevailed amongst them, of the sordid desire for worldly gain, and of the sinful servility with which they sought the approval of men.

She told him also how they allowed themselves to be flattered and cajoled by the younger clergy, who sought to intrude themselves into their charitable undertakings and their missions to the heathen.

Fennefos listened to her, and thanked her when she had finished.

“But you, Sarah, how is it with you?”

“Thanks, Hans Nilsen,” said Sarah, looking up at him; “of myself I can do nothing, but the Lord has been my strength, and I may venture to say that all is well with me.”

He turned away quickly, and bid her farewell.

The dinner at Sivert Jespersen’s the following day was silent, for all were in a state of suspense. The attention of all was fixed on Hans Nilsen, who sat by the side of Sarah, grave and taciturn, as had been his wont ever since his return.

Before the soup, a grace was read by an old man with blue hands—he was a dyer. Afterwards they sang a hymn. There should have been salmon after the soup; but, at the last moment, the host was troubled by certain compunctions, and, to the cook’s intense disgust, forbade its being placed on the table.

There was, therefore, only roast mutton, of which a good deal was eaten. The cook had ventured to serve a salad with it, a dish which few of them had ever seen before.

One of the seniors said, jestingly: “What next! shall we eat grass like King Nebuchadnezzar?”

They laughed a little at this, and Madame Torvestad, taking advantage of the occasion, told them that in her younger days in Gnadau, she got little else to eat than such “grass” and other vegetables.

After this, the conversation was directed to the various institutions of the Brethren, to their leading men, and to the teachers and preachers of the olden time, men who in the last century had awakened a new life among the Christians in Germany.

Hans Nilsen either remained silent, or merely spoke a few words in a low voice to Sarah. But the others were anxious to talk on these subjects, which interested them all, and on which they were well informed.

Madame Torvestad was especially interested; in such subjects she was thoroughly at home, and she let no opportunity escape her of relating what she knew of the men who were so famous in her younger days.

“Yes, truly,” said Sivert Jespersen, “many a blessed word remains to us from Johan Arndt, Spener, and Francke; also among the Herrnhutters of later times there have been many godly men.”

“We might learn something from them, and they from us,” said the old dyer.

“The other day, I read in a little book of mine of a vision that appeared to a pious follower of Francke. Shortly afterwards, this man learnt that Francke had died at the very moment when he had seen the vision.” As she said this, Madame Torvestad took from her pocket one of her everlasting small books. Sivert Jespersen begged her to read the account of the apparition, if that happened to be the book of which she spoke.

It was the book; she had, in fact, brought it because she and the elders had agreed that by soothing and gentle words they should endeavour to bring back their dear friend and brother, Hans Nilsen, to a more settled frame of mind.

The guests prepared themselves to listen. Most of them had finished, but some of the men took a little more, and ate whilst she read. They began to be more at ease, and viewed Fennefos with less apprehension.

Madame Torvestad read well, without pronouncing the foreign words so incorrectly as some of the others, who were not so well educated.

“‘At last it happened that Elias’—that is Francke—‘was taken away. This was in 1727. I, a dweller in darkness, caught a glimpse of him in the abode of the blest. I heard the great Prince of Peace, who was surrounded by an innumerable multitude of the saved, say to them, “Ye blessed of my Father, ye love me, and I you, we rejoice together, and we have now a fresh occasion for our joy. In this our new Jerusalem, we shall rejoice to-morrow; for a great soul is just about to leave its earthly tenement, and will receive its crown.” The whole host of heaven cried rapturously, “Amen, amen.”

“‘But who, who shall this new and honoured saint be? My attention was now directed to three who were among the worthiest, adorned with crowns, and in the silken garb of archangels. Who is this, and this, asked my heart. Straightway I recognized them. Luther, Arndt, and Spener.

“‘“Brothers,” said Spener, “do you think that I can guess who the king means by this glorified friend that the day will reveal to us? It must be Francke who will be crowned, for he has conquered in the strife.”

“‘So spake the beloved Philip Jacob, and the Lord, who was near him, said, “Thou art in the right.”

“‘The whole heaven resounded with joyful acclaim; and so the day that Francke’s soul had longed for arrived. A multitude of ministering spirits, ready and anxious to obey their Lord’s behest, were directed to bring the soul of Francke. The chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof sallied forth to fetch him.’”

Most of the company manifested their approval by smiles and gestures, but a few looked thoughtful, and Sivert Jespersen regretted that he had not come to a definite understanding beforehand with Madame Torvestad.

She was a woman of intelligence, who could usually be trusted to handle the most difficult subjects; in this case, however, she had shown her weakest side, and Sivert Jespersen knew only too well how much Fennefos disliked such extravagant rhapsodies.

In the mean time, however, Fennefos remained silent, and seemed to be absorbed in thought.

Amongst the others a tranquil geniality began to prevail. The sour Medoc was sparingly drunk, mixed with sugar and water; some drank home-brewed small beer, the majority only water.

As the affectionate and brotherly feelings which united them and took possession of many, they smiled and patted one another on the shoulder or cheek. By degrees they forgot their dread of Hans Nilsen, and felt glad to see him, although he remained silent.

No one could tell, they thought, to what the Lord might not have subjected him; and when his troubled spirit was more tranquil, they hoped that his former frankness might be restored.

Suddenly his voice was heard, and a deathlike stillness ensued.

“Beloved brothers and sisters—”

They knew the voice, and one and all thought: “Now it is coming!”

At first he spoke calmly and almost sadly of the first love. He reminded them how Hauge himself became conscious that in his later years the first love did not burn in him as in the earlier days of grace. He then drew a picture of the tribulations of the Brethren in the evil days gone by. He praised and thanked God that strength had been given to their forefathers, so that the light had not been extinguished, but now shone brightly throughout the land.

Next, he spoke of the temptations of the Brethren in the better times that followed, and all bowed their heads, thinking: “Now it is coming!”

It came, indeed, and like a hurricane. Blow after blow, his words fell upon them, now here, now there, on every point of weakness. Every allusion was understood, and none dared to look at the others. They had no time to wonder how he came to know so much, for he held their minds completely enthralled.

“What is there,” cried he, “what is there of the first love among you? Think you, would he recognize his friends, if he were to walk the earth again in the flesh, he who aroused your fathers, and whom many of the elders among you have seen face to face?

“Think you that the Saviour will acknowledge you in the day of judgment?

“Woe, woe! The spirit has departed from you, and you have received an evil spirit, full of worldly cares, of pride and luxury; and, by reason of your misdeeds, the name of God has become a derision among the heathen.

“Have you forgotten the ancient enemy, or do you blindly imagine that the old serpent slumbers? Woe to you; for it is you who slumber, and your awakening will be like that of the rich man’s in hell fire!”

Many of the women began to weep; the men sat and cowered as each blow fell.

But when he had finished, Sivert Jespersen, with a cringing smile, said: “I think now we had better sing a hymn.”

At the third verse the cook entered with the dessert. The host made the most frightful grimaces, and shook his head; for he was leading the singing, and had to mind his trebles and basses.

The cook understood the case well enough. She had submitted to giving up the salmon, but the devil himself should not cheat her out of her dessert. Her character would be utterly ruined in all the best families were it to transpire that, at a dinner of twenty-two persons, she had served only soup and a roast—no fish; no dessert!

Never would she stand such a thing! Red in the face, with smothered indignation, she brought in an enormous dish of rich pastry, which she placed right in front of Sivert Jespersen.

It caused an exceedingly painful impression, and the host almost lost his voice as he began the fourth verse. Nobody ventured to touch the dessert, and, after the hymn, the old dyer read a grace after meat.

When the coffee came, there was an oppressive silence; for some were seriously affected and distressed, others glanced uneasily at the elders. The women began to collect their cloaks, in order to proceed to the meeting-house, where there was to be a Bible-reading, Fennefos and some of the men accompanying them. But in the little office behind Sivert Jespersen’s store, five or six of the elders were assembled. They lit their long clay pipes, and for some time sat smoking in silence. No one liked to begin the conversation.

“Does any one know the price of salt up at Bergen?” inquired Endre Egeland, who was always inclined to pass over anything unpleasant.

Apparently, however, no one knew anything about the price of salt. It was clear that something else had to be discussed.

“Yes; we all deserve it,” sighed Sivert Jespersen. “I suppose that we have all been benefited.”

“Yes, indeed,” said another, “there is, in truth, much to correct and much to censure, both in you and me.”

“You see the mote in your brother’s eye, but not the beam in your own,” said Nicolai Egeland, appropriately.

“It is not always that the advice and conversation of womenfolk softens a man,” said the old dyer, quietly.

There was a pause, until all, even Nicolai Egeland, had taken in what was said. At last one of them remarked, “We shall require much help up on our farm this year, for the Lord has blessed both tillage and pasture.”

It was a farm near the town, which was owned in common by several of the Haugians.

“What we most require is some one who can take a part in the work, and who, at the same time, knows how to meet the servants and labourers in worship during the hours of rest,” said Sivert Jespersen.

Again a long pause. One looked at his neighbour, and he again into the corner, where the old dyer sat, until at last many eyes were turned in his direction.

It was not easy to see the old man as he sat blinking in the dense tobacco smoke, but, after a while, he nodded several times, saying: “Well, as it seems to be your wish, I will try to mention it to him.” Upon this the others, who evidently felt relieved, began to talk eagerly about the price of salt.