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

Chapter XV

A STORM can be endured, however severe it be, if one is safe on the land.

But when it rages week after week, day after day, and night after night, so that no one can declare when one storm ends and the next begins, there are few who are exempt from an oppressive nervous feeling of anxiety, especially if, under such circumstances, they happen to live in a small town built of wood, close down by the open fjord, with the sea in front of them.

Then the heavens lower, so that the clouds course along the earth, and rain and spray drift far inland. Rifts in the leaden sky show fiery storm-streaks during the day, and the night is dark as death.

But the worst is when one lies helpless in bed, and the tempest rages in the small crooked streets, shaking the eaves and tearing off the tiles.

When one has not slept well, too, for many nights, and the day has been spent looking from the barometer up at the grey sky, or out on the deserted streets; when here and there a red spot on the mud marks a broken tile; when one hears tales of misfortune in the town and in the harbour, or of how narrow an escape from fire there was last night—fire in such a storm—then it is that one doubts whether the world is not out of course, whether everything will not fall asunder or be upheaved, and the sea pour in over the low reefs, sweeping churches, houses, and all out into the fjord like chips.

“The wrath of God is upon the land,” said the Haugians, as they held on their hats on the way to the meeting.

In the entrance passage, the wind lifted the ends of the women’s shawls over their heads, so that they entered the low, half-lit meeting-hall in a somewhat dishevelled state. Here they sat, packed close together, while the reader had either to raise his voice or to cease for a time altogether, when the wind shook the doors and windows, and wrestled with the ash trees outside.

In the pause which followed, he began to read again, but without life or freedom. Uneasiness prevailed as they looked one at another, the women crept together as each blast struck the house, and the men had much to think about.

Many ships owned by the Haugians were on their way home from the Baltic and St. Ubes. People waited and waited, but nothing arrived; whilst the tempest grew worse and worse with ever-increasing gales, between south-west and north-west. If they have not found a harbour of refuge in time, God have mercy both on them and us.

Even Sivert Jespersen was without a smile on his countenance, sitting still, and pushing his hands up his coat sleeves until they reached the elbows; he seemed as if clutching at and grasping something.

Madame Torvestad, with an austere and imperious aspect, sat in her place; many gazed at her, but she maintained her composure. He, however, whom all wished to see among them, was absent.

Eight days before, Fennefos had quietly taken leave of the Brethren, and had embarked for England in a Dutch ship, which had been lying in the harbour. It was his intention to proceed from England to India. He had not, however, left the country; for the Dutchman had been compelled to take shelter from the storm, and Fennefos lay weather-bound at Smörvigen, a few miles from the town. He had even visited it two days since on some business.

The tempest had been somewhat moderated during the forenoon, but in the evening the wind went to north-west, and blew harder than ever.

Heavy seas came into the bay, causing the vessels and lighters to roll, and breaking on the open stone foundations under the wooden storehouses, here and there even washing up through the floors above, on account of the unusually high tide.

The wind whistled terribly through the rigging of the great ships, and the moorings and fenders creaked and grated.

Along the gallery of Jacob Worse’s warehouse, a slender white form groped its way down the steps, and stood on the ground floor, which seemed to rock every time the sea rolled in underneath.

Mustering all her strength, she contrived to draw aside so much of the hanging door of the warehouse that she could squeeze herself through the opening.

Supporting herself with one hand, as she leant over the dark water, she repeated once more her oath before she let go: “I promise and swear to love you faithfully in life and death, and never to marry any other person, Lauritz—my own Lauritz.”

Saying this, she loosed her hold, a heavy sea swept her under a lighter, and she sank.

Later in the evening, some seafaring folk, who had been on board a vessel to look after its moorings, saw something white, which surged up and down by the stone steps at the market quay.

From the quay the news spread over the whole town, even more quickly than such news generally travels; for all were in such a state of consternation and excitement, owing to the long-continued tempest, that the report of a corpse seemed to chime in with the general feeling, and the tidings swept over the town as if borne upon the wings of the tempest.

Children who were going to bed heard the servant girls in the kitchen wringing their hands, and crying “God preserve us!” but when they inquired of their mothers what it was all about, they were told that it was something with which small children could have no concern, and, believing that it must be something very terrible, they crept trembling under the blankets.

Many versions of the story were circulated. Some said that she had left her bed in a fit of madness—she was ill of a nervous fever—whilst Madame Torvestad was at the meeting and the servant girl away.

Some only muttered and shook their heads, and these latter gradually formed the majority.

Others thought that it was another instance of what went on among the Haugians.

Henrietta Torvestad had committed suicide; of this no doubts were entertained. Perhaps her mother had tried to force her to marry Erik Pontoppidan. Yes, the overbearing Madame Torvestad was blamed, she and the Haugians, the gloomy, deceitful Haugians who grudged any joy, either to themselves or others. It was they who had caused the death of the poor girl; it was they who were the evil genius of the town, which seemed as if a curse rested upon it.

Corpses floated in the bay, and tempest followed tempest incessantly, as if the day of judgment were at hand.

In spite of the weather, many people were abroad in the streets, in order to procure further information, and they found a group with a couple of lanterns down by the marketplace.

The Haugians heard the news just as they came home from the meeting. Sivert Jespersen put on his great coat again, turned up the collar, and hurried off through the dark streets to Madame Torvestad.

Many others besides him had ventured out. Men and women of the Haugians were afraid to stay at home alone with this terrible news, which, in some measure, caused them to feel conscience-stricken.

They went out in order to ascertain the truth, and to learn how the elders received it. They met many persons in the streets near the market-place, and a number of people bearing lanterns, who had collected near Madame Torvestad’s house.

Whenever any of the Haugians approached, they threw a light on their faces, calling out their names with scornful and opprobrious words. In order to enter, the Haugians were obliged to take a circuitous route, and when they reached the door, a couple of the Brethren opened it when the voice was recognized, shutting it quickly again.

Indoors they felt more secure, for Worse’s premises were built in a square, with a court-yard in the centre, like a fortress. But here, too, there was distraction and terror. Madame Torvestad was said to have gone out of her senses. She sat upright by the side of the bed, watching the water as it dripped from the corpse, and would not allow any one to touch it.

The old dyer was the only person she would suffer to be with her.

In the chief part of the house Jacob Worse lay, and fought his last fight with the devil. He was in a room looking upon the court-yard, for in the rooms towards the market-place they did not dare show lights, in order not to excite the crowd, which was increasing, and from which menacing utterances broke forth at times.

In a short time the principal men and women of the Haugian community assembled. They went about with pale faces, in anxiety and bewilderment, and no one was capable of taking the lead. In the meantime the storm raged on, and the house shook to its foundations.

Jacob Worse lay on his death-bed, his features pale and drawn. For many days he had suffered great pain, which was now gradually leaving him, and both the doctor and the nurse declared that it was his last night.

But the struggle was not yet over; one could see this by the anxious way in which his eyes were turned from one to the other, when Sarah was out of the room.

Sometimes he seemed to lapse into deep terror, throwing himself from one side to the other, muttering something which they could not understand, and rubbing his hands together.

“He is possessed by Satan,” said one of the women.

This was the general opinion, and some searched in the Bible or in one of the many little books for texts or hymns applicable to persons possessed by the evil one.

But the majority were occupied with the terrible fate of Henrietta, or were watching the tumultuous crowd outside.

Sarah moved among them with a distracted air; she seemed, indeed, as if petrified with grief. It was not grief, however, that distracted her. The separation from Fennefos, and Henrietta’s death conjoined, inflicted a stunning blow, which both chilled and hardened her.

Her dying husband yonder in his bed, the frightened men and women, the uproar in the street, were matters of indifference to her, and she could almost have smiled at them.

Out of doors things grew worse. A couple of boys began to batter the wall; others, approaching the windows, climbed up and pressed their faces against the panes.

The Haugians crept away into corners, and Sivert Jespersen lay almost under the table.

“Some one must go out and speak to the crowd,” said one of the older women.

Sivert Jespersen was the man to do it, as he was the oldest of them, but he would not venture forth; he knew only too well that his presence would only make bad worse.

The old dyer was with Madame Torvestad; it would be better to ask him to make the attempt.

It never occurred to any of them to apply to the police, for no one in the town, and least of all the Haugians, was accustomed to seek help in that quarter.

There must also have been some of the better class in the crowd that filled the street and the greater part of the market-place, in front of Skipper Worse’s street door; for some of the lanterns were of the expensive hexagonal sort, and of polished brass.

While they were debating whether they should fetch the old dyer, the people outside ceased their uproar, and nothing was heard but the hasty footsteps of people leaving the street and hurrying to the market-place, where they crowded round somebody; and the lanterns being directed on the central spot, it was comparatively light.

Here, taller than all the rest, the Haugians recognized their own Hans Nilsen Fennefos.

He was speaking to the people. The tempest drowned his words, but they knew his power over the wills of men; and whilst they all, both men and women, pressed to the windows, they thanked God for this succour, and congratulated one another, as if their lives had hung on a thread.

Sarah remained alone in the sick room. She was absorbed with the idea that she would see Fennefos again. She was terrified; she almost trembled, and thought she would be unable to bear it.

Worse gazed at her, but finding no consolation in her distracted looks, he shut his eyes, and seemed as if dozing.

Fennefos, entering by the street door, was received in the unlighted passage by many friendly hands and affectionate greetings.

The first thing he said was: “Why do you sit here in the dark; are you afraid of the light?”

After the whispering which had hitherto prevailed, it sounded as if he spoke in a loud voice.

Two women went for lights, and the blinds were drawn down.

“You have come just at the right moment, Hans Nilsen,” said Sivert Jespersen, clapping him on the shoulder.

“How pleasant are the feet of those who bring glad tidings!” said Nicolai Egelend.

“I come rather with evil tidings,” said Hans Nilsen, looking gravely from one to the other; “although I see that there is grief enough already in this house. We heard yesterday at Smörvig that your ship Ebenezer is cast away to the South of Bratvold. Not a man was saved. I, therefore, came here that you might make provision for the widows and the fatherless.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, praised be His Name,” said Nicolai Egeland.

Sivert Jespersen turned away, and went out into another room. He seemed to be occupied with some calculation.

In the street the people had begun to disperse. Fennefos was known and, in a measure, respected.

That one whom all knew to have departed as a missionary to India had now suddenly reappeared, produced also a certain effect; there was, moreover, something about the man which enthralled all his hearers. He spoke a few impressive words as to how ill it became them to add to the burden when the Lord’s hand fell heavily on a brother’s house.

The better sort of lanterns disappeared, and the ordinary ones soon followed; indeed, there was no temptation to remain in the market-place on such a night.

Gradually the crowd broke up, some of them venting their feelings by hammering at the wall as they passed Madame Torvestad’s corner.

Fennefos had seated himself among the Haugians in the sick chamber, and addressed them again.

Henrietta’s death had moved him deeply, and every word he uttered thrilled with emotion and pity, finding its way to all the sorrowing hearts.

All listened. Some wept in silence. Sarah alone sat with half-averted face and unmoved features. Sometimes she turned towards him; but he looked at her as he looked at the others, frankly and openly.

Her deep-set eyes penetrated him, as if with a wail of the deepest despair. Now that she was about to be free, all was lost. Would he not help her?

He would not; not as she wished.

He spoke to them as if he were already far away, and it seemed to them as if they heard the much-loved preacher speaking words of peace from distant lands. After this, he rose, and bid them “Good night” and “Farewell.”

A great and painful surprise ensued. Was he about to leave them again? Would he deprive them of that peace of which he had just been the messenger?

They gathered round him with entreaties and endearments, talked of the storm and of the dreadful weather, adding: “You will hardly find the way, Hans Nilsen, this pitch dark night.”

But he answered them gently, with his mother’s hymn.

  • “For He who stills the tempest
  • And calms the rolling sea,
  • Will lead thy footsteps safely,
  • And smooth a way for thee.”
  • At the door he turned once more, looking affectionately on them all. Coming lastly to Sarah, who stood close by him, he reached out his hand to her for the last farewell. The old innocent friendship of their youth reappeared in his look—at once so kindly and so frank, yet full of sorrow and of heartfelt sympathy.

    When the others followed him out in the passage, Sarah turned back, took a light, and went upstairs. Here she broke down, weeping for poor Henrietta, for herself, and for all the misery around her.

    Nothing remained to her but that bright, pure look, in the remembrance of which her grief lost the hardness which had beset her, and her thoughts reverted to the old times, when she and Fennefos were as brother and sister.

    In this condition a couple of women found her, by the linen closet, weeping; and one said to the other: “See how she loved him!”

    She started up in a confused manner, but quieted herself again when she found that they alluded to her husband.

    Several women who had small children at home now left, as the streets were empty; but the majority of the company preferred to remain in the house all night, in order to watch and pray with poor Skipper Worse, and to be at hand in case of need.

    From time to time one would go across the yard to listen at the door of Madame Torvestad’s apartments, and they were comforted by hearing the voice of the old dyer, which proved that Madame Torvestad had come to herself again.

    At midnight coffee was brought into the room, and they took it in turns to go in and drink a cup, in order to keep awake.

    In the room of the dying man some sat reading good books, or one of them would offer up a prayer for the sufferer, that the Lord might soon release him and mitigate the pangs of death.

    Jacob Worse had been lying perfectly still for a couple of hours, and they could not tell whether he was conscious. Sarah sat by the bedside, and took his hand in hers. It was the first time she had shown anything like spontaneous affection; but it was now too late, he was too far gone to observe it.

    As the night drew on, the tempest abated, and the reading and prayers lessened. All had undergone so much mental fatigue, that weariness asserted itself, now that the storm was on the wane, and the sick man was lying calm and still.

    One and then another fell into a doze; Sivert Jespersen also closed his eyes, but not in sleep. He was busied with calculations.

    The reading now ceased, and all was perfectly silent. Suddenly they all sprang up, for yonder, from his death-bed Jacob Worse cried out:

    “Lauritz, you young scamp, go aloft and clear the dogvane!”

    They hastened to his bedside, bringing lights; pale and terrified, they gazed on the dying man, thinking it was the devil himself who spoke through him.

    Sarah had cast herself down by the bedside in prayer.

    Jacob Worse was completely changed; his glazed eyes were half open, and the look of pain had departed from his face; he seemed to be the self-possessed Skipper Worse of old days. The thick white hair was arranged in seemly order, and his hands lay upon the coverlet as if he had finished something.

    At this, the last moment, the devil had relaxed his hold; and whilst the malady wrestled for the last time with the strong limbs of the dying man, and his brain made its last effort, a crowd of ill-defined recollections and bewildered thoughts whirled past, and a sudden vision brightened the last moments of the sufferer.

    It was the vision of that celebrated return from Rio, the proudest moment of his life.

    He was standing again on the deck of the Hope, a fresh north wind was blowing in the fjord, and the old brig was gliding in under easy sail.

    He opened his eyes, but did not see the wan faces which had gathered around him. He saw the sun shining over Sandsgaard Bay, where the summer ripples hastened towards the shore, with the news that Jacob Worse was in the fjord.

    He tried to raise his head, in order to see the better; but, sinking back upon the pillows, he muttered with a happy and contented smile:

    “We come late, Herr Consul, but we come safely.” And, so saying, old Skipper Worse sailed out of the world.