Home  »  The Rider on the White Horse  »  Paras. 100–199

Theodor Storm (1817–1888). The Rider on the White Horse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Paras. 100–199

He did not know what to do with the howling woman.

She nodded at him grimly. “Yes, yes, God knows, that’s what he has done,” and she wiped the tears from her eyes with her hand, crippled by rheumatism. “No child, no live thing any more!” she complained. “And you know yourself how it is after All Saints’ Day, when we old people feel our legs shiver at night in bed, and instead of sleeping we hear the northwest wind rattle against the shutters. I don’t like to hear it. Tede Haien, it comes from where my boy sank to death in the quicksand!”

Tede Haien nodded, and the old woman stroked the fur of her dead cat. “But this one here,” she began again, “when I would sit by my spinning-wheel, there she would sit with me and spin too and look at me with her green eyes! And when I grew cold and crept into my bed—then it wasn’t long before she jumped up to me and lay down on my chilly legs, and we both slept as warmly together as if I still had my young sweetheart in bed!”

The old woman, as if she were waiting for his assent to this remembrance, looked with her gleaming eyes at the old man standing beside her at the table. Tede Haien, however, said thoughtfully: “I know a way out for you, Trin Jans,” and he went to his strong box and took a silver coin out of the drawer. “You say that Hauke has robbed your animal of life, and I know you don’t lie; but here is a crown piece from the time of Christian IV; go and buy a tanned lamb-skin with it for your cold legs! And when our cat has kittens, you may pick out the biggest of them; both together, I suppose, will make up for an Angora cat feeble from old age! Take your beast and, if you want to, take it to the tanner in town, but keep your mouth shut and don’t tell that it has lain on my honest table.”

During this speech the woman had already snatched the crown and stowed it away in a little bag that she carried under her skirts, then she tucked the cat back into the pillowcase, wiped the bloodstains from the table with her apron, and stalked out of the door. “Don’t you forget the young cat!” she called back.

After a while, when old Haien was walking up and down in the narrow little room, Hauke stepped in and tossed his bright bird on to the table. But when he saw the still recognizable bloodstain on the clean white top, he asked as if by the way: “What’s that?”

His father stood still. “That’s blood that you have spilled!”

The young man flushed hotly. “Why, has Trin Jans been here with her cat?”

The old man nodded: “Why did you kill it?”

Hauke uncovered his bleeding arm. “That’s why,” he said. “She had torn my bird away from me!”

Thereupon the old man said nothing. For a time he began to walk up and down, then he stood still in front of the young man and looked at him for a while almost absently.

“This affair with the cat I have made all right,” he said, “but look, Hauke, this place is too small; two people can’t stay on it—it is time you got a job!”

“Yes, father,” replied Hauke; “I have been thinking something of the sort myself.”

“Why?” asked the old man.

“Well, one gets wild inside unless one can let it out on a decent piece of work!”

“Is that so?” said the old man, “and that’s why you have killed the Angora cat? That might easily lead to something worse!”

“You may be right, father, but the dikemaster has discharged his farmhand; I could do that work all right!”

The old man began to walk up and down, and meanwhile spat out the black tobacco. “The dikemaster is a blockhead, as stupid as a goose! He is dikemaster only because his father and grandfather have been the same, and on account of his twenty-nine fens. Round Martinmas, when the dike and sluice bills have to be settled, then he feeds the schoolmaster on roast goose and mead and wheat buns, and sits by and nods while the other man runs down the columns of figures with his pen, and says: ‘Yes, yes, schoolmaster, God reward you! How finely you calculate!’ But when the schoolmaster can’t or won’t, then he has to go at it himself and sits scribbling and striking out again, his big stupid head growing red and hot, his eyes bulging out like glass balls, as if his little bit of sense wanted to get out that way.”

The young man stood up straight in front of his father and marveled at his talking; he had never heard him speak like that. “Yes, God knows,” he said, “no doubt he is stupid, but his daughter Elke, she can calculate!”

The old man looked at him sharply.

“Hallo, Hauke,” he exclaimed “what do you know about Elke Volkerts?”

“Nothing, father; only the schoolmaster has told me?”

The old man made no reply; he only pushed his piece of tobacco thoughtfully from one cheek into the other. “And you think,” he said, “that you can help in the counting there too.”

“Oh, yes, father, that would work all right,” the son replied, and there was a serious twitching about his mouth.

The old man shook his head: “Well, go if you like; go and try your luck!”

“Thanks, father!” said Hauke, and climbed up to his sleeping place in the garret. There he sat down on the edge of the bed and pondered why his father had shouted at him so when he had mentioned Elke Volkerts. To be sure, he knew the slender, eighteen-year-old girl with the tanned, narrow face and the dark eyebrows that ran into each other over the stubborn eyes and the slender nose; but he had scarcely spoken a word to her. Now, if he should go to old Tede Volkerts, he would look at her more and see what there was about the girl. Right off he wanted to go, so that no one else could snatch the position away from him—it was now scarcely evening. And so he put on his Sunday coat and his best boots and started out in good spirits.

The long rambling house of the dikemaster was visible from afar because of the high mound on which it stood, and especially because of the highest tree in the village, a mighty ash. The grandfather of the present dikemaster, the first of the line, had in his youth planted an ash to the east of the house door; but the first two had died, and so he had planted a third on his wedding morning, which was still murmuring as if of old times in the increasing wind with its crown of foliage that was growing mightier and mightier.

When, after a while, tall, lank Hauke climbed up the hill which was planted on both sides with beets and cabbage, he saw the daughter of the owner standing beside the low house door. One of her somewhat thin arms was hanging down languidly, the other seemed to be grasping behind her back at one of the iron rings which were fastened to the wall on either side of the door, so that anyone who rode to the house could use them to hitch his horse. From there the young girl seemed to be gazing over the dike at the sea, where on this calm evening the sun was just sinking into the water and at the same time gilding the dark-skinned maiden with its last golden glow.

Hauke climbed up the hill a little more slowly, and thought to himself: “She doesn’t look so dull this way!” Then he was at the top. “Good evening to you!” he said, stepping up to her. “What are you looking at with your big eyes, Miss Elke?”

“I’m looking,” she replied, “at something that goes on here every night, but can’t be seen here every night.” She let the ring drop from her hand, so that it fell against the wall with a clang. “What do you want, Hauke Haien?” she asked.

“Something that I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Your father has just discharged his hired man; so I thought I would take a job with you.”

She glanced at him, up and down: “You are still rather lanky, Hauke!” she said, “but two steady eyes serve us better than two steady arms!” At the same time she looked at him almost sombrely, but Hauke bravely withstood her gaze. “Come on, then,” she continued. “The master is in his room; let’s go inside.”

The next day Tede Haien stepped with his son into the spacious room of the dikemaster. The walls were covered with glazed tiles on which the visitor could enjoy her a ship with sails unfurled or an angler on the shore, there a cow that lay chewing in front of a peasant’s house. This durable wall-covering was interrupted by an alcove-bed with doors now closed, and a cupboard which showed all kinds of china and silver dishes through glass doors. Beside the door to the “best room” a Dutch clock was set into the wall behind a pane of glass.

The stout, somewhat apoplectic master of the house sat at the end of the well-scrubbed, shining table in an armchair with a bright-coloured cushion. He had folded his hands across his stomach, and was staring contentedly with his round eyes at the skeleton of a fat duck; knife and fork were resting in front of him on his plate.

“Good day, dikemaster!” said Haien, and the gentleman thus addressed slowly turned his head and eyes toward him.

“You here, Tede?” he replied, and the devoured fat duck had left its mark on his voice. “Sit down; it is quite a walk from your place over here!”

“I have come, dikemaster,” said Tede Haien, while he sat down opposite the other in a corner on the bench that ran along the wall. “You have had trouble with your hired man and have agreed with my boy to put him in his place!”

The dikemaster nodded: “Yes, yes, Tede; but—what do you mean by trouble? We people of the marshes, thank goodness, have something to take against troubles!”—and he took the knife before him and patted the skeleton of the poor duck almost affectionately. “This was my pet bird,” he added laughing smugly; “he fed out of my hand!”

“I thought,” said old Haien, not hearing the last remark, “the boy had done harm in your stable.”

“Harm? Yes, Tede; surely harm enough! That fat clown hadn’t watered the calves; but he lay drunk on the hayloft, and the beasts bellowed all night with thirst, so that I had to make up my lost sleep till noon; that’s not the way a farm can go on!”

“No, dikemaster; but there is no danger of that happening with my boy.”

Hauke stood, his hands in his pockets, by the door-post, and had thrown back his head and was studying the window frames opposite him.

The dikemaster had raised his eyes and nodded toward him: “No, no, Tede,”—and now he nodded at the old man too; “your Hauke won’t disturb my night’s rest; the schoolmaster has told me before that he would rather sit with his slate and do arithmetic than with a glass of whiskey.”

Hauke did not hear this encouragement, for Elke had stepped into the room and with her light hand took out the remnants from the table, meanwhile glancing at him carelessly with her dark eyes. Then his glances fell on her too. “By my faith,” he said to himself, “she doesn’t look so dull now either!”

The girl had left the room. “You know, Tede,” the dikemaster began again, “the Lord has not granted me a son!”

“Yes, dikemaster, but don’t let that worry you,” replied the other, “for they say that in the third generation the brains of a family run out; your grandfather, we all remember, was a man who protected the land!”

The dikemaster, after some pondering, looked quite puzzled: “How do you mean, Tede Haien?” he said and sat up in his armchair; “I am in the third generation myself!”

“Oh, indeed! Never mind, dikemaster; that’s just what people say!” And the lean Tede Haien looked at the old dignitary with rather mischievous eyes.

The latter, however, spoke unconcerned: “You mustn’t let old women get nonsense like that into your head, Tede Haien; you don’t know my daughter yet—she can calculate three times better than I can! I only wanted to say, your Hauke will be able to make some profit outside of his field work in my room with pen and pencil, and that will do him no harm.”

“Yes, yes, dikemaster, he can do that; there you are perfectly right;” said old Haien and then began to demand some privileges with the contract which his son had not thought of the night before. For instance, the latter should receive, besides his linen shirts, eight pair of woollen stockings in addition to his wages; also he wanted to have his son’s help at his own work for eight days in spring—and more of the sort. But the dikemaster agreed to everything; Hauke Haien appeared to him just the right servant.

“Well, God help you, my boy,” said the old man, when they had just left the house, “if that man is to make the world clear to you!”

But Hauke replied calmly: “Never mind, father; everything will turn out all right.”

Hauke had not been wrong in his judgment. The world, or what the world meant to him, grew clearer to his mind, the longer he stayed in this house—perhaps all the more, the less he was helped by a wiser insight and the more, he had to depend on his own powers with which he had from the beginning helped himself. There was someone in the house, however, whom he did not seem to suit; that was Ole Peters, the head man, a good worker and a great talker. The former lazy and stupid but stocky hired man had been more to his liking, whose back he could load calmly with a barrel of oats and whom he could knock about to his heart’s content. Hauke, who was still more silent, but who surpassed him mentally, he could not treat in the same way; Hauke had too strange a way of looking at him. Nevertheless he managed to pick out tasks which might have been dangerous for the young man’s yet undeveloped body; and when the head man would say: “You ought to have seen fat Nick, he could do it without any trouble at all,” then Hauke would work with all his might and finish the task, although with difficulty. It was lucky for him that Elke usually could hinder this, either by herself or through her father. One may ask what it is that binds people who are complete strangers to each other; perhaps—well, they were both born arithmeticians, and the girl could not bear to see her comrade ruined by rough work.

The conflict between head man and second man did not grow less when after Martinmas the different dike bills came in for revision.

It happened on a May evening, but the weather was like November; inside the house one could hear the surf roar outside from behind the dike.

“Hey, Hauke,” said the master of the house, “come in; now is your chance to show if you can do arithmetic!”

“Master,” Hauke replied; “I’m supposed to feed the young cattle first.”

“Elke!” called the dikemaster; “where are you, Elke? Go and tell Ole to feed the young cattle; I want Hauke to calculate!”

So Elke hurried into the stable and gave the order to the head man who was just busy hanging the harness used during the day back in place.

Ole Peters whipped the post beside which he had been busying himself with a bridle, as if he wanted to beat it to pieces: “The devil take that cursed scribbler!”

She heard these words even before she had closed the stable door again.

“Well?” asked the old man, as she stepped into the room.

“Ole was willing to do it,” said his daughter, biting her lips a little, and sat down opposite Hauke on one of the roughly carved chairs which in those days were still made at home on winter evenings. Out of a drawer she had taken a white stocking with a red bird pattern on it, which she was now knitting; the long-legged creatures might have represented herons or storks. Hauke sat opposite her, deep in his arithmetic; the dikemaster himself rested in his armchair and blinked sleepily at Hauke’s pen. On the table, as always in the house of the dikemaster, two tallow candles were burning, and behind the windows with their leaden frames the shutters were closed and fastened from within; now the wind could bang against them as hard as it liked. Once in a while Hauke raised his head and glanced for a moment at the bird stockings or at the narrow, calm face of the girl.

Suddenly from the armchair there rose a loud snore, and a glance and smile flew back and forth between the two young people; gradually the breathing grew more quiet, and one could easily talk a little—only Hauke did not know about what.

But when she raised her knitting and the birds appeared in their whole length, he whispered across the table: “Where have you learned that, Elke?”

“Learned what?” the girl returned.

“This bird knitting?” said Hauke.

“This? From Trin Jans out there on the dike; she can do all sorts of things. She was servant here to my grandfather a long time ago.”

“At that time I don’t suppose you were born?” said Hauke.

“I think not; but she has often come to the house since then.”

“Does she like birds?” asked Hauke; “I thought only cats were for her.”

Elke shook her head: “Why, she raises ducks and sells them; but last spring, when you had killed her Angora cat, the rats got into the pen at the back of the house and made mischief; now she wants to build herself another in front of the house.”

“Is that so?” said Hauke and whistled low through his teeth, “that’s why she dragged mud and stones from the upper land. But then she will get on to the inland road; has she a grant?”

“I don’t know,” said Elke. But he had spoken the last word so loud that the dikemaster started out of his slumber.

“What grant?” he asked and looked almost wildly from one to the other. “What about the grant?”

But when Hauke had explained the matter to him, he slapped the young man’s shoulder, laughing: “Oh, well, the inland road is broad enough; God help the dikemaster if he has to worry about duck pens!”

It weighed on Hauke’s heart that he should have delivered the old woman and her ducks over to the rats, but he allowed himself to be quieted by this objection. “But, master,” he began again, “it might be good for some people to be prodded a little, and if you don’t want to go after them yourself, why don’t you prod the overseers who ought to look out for order on the dike?”

“How—what is the boy saying?” and the dikemaster sat up straight, and Elke let her fancy stocking sink down and turned an ear toward Hauke.

“Yes, master,” Hauke went on, “you have already gone round on your spring inspection; but just the same Peter Jansen hasn’t weeded his lot to this day; and in summer the goldfinches will play round the red thistles as gaily as ever. And near by—I don’t know to whom it belongs—there is a hole like a cradle on the outer side of the dike; when the weather is good it is always full of little children that roll in it; but—God save us from high water!”

The eyes of the old dikemaster had grown bigger and bigger.

“And then—”said Hauke again.

“Then what more, boy?” asked the dikemaster; “haven’t you finished yet?” and it seemed as if he had already had too much of his second man’s speech.

“Yes; then, master,” Hauke went on; “you know that fat Vollina, the daughter of the overseer Harder, who always fetches her father’s horse from the fen—well, as soon as she sits with her round legs on the old yellow mare—Get up!—why, then every time she goes diagonally up the slope of the dike!”

Hauke did not notice until now that Elke had fixed her intelligent eyes on him and was gently shaking her head.

He was silent, but a bang on the table from the old man’s fist thundered in his ears. “Confound it!” he cried, and Hauke was almost frightened by the bear’s voice that suddenly broke out: “to the fens! Note down that fat creature in the fens, Hauke! That girl caught three of my young ducks last summer! Yes, yes, put it down,” he repeated, when Hauke hesitated; “I even believe there were four!”

“Oh, father,” said Elke, “wasn’t it an otter that took the ducks?”

“A big otter!” cried the old man, panting; I guess I can tell the fat Vollina and an otter apart! No, no, four ducks, Hauke—but as for the rest of what you have been chattering—last spring the dikemaster general and I, after we had breakfasted together at my house, drove by your weeds and your cradle-hole and yet couldn’t see anything. But you two,” and he nodded a few times significantly at Hauke and his daughter, “you can thank God that you are no dikemaster! Two eyes are all one has, and one is supposed to look with a hundred. Take the bills for the straw coverings, Hauke, and look them over; those rascals do keep their accounts in such a shiftless way!”

Then he leaned back in his chair again, moved his heavy body a few times and soon gave himself over to care-free slumber.

The same thing was repeated on many an evening. Hauke had sharp eyes, and when they sat together, he did not neglect to call the old man’s attention to one or the other violation or omission in dike matters, and as the latter could not always keep his eyes closed, unawares the management acquired a greater efficiency and those who in other times had gone on sinning in their old, careless ways and now, as it were, unexpectedly felt their mischievous or lazy fingers slapped, looked round indignantly and with astonishment to see whence these slaps had come. And Ole, the head man, did not hesitate to spread the information and in this way to rouse indignation among these people against Hauke and his father, who had to bear part of the guilt. The others, however, who were not affected or who were not concerned with the matter, laughed and rejoiced to see that the young man had at last got the old man going a bit. “It’s only too bad,” they said, “that the young fellow hasn’t enough ground under his feet; else he might make a dikemaster of the kind we used to have—but those few acres of his old man wouldn’t do, after all!”

Next autumn, when the inspector and the dikemaster general came for the inspection, he looked at old Tede Volkerts from top to toe, while the latter was urging him to sit down to lunch.

“I tell you, dikemaster,” he said, “I was thinking—you have actually grown ten years younger. You have set my blood coursing with all your proposals; if only we can get down with all that to-day!”

“Oh, we shall, we shall, your Honor,” replied the old man with a smirk; “the roast goose over there will give us strength! Yes, thank God, I am still always well and brisk!” He looked round the room to make sure that Hauke was not about; then he added with calm dignity: “And so I hope I may fulfill the duties of my office a few more blessed years.”

“And to this, my dear dikemaster,” returned his superior, “we want to drink this glass together.”

Elke who had looked after the lunch laughed to herself as she left the room just when the glasses were clicking. Then she took a dish of scraps from the kitchen and walked through the stable to give them to the poultry in front of the outside door. In the stable stood Hauke Haien and with his pitch-fork put hay into the racks of the cows that had to be brought up here so early because of the bad weather. But when he saw the girl come, he stuck the pitchfork into the ground. “Well, Elke!” he said.

She stood still and nodded at him: “All right, Hauke—but you should have been in there!”

“Do you think so? Why, Elke?”

“The dikemaster general has praised the master!”

“The master? What has that to do with me?”

“No, I mean, he has praised the dikemaster!”

The young man’s face was flushed crimson: “I know very well,” he said, “what you are driving at.”