Home  »  The Rider on the White Horse  »  Paras. 200–299

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

Paras. 200–299

“Don’t blush, Hauke; it was really you whom the dikemaster general praised!”

Hauke looked at her with a half smile. “You too, Elke!” he said.

But she shook her head: “No, Hauke; when I was helper alone, we got no praise. And then, I can only do arithmetic; but you see everything outdoors that the dikemaster is supposed to see for himself. You have cut me out!”

“That isn’t what I intended—least of all you!” said Hauke timidly, and he pushed aside the head of a cow. “Come, Redskin, don’t swallow my pitchfork, you’ll get all you want!”

“Don’t think that I’m sorry, Hauke;” said the girl after thinking a little while; “that really is a man’s business.”

Then Hauke stretched out his arm toward her. “Elke, give me your hand, so that I can be sure.”

Beneath her dark brows a deep crimson flushed the girl’s face. “Why? I’m not lying!” she cried.

Hauke wanted to reply; but she had already left the stable, and he stood with his pitchfork in his hand and heard only the cackling and crowing of the ducks and the hens round her outside.

In the January of Hauke’s third year of service a winter festival was to be held—“Eisboseln” they call it here. The winds had been calm on the coast and steady frost had covered all the ditches between the fens with a solid, even, crystal surface, so that the marked-off strips of land offered a wide field for the throwing at a goal of little wooden balls filled with lead. Day in, day out, a light northeast wind was blowing: everything had been prepared. The people from the higher land, inhabitants of the village that lay eastward above the marshes, who had won last year, had been challenged to a match and had accepted. From either side nine players had been picked. The umpire and the score-keepers had been chosen. The latter, who had to discuss a doubtful throw whenever a difference of opinion came up, were always chosen from among people who knew how to place their own case in the best possible light, preferably young fellows who not only had good common sense but also a ready tongue. Among these was, above all, Ole Peters, the head man of the dikemaster. “Throw away like devils!” he said; “I’ll do the talking for nothing!”

Toward evening on the day before the holiday a number of throwers had appeared in the side room of the parish inn up on the higher land, in order to decide about accepting some men who had applied in the last moment. Hauke Haien was among these. At first he had not wanted to take part, although he was well aware of having arms skilled in throwing; but he was afraid that he might be rejected by Ole Peters who had a post of honor in the game, and he wanted to spare himself this defeat. But Elke had made him change his mind at the eleventh hour. “He won’t dare, Hauke,” she had said; “he is the son of a day laborer; your father has his cow and horse and is the cleverest man in the village.”

“But if he should manage to, after all?”

Half smiling she looked at him with her dark eyes. “Then he’ll get left,” she said, “in the evening, when he wants to dance with his master’s daughter.” Then Hauke had nodded to her with spirit.

Now the young men who still hoped to be taken into the game stood shivering and stamping outside the parish inn and looked up at the top of the stone church tower which stood beside the tavern. The pastor’s pigeons which during the summer found their food on the fields of the village were just returning from the farmyards and barns of the peasants, where they had pecked their grain, and were disappearing into their nests underneath the shingles of the tower. In the west, over the sea, there was a glowing sunset.

“We’ll have good weather to-morrow,” said one of the young fellows, and began to wander up and down excitedly; “but cold—cold.” Another man, when he saw no more pigeons flying, walked into the house and stood listening beside the door of the room in which a lively babble was now sounding. The second man of the dikemaster, too, had stepped up beside him. “Listen, Hauke,” he said to the latter; “now they are making all this noise about you.” And clearly one could hear from inside Ole Peters’s grating voice: “Underlings and boys don’t belong here!”

“Come,” whispered the other man and tried to pull Hauke by his sleeve to the door of the room, “here you can learn how high they value you.”

But Hauke tore himself away and went to the front of the house again: “They haven’t barred us out so that we should hear,” he called back.

Before the house stood the third of the applicants. “I’m afraid there’s a hitch in this business for me,” he called to Hauke; “I’m barely eighteen years old; if they only won’t ask for my birth certificate! Your head man, Hauke, will get you out of your fix, all right!”

“Yes, out!” growled Hauke and kicked a stone across the road; “but not in!”

The noise in the room was growing louder; then gradually there was calm. Those outside could again hear the gentle northeast wind that broke against the point of the church steeple. The man who listened joined them. “Whom did they take in there?” asked the eighteen-year-old one.

“Him!” said the other, and pointed to Hauke; “Ole Peters wanted to make him out as a boy; but the others shouted against it.—‘And his father has cattle and land,’ said Jess Hansen.—‘Yes, land,’ cried Ole Peters, ‘land that one can cart away on thirteen wheelbarrows!’ Last came Ole Hensen: ‘Keep still!’ he cried; ‘I’ll make things clear: tell me, who is the first man in the village?’—Then all kept mum and seemed to be thinking. Then a voice said: ‘I should say it was the dikemaster!’—‘And who is the dikemaster?’ cried Ole Hensen again; ‘but now think twice!’—Then somebody began to laugh quietly, and then someone else too, and so on till there was nothing but loud laughter in the room.—‘Well, then call him,’ said Ole Hensen; ‘you don’t want to keep the dikemaster out in the cold!’—I believe they’re still laughing; but Ole Peters’s voice could not be heard any more!” Thus the young fellow ended his account.

Almost in the same instant the door of the room inside the house was opened suddenly and out into the cold night sounded loud and merry cries of “Hauke! Hauke Haien!”

Then Hauke marched into the house and never could hear the rest of the story of who was the dikemaster; meanwhile no one has found out what was going on in his head.

After a while, when he approached the house of his employers, he saw Elke standing by the fence below, where the ascent began; the moonlight was shimmering over the measureless white frosted pasture.

“You are standing here, Elke?” he asked.

She only nodded: “What happened?” she said; “has he dared?”

“What wouldn’t he—?”

“Well, and—?”

“Yes, Elke; I’m allowed to try it to-morrow!”

“Good night, Hauke!” And she fled up the slope and vanished into the house.

Slowly he followed her.

Next afternoon on the wide pasture that extended in the east along the land side of the dike, one could see a dark crowd. Now it would stand motionless, now move gradually on, down from the long and low houses lying behind it, as soon as a wooden ball had twice shot forth from it over the ground now freed by the bright sun from frost. The teams of the “Eisbosler” were in the middle, surrounded by old and young, by all who lived with them in these houses or up in those of the higher land—the older men in long coats, pensively smoking their short pipes, the women in shawls or jackets, some leading children by the hand or carrying them on their arms. From the frozen ditches, which were being crossed gradually, the pale light of the afternoon sun was gleaming through the sharp points of the sedges. It was keen frost, but the game went on uninterruptedly, and the eyes of all were again and again following the flying ball, for upon it depended the honor of the whole village for the day. The score-keepers of the two sides carried a white stick with an iron point for the home team, a black one of the same kind for the team of the people from the upper land. Where the ball ended its flight, the stick was driven into the frozen ground, accompanied, as it happened, either by silent approval or the derisive laughter of the opposing side; and he whose ball had first reached the goal, had won the game for his team.

Little was said by all these people; only when a capital throw had been made, a cry from the young men or women could be heard; sometimes, too, one of the old men would take his pipe out of his mouth and knock with it on the shoulder of the thrower with a few cheering words: “That was a good throw, said Zacharias, and threw his wife out of the door!” or: “That’s the way your father threw, too; God bless him in eternity!” or some other friendly saying.

Hauke had no luck with his first throw: just as he was swinging his arm backward in order to hurl off the ball, a cloud sailed away which had covered the sun so that now its bright beams shot into his eyes; the throw was too short, the ball fell on a ditch and remained stuck in the ice.

“That doesn’t count! That doesn’t count! Hauke, once more!” called his partners.

But the score-keeper of the people from the high land protested against this: “It’ll have to count; a throw is a throw!”

“Ole! Ole Peters!” cried the young folks of the marshes. “Where is Ole? Where the devil is he?”

But there he was: “Don’t scream so! Does Hauke have to be patched up somewhere? I thought as much.”

“Never mind! Hauke has to throw again; now show that your tongue is good for something!”

“Oh, it is all right!” cried Ole and stepped up to the scorekeeper of the other side and talked a lot of bosh. But the pointedness and sharpness of his usually so scintillating words were absent this time. Beside him stood the girl with the enigmatic eyebrows and looked at him sharply with angry glances; but she was not allowed to talk, for women had no say in the game.

“You are babbling nonsense,” cried the other scorekeeper, “because you can’t use any sense for this! Sun, moon and stars are alike for us all and always in the sky; the throw was awkward, and all awkward throws have to count!”

Thus they talked back and forth a little while, but the end of it was that, according to the decision of the umpire, Hauke was not allowed to repeat his throw.

“Come on!” called the people from the upper land, and their score-keeper pulled the black stick out of the ground, and the thrower came forward when his number was called and hurled the ball ahead. When the head man of the dikemaster wanted to watch the throw, he had to pass Elke Volkerts: “For whose sake have you left your brains at home to-day?” she whispered to him.

Then he looked at her almost grimly, and all joking was gone from his broad face. “For your sake,” he said, “for you have forgotten yours too!”

“Go, go—I know you, Ole Peters!” the girl replied, drawing herself up straight. But he turned his head away and pretended not to have heard.

And the game and the black and white stick went on. When Hauke’s turn to throw came again, his ball flew so far, that the goal, the great whitewashed barrel, came clearly in sight. He was now a solidly built young fellow, and mathematics and the art of throwing he had practised daily in his boyhood. “Why, Hauke!” there were cries from the crowd; “that was just as if the archangel Michael himself had thrown the ball!” An old woman with cake and brandy pushed her way through the crowd toward him; she poured out a glass for him and offered it to him: “Come,” she said, “we want to be friends: this to-day is better than when you killed my cat!” When he looked at her, he recognised her as Trin Jans. “Thank you, old lady,” he said; “but I don’t drink that.” He put his hand into his pocket and pressed a newly minted mark piece into her hand: “Take that and empty your glass yourself, Trin; and so we are friends!”

“You’re right, Hauke!” replied the old woman, while she obeyed his instructions; “you’re right; that’s better for an old woman like me!”

“How are your ducks getting on” he called after her, when she had already started on her way with her basket; but she only shook her head, without turning round, and struck the air with her old hands. “Nothing, nothing, Hauke; there are too many rats in your ditches; God help me, but I’ve got to support myself some other way!” And so she pushed her way into the crowd and again offered her brandy and honey cake.

The sun had at last gone down behind the dike; in his stead rose a red violet glimmer; now and then black crows flew by and for moments looked gilded: evening had come. But on the fens the dark mass of people were moving still farther away from the already distant houses toward the barrel; an especially good throw would have to reach it now. The people of the marshes were having their turn: Hauke was to throw.

The chalky barrel showed white against the broad evening shadow that now fell from the dike across the plain.

“I guess you’ll leave it to us this time,” called one of the people of the upper land, for it was very close; they had the advantage of at least ten feet.

Hauke’s lean figure was just stepping out of the crowd; the grey eyes in his long Frisian face were looking ahead at the barrel; in his hand which hung down he held the ball.

“I suppose the bird is too big for you,” he heard Ole Peters’s grating voice in this instant behind his ears; “shall we exchange it for a grey pot?”

Hauke turned round and looked at him with steady eyes: “I’m throwing for the marshes,” he said. “Where do you belong?”

“I think, I belong there too; I suppose you’re throwing for Elke Volkerts!”

“Go!” shouted Hauke and stood in position again. But Ole pushed his head still nearer to him. Then suddenly, before Hauke could do anything against it himself, a hand clutched the intruder and pulled him back, so that the fellow reeled against his comrades. It was not a large hand that had done it; for when Hauke turned his head round for a moment he saw Elke Volkerts putting her sleeve to rights, and her dark brows looked angry in her heated face.

Now something like steely strength shot into Hauke’s arm; he bent forward a little, rocked the ball a few times in his hand; then he made the throw, and there was dead silence on both sides. All eyes followed the flying ball, one could hear it whizz as it cut the air; suddenly, already far from the starting point, it was covered by the wings of a silver gull that came flying from the dike with a scream. At the same time, however, one could hear something bang from a distance against the barrel.

“Hurrah for Hauke!” called the people from the marshes, and cries went through the crowd: “Hauke! Hauke Haien has won the game!”

He, however, when all were crowding round him, had thrust his hand to one side to seize another; and even when they called again: “Why are you still standing there, Hauke? The ball is in the barrel!”—he only nodded and did not budge from his place. Only when he felt that the little hand lay fast in his, he said: “You may be right; I think myself I have won.”

Then the whole company streamed back and Elke and Hauke were separated and pushed on by the crowd along the road to the inn which ascended from the hill of the dikemaster to the upper land. At this point both escaped the crowd, and while Elke went up to her room, Hauke stood in front of the stable door on the hill and saw how the dark mass of people was gradually wandering up to the parish tavern where a hall was ready for the dancers. Darkness was slowly spreading over the wide land; it was growing calmer and calmer round about, only in the stable behind him the cattle were stirring; from up on the high land he believed that he could already hear the piping of the clarinets in the tavern. Then round the corner of the house he heard the rustling of a dress, and with small steady steps someone was walking along the path that led through the fens up to the high land. Now he discerned the figure walking along in the twilight, and saw that it was Elke; she, too, was going to the dance at the inn. The blood shot up to his neck; shouldn’t he run after her and go with her? But Hauke was no hero with women; pondering over this problem, he remained standing still until she had vanished from his sight in the dark.

Then, when the danger of catching up with her was over, he walked along the same way until he had reached the inn by the church, where the chattering and shouting of the crowds in front of the house and in the hall and the shrill sounds of the violins and clarinets surged round him and bewildered his senses. Unobserved he made his way into the Guildhall; but it was not large and so crowded that he could not look a step ahead of him. Silently he stood by the doorpost and looked into the restless swarm. These people seemed to him like fools; he did not have to worry that anyone was still thinking of the match of this afternoon and about who had won the game only an hour ago; everybody thought only of his girl and spun round with her in a circle. His eyes sought only the one, and at last—there! She was dancing with her cousin, the young dike overseer; but soon he saw her no longer, only other girls from the marshes or the high land who did not concern him. Then suddenly the violins and clarinets broke off, and the dance was over; but immediately another one began. An idea shot through Hauke’s head—he wondered if Elke would keep her word and if she would not dance by him with Ole Peters. He had almost uttered a scream at this thought; then—yes, what should he do then? But she did not seem to be joining in this dance, and at last it was over. Another one followed, however, a two-step which had just come into vogue here. The music started up madly, the young fellows rushed to their girls, the lights flickered along the walls. Hauke strained his neck to recognise the dancers; and there in the third couple, was Ole Peters—but who was his partner? A broad fellow from the marshes stood in front of her and covered her face! But the dance was raging on, and Ole and his partner were turning out of the crowd. “Vollina! Vollina Harders!” cried Hauke almost aloud, and drew a sigh of relief. But where was Elke? Did she have no partner or had she rejected all because she did not want to dance with Ole? And the music broke off again, and a new dance began; but she was not in sight! There came Ole, still with fat Vollina in his arms! “Well, well,” said Hauke; “Jess Harders with his twenty-five acres will soon have to retire too! But where is Elke?”

He left the doorpost and crowded farther into the hall; suddenly he was standing in front of her, as she sat with an older girl friend in a corner. “Hauke!” she called, looking up to him with her narrow face; “are you here? I didn’t see you dance.”

“I didn’t dance,” he replied.

“Why not, Hauke?” and half rising she added: “Do you want to dance with me? I didn’t let Ole Peters do it; he won’t come again!”

But Hauke made no move in this direction: “Thank you, Elke,” he said; “I don’t know how to dance well enough; they might laugh at you; and then—” he stopped short and looked at her with his whole heart in his grey eyes, as if he had to leave it to them to say the rest.

“What do you mean, Hauke?” she said in a low voice.

“I mean, Elke, the day can’t turn out any better for me than it has done already.”

“Yes,” she said, “you have won the game.”

“Elke!” he reproached her almost inaudibly.

Then her face flushed crimson: “Go!” she said; “what do you want?” and she cast down her eyes.

But when Elke’s friend was being drawn away to the dance by a young man, Hauke said louder: “I thought Elke, I had won something better!”

A few seconds longer her eyes searched the floor; then she raised them slowly, and a glance met his so full of the quiet power of her nature that it streamed through him like summer air. “Do as your heart tells you to, Hauke!” she said; “we ought to know each other!”

Elke did not dance any more that evening, and then, when both went home, they walked hand in hand. Stars were gleaming in the sky above the silent marshes; a light east wind was blowing and bringing severe cold with it; but the two walked on, without many shawls or coverings, as if it had suddenly turned spring.

Hauke had set his mind on something the fit use for which lay in the uncertain future; but he had thought of celebrating with it quietly by himself. So the next Sunday he went into the city to the old goldsmith Andersen and ordered a strong gold ring. “Stretch out your finger for me to measure! said the old man and seized his ring-finger. “Well,” he said; “yours isn’t quite so big as they usually are with you people!” But Hauke said: “You had better measure the little finger,” and held that one toward him.

The goldsmith looked at him puzzled; but what did he care about the notions of the young peasant fellows. “I guess we can find one among the girls’ rings” he said, and the blood shot into both of Hauke’s cheeks. But the little gold ring fitted his little finger, and he took it hastily and paid for it with shining silver; then he put it into his waistcoat pocket while his heart beat loudly as if he were performing a ceremony. There he kept it thenceforth every day with restlessness and yet with pride, as if the waistcoat pocket had no other purpose than to carry a ring.

Thus he carried it for over a year—indeed, the ring even had to wander into a new waistcoat pocket; the occasion for its liberation had not yet presented itself. To be sure, it had occurred to him that he might go straight to his master; his own father was, after all, a landholder too. But when he was calmer, he knew very well that the old dikemaster would have laughed at his second man. And so he and the dikemaster’s daughter lived on side by side—she, too, in maidenly silence, and yet both as if they were walking hand in hand.

A year after that winter holiday Ole Peters had left his position and married Vollina Harders. Hauke had been right: the old man had retired, and instead of his fat daughter his brisk son-in-law was riding the brown mare over the fens and, as people said, on his way back always up the dike. Hauke was head man now, and a younger one in his place. To be sure, the dikemaster at first did not want to let him move up. “It’s better he stays what he is,” he had growled; “I need him here with my books.” But Elke had told him: “Then Hauke will go too, father.” So the old man had been scared, and Hauke had been made head man, although he had nevertheless kept on helping the dikemaster with his administration.

But after another year he began to talk with Elke about how his own father’s health was failing and told her that the few days in summer that his master allowed him to help on his father’s farm were not enough; the old man was having a hard time, and he could not see that any more. It was on a summer evening; both stood in the twilight under the great ash tree in front of the house door. For a while the girl looked up silently into the boughs of the tree; then she replied: “I didn’t want to say it, Hauke; I thought you would find the right thing to do for yourself.”

“Then I will have to leave your house,” he said, “and can’t come again.”

They were silent for a while and looked at the sunset light which vanished behind the dike in the sea.

“You must know,” she said; “only this morning I went to see your father and found him asleep in his armchair; his drawing pen was in his hand and the drawing board with a half-finished drawing lay before him on the table. And when he had waked up and talked to me with effort for a quarter of an hour, and I wanted to go, then he held me back by the hand so full of fear, as if he were afraid it was for the last time; but—”

“But what, Elke?” asked Hauke, when she hesitated to go on.

A few tears ran down the girl’s cheeks. “I was only thinking of my father,” she said; “believe me, it will be hard for him to get on without you.” And then added, as if she had to summon her strength for these words: “It often seems to me as if he too were getting ready for death.”

Hauke said nothing; it seemed to him suddenly, as if the ring were stirring in his pocket. But even before he had suppressed his indignation over this involuntary impulse, Elke went on: “No, don’t be angry, Hauke; I trust you won’t leave us anyway.”

Then he eagerly took her hand, and she did not draw it away. For a while the young people stood together in the falling darkness, until their hands slipped apart and each went his way. A gust of wind started and rustled through the leaves of the ash tree and made the shutters rattle on the front of the house; but gradually the night sank down, and quiet lay over the gigantic plain.

Through Elke’s persuasion, the old dikemaster had relieved Hauke of his services, although he had not given notice at the right time, and two new hired men were in the house. A few months later Tede Haien died; but before he died, he called his son to his bedside: “Sit by me, my child;” said the old man with his faint voice, “close by me! You don’t need to be afraid; he who is near me now is only the dark angel of the Lord who comes to call me.”

And his son, deeply affected, sat down close by the dark bed fixed to the wall: “Tell me, father, what you still have to say.”

“Yes, my son, there is still something,” said the old man and stretched out his hands across the quilt. “When, as a half-grown boy, you went to serve the dikemaster, then you had the idea in your head that you wanted to be one yourself some day. That idea I caught from you, and gradually I came to think that you were the right man for it. But your inheritance was too small for such an office. I have lived frugally during your time of service—I planned to increase it,”

Passionately Hauke seized his father’s hands, and the old man tried to sit up, so that he could see him. “Yes, yes, my son,” he said; “there in the uppermost drawer of the chest is a document. You know old Antje Wohlers has a fen of five and a half acres; but she could not get on with the rent alone in her crippled old age; so I have always round Martinmas given the poor soul a certain sum, or more when I could; and for that she gave her fen over to me; it is all legally settled. Now she too is on her deathbed; the disease of our marshes, cancer, has seized her; you won’t have to pay her any more.”

For a while he closed his eyes; then he spoke once more: “It isn’t much; but you’ll have more then than you were accustomed to with me. May it serve you well in your life on earth!”

With his son’s words of thanks in his ears, the old man fell asleep. He had no more cares: and after a few days the dark angel of the Lord had closed his eyes forever, and Hauke received his inheritance.

The day after the funeral Elke came into his house. “Thanks for looking in, Elke,” Hauke greeted her.

But she replied: “I’m not looking in; I want to put things in order a little, so that you can live decently in your house. Your father with all his figures and drawings didn’t look round much, and the death too makes confusion. I want to make things a little livable for you.”

His grey eyes looked full of confidence upon her. “All right, put things in order!” he said; “I like it better that way too.”

And then she began to clear up: the drawing board, which was still lying there, was dusted and carried up to the attic, drawing pens and pencil and chalk were locked away carefully in a drawer of the chest; then the young servant girl was called in to help and the furniture was put into different and better positions in the room, so that it seemed as if it now had grown lighter and bigger. Smiling, Elke said: “Only we women can do that,” and Hauke in spite of his mourning for his father, had watched her with happy eyes, and, where there was need for it, had helped too.

And when toward dusk—it was in the beginning of September—everything was just as she wanted it for him, she took his hand and nodded to him with her dark eyes: “Now come and have supper with us; for I had to promise my father to bring you; then when you go home, you can enter your house in peace.”

Then when they came into the spacious living-room of the dikemaster, where the shutters were already closed and the two candles burning on the table, the latter wanted to rise from his armchair, but his heavy body sank back and he only called to his former man: “That’s right, that’s right, Hauke, that you’ve come to see your old friends. Come nearer, still nearer.” And when Hauke had stepped up to his chair, he took his hand into both of his own: “Now, now, my boy,” he said, “be calm now, for we all must die, and your father was none of the worst. But Elke, now see that the roast gets on to the table; we have to get strength. There’s a great deal of work for us, Hauke! The fall inspection is coming; there’s a pile of dike and sluice bills as high as the house; the damage to the dike of the western enclosure the other day—I don’t know where my head is, but yours, thank God, is a good bit younger; you’re a good boy, Hauke.”

And after this long speech, with which the old man had laid bare his whole heart, he let himself drop back into his chair and blinked longingly toward the door, through which Elke was just coming in with the roast on the platter. Hauke stood smiling beside him. “Now sit down,” said the dikemaster, “so that we won’t lose time for nothing; that doesn’t taste well cold.”

And Hauke sat down; it seemed to be taken for granted that he should help to do the work of Elke’s father. And when the fall inspection had come and a few more months of the year were gone, he had indeed done the greatest part of the work.

The story-teller stopped and looked round. The scream of a gull had knocked against the window, and out in the hall one could hear a stamping of feet, as if someone were taking the clay off his heavy boots.

The dikemaster and the overseers turned their heads toward the door of the room. “What is it?” called the first.