Home  »  The Rider on the White Horse  »  Paras. 300–399

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

Paras. 300–399

A strong man with a southwester on his head had stepped in.

“Sir,” he said, “we both have seen it—Hans Nickels and I: the rider on the white horse has thrown himself into the breach.”

“Where did you see that?” asked the dikemaster.

“There is only the one break; in Jansen’s fen, where the Hauke-Haienland begins.”

“Did you see it only once?”

“Only once; it was only like a shadow, but that doesn’t mean that this was the first time it happened.”

The dikemaster had risen. “You must excuse me,” he said, turning to me, “we have to go out and see what this calamity is leading to.” Then he left the room with the messenger; the rest of the company too rose and followed him.

I stayed alone with the schoolmaster in the large deserted room; through the curtainless windows, which were now no longer covered by the backs of the guests sitting in front of them, one could have a free view and see how the wind was chasing the dark clouds across the sky.

The old man remained on his seat, with a superior, almost pitying smile on his lips. “It is too empty here now,” he said; “may I invite you to my room? I live in this house; and believe me, I know every kind of weather here by the dike—there is nothing for us to fear.”

This invitation I accepted with thanks, for I too began to feel chilly, and so we took a light and climbed up the stairs to a room under the gables; there the windows also looked toward the west, but they were covered by woollen rugs. In a bookcase I saw a small library, beside it portraits of two old professors; before a table stood a great high armchair. “Make yourself comfortable,” said my pleasant host and threw some pieces of peat into the still faintly glowing stove, which was crowned by a tin kettle on top. “Only wait a little while! The fire will soon roar; then I’ll mix you a little glass of grog—that’ll keep you awake!”

“I don’t need that,” I said; “I won’t grow sleepy, when I accompany your Hauke upon his life-journey!”

“Do you think so?” and he nodded toward me with his keen eyes, after I had been comfortably settled in his armchair.

Well, where did we leave off? Yes, yes; I know. Well, Hauke had received his inheritance, and as old Antje Wohlers, too, had died of her ailment, his property was increased by her fen. But since the death, or rather, since the last words of his father, something had sprung up within him, the seed of which he had carried in his heart since his boy-hood; he repeated to himself more often than enough that he was the right man for the post if there had to be a new dikemaster. That was it; his father, who had to know, who was the cleverest man in the village, had added his word, like a last gift to his heritage. The fen of the Wohlers woman, for which he had to thank his father too, should be the first stepping-stone to this height. For, to be sure, even with this—a dikemaster had to be able to show more real estate! But his father had got on frugally through his lonely years; and with what he had saved he had made himself owner of new property. This Hauke could do too, and even more; for his father’s strength had already been spent, but he could do the hardest work for years. To be sure, even if he should succeed along this line—on account of the sharp methods he had brought into the administration of his old employer, he had made no friends in the village, and Ole Peters, his old antagonist, had just inherited property and was beginning to be a well-to-do man. A row of faces passed before his inner vision, and they all looked at him with hostile eyes. Then a rage against these people seized him: he stretched out his arms as if he would clutch them, for they wanted to push him from the office for which he alone, of all, was destined. These thoughts did not leave him; they were always there again, and so in his young heart there grew beside honor and love, also ambition and hate. But these two he locked up deep within him; even Elke surmised nothing of them.

When the new year had come, there was a wedding; the bride was a relative of the Haiens, and Hauke and Elke were both invited. Indeed, at the wedding dinner it happened that, because a nearer relative was absent, they found themselves seated side by side. Their joy about this was betrayed only by a smile that flitted over the face of each. But Elke to-day sat with indifference in the midst of the noise of chattering and the click of the glasses.

“Is something ailing you?” asked Hauke.

“Oh, really nothing; only there are too many people here for me.”

“But you look so sad!”

She shook her head; then again she said nothing.

Then something like jealousy rose within him on account of her silence, and secretly, under the overhanging table-cloth, he seized her hand. She did not draw it away, but clasped it, as if full of confidence, round his. Had a feeling of loneliness come over her, as she had to watch the failing body of her father every day? Hauke did not think of asking her this; but his breathing stopped, as he pulled the gold ring from his pocket. “Will you let it stay?” he asked trembling, while he pushed the ring on the ring-finger of the slender hand.

Opposite them at the table sat the pastor’s wife; she suddenly laid down her fork and turned to her neighbor: “My faith, look at that girl!” she cried; “she is turning deadly pale!”

But the blood was returning into Elke’s face. “Can you wait, Hauke?” she asked in a low voice.

Clever Frisian though he was, he nevertheless had to stop and think a few seconds. “For what?” he asked then.

“You know perfectly well; I don’t need to tell you.”

“You are right,” he said; “yes, Elke, I can wait—if it’s within a human limit.”

“Oh, God, I’m afraid, a very near one! Don’t talk like that, Hauke; you are speaking of my father’s death!” She laid her other hand on her breast; “Till then,” she said, “I shall wear the gold ring here; you shan’t be afraid of getting it back in my lifetime!”

Then both smiled, and their hands pressed each other so tightly that on other occasions the girl would have cried out aloud.

The pastor’s wife meanwhile had looked incessantly at Elke’s eyes, which were now glowing like dark fire under the lace fringe of her little gold brocade cap. But in the growing noise at the table she had not understood a word; neither did she turn to her partner again, for she was accustomed not to disturb budding marriages—and this seemed to be such a case—if only for the sake of the promise of the wedding-fee for her husband, who did the marrying.

Elke’s presentiment had come true; one morning after Easter the dikemaster Tede Volkerts had been found dead in his bed. When one looked at his face, one could see written upon it that his end had been calm. In the last months he had often expressed a weariness of life; his favorite roast, even his ducks, wouldn’t please him any more.

And now there was a great funeral in the village. Up on the high land in the burying-ground round the church there was on the western side a burial-place surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Upright against a weeping willow stood a broad blue tombstone upon which was hewn the image of death with many teeth in the skeleton jaws; beneath it one could read in large letters:

  • “Ah, death all earthly things devours,
  • Takes art and knowledge that was ours;
  • The mortal man at rest here lies—
  • God give, that blesséd he may rise.”
  • It was the burial-place of the former dikemaster Volkert Tedsen; now a new grave had been dug in which his son, Tede Volkerts, was to be buried. And now the funeral procession was coming up from the marshes, a multitude of carriages from all parish villages. Upon the first one stood the heavy coffin, and the two shining black horses of the dikemaster’s stable drew it up the sandy hill to the high land; their tails and manes were waving in the sharp spring breeze. The graveyard round the church was filled with people up to the ramparts; even on the walled gate boys were perching with little children in their arms; all wanted to see the burying.

    In the house down in the marshes Elke had prepared the funeral meal in the best parlour and the living-room. Old wine was set on the table in front of the plates; by the plate of the dikemaster general—for he, too, was not missing to-day—and of the pastor there was a bottle of “Langkork” for each. When everything was ready, she went through the stable in front of the yard door; she met no one on the way, for the hired men were at the funeral with two carriages. Here she stood still and while her mourning clothes were waving in the spring wind, she watched the last carriages down in the village drive up to the church. There after a while a great turmoil appeared, which seemed to be followed by a deadly silence. Elke folded her hands; now they must be letting the coffin into the grave: “And to dust thou shalt return!” Inevitably, in a low voice, as if she could have heard them from up here, she repeated the words. Then her eyes filled with tears, her hands folded across her breast sank into her lap. “Our Father, who art in heaven!” she prayed ardently. And when the Lord’s prayer was finished, she stood a long time motionless—she, now the mistress of this great marsh farm; and thoughts of death and of life began to struggle within her.

    A distant rumbling waked her. When she opened her eyes, she again saw one carriage after another drive rapidly down from the marshes and up to her farm. She straightened herself, looked ahead sharply once more and then went back, as she had come, through the stable into the solemnly ordered living-rooms. Here too there was nobody; only through the wall could she hear the bustle of the maids in the kitchen. The festive board looked so quiet and deserted; the mirror between the windows had been covered with white scarfs, and likewise the brass knobs of the stove; there was nothing bright any more in the room. Elke saw that the doors of the alcove-bed, in which her father had slept his last sleep were open and she went up and closed them fast. Almost absently she read the proverb that was written on them in golden letters between roses and carnations:

  • “If thou thy day’s work dost aright,
  • Then sleep comes by itself at night.”
  • That was from her grandfather! She cast a glance at the sideboard; it was almost empty. But through the glass doors she could still see the cut-glass goblet which her father, as he used to tell with relish, had once won as a prize when riding the ring in his youth. She took it out and set it in front of the dikemaster general’s plate. Then she went to the window, for already she heard the carriages drive up the hill; one after the other they stopped in front of her house, and, more briskly than they had come, the guests leaped from their seats to the ground. Rubbing their hands and chattering, all crowded into the room; it was not long before they sat down at the festive board, where the well-prepared dishes were steaming—in the best parlor the dikemaster general and the pastor. And noise and loud talking ran along the table, as if death had never spread its awful stillness here. Silent, with her eyes upon her guests, Elke walked round the tables with her maids, to see that nothing was missing at the funeral meal. Hauke Haien, too, sat in the living-room with Ole Peters and other small landowners.

    When the meal was over, the white pipes were taken out of the corner and lighted, and Elke was again busy offering the filled coffee cups to her guests; for there was no economy in coffee, either, on this day. In the living-room, at the desk of the man just buried, the dikemaster general stood talking with the pastor and the white-haired dike overseer Jewe Manners.

    “Well, gentlemen,” said the former; “we have buried the old dikemaster with honor; but where shall we get the new one? I think, Manners, you will have to make up your mind to accept this dignity.”

    Old Manners smiled and lifted his little black velvet cap from his white hair: “Mr. Dikemaster General,” he said, “the game would be too short then; when the deceased Tede Volkers was made dikemaster I was made overseer and have been now for forty years.”

    “That is no defect, Manners; then you know the affairs all the better and won’t have any trouble with them.”

    But the old man shook his head: “No, no, your Honor, leave me where I am, then I can run along with the rest for a few years longer.”

    The pastor agreed with him: “Why not give the office,” he said, “to the man who has actually managed the affairs in the last years?”

    The dikemaster general looked at him: “I don’t understand you, pastor!”

    But the pastor pointed with his finger to the best parlor, where Hauke in a slow serious manner seemed to be explaining something to two older people. “There he stands,” he said; “the long Frisian over there with the keen grey eyes, the bony nose and the high, projecting forehead. He was the old man’s hired man and now has his own little place; to be sure, he is rather young.”

    “He seems to be about thirty,” said the dikemaster general, inspecting the man thus presented to him.

    “He is scarcely twenty-four,” remarked the overseer Manners; “but the pastor is right: all the good work that has been done with dikes and sluices and the like in the last years through the office of dikemaster has been due to him; the old man couldn’t do much toward the end.”

    “Indeed?” said the dikemaster general; “and you think, he would be the right man to move up into the office of his old master?”

    “He would be absolutely the right man,” replied Jewe Manners; “but he lacks what they call here ‘clay under one’s feet;’ his father had about fifteen, he may well have twenty acres; but with that nobody has yet been made dikemaster.”

    The pastor had already opened his mouth, as if he wanted to object, when Elke Volkers, who had been in the room for a while, spoke to them suddenly: “Will your Honor allow me a word?” she said to the dikemaster general; “I am speaking only to prevent a mistake from turning into a wrong.”

    “Then speak, Miss Elke,” he replied; “wisdom always sounds well from the lips of pretty girls.”

    “It isn’t wisdom, your Honor; I only want to tell the truth.”

    “That too one must be able to hear, Miss Elke.”

    The girl let her dark eyes glance sideways, as if she wanted to make sure that there were no superfluous ears about: “Your Honor,” she began then, and her breast heaved with a stronger motion, “my godfather, Jewe Manners, told you that Hauke Haien owned only about twenty acres; that is quite true in this moment, but as soon as it will be necessary, Hauke will call his own just so many more acres as my father’s, now my own farm, contains. All that together ought to be enough for a dikemaster.”

    Old Manners stretched his white head toward her, as if he had to see who was talking there: “What is that?” he said; “child, what are you talking about?”

    But Elke pulled a gleaming gold ring on a black ribbon out of her bodice: “I am engaged, godfather Manners,” she said; “here is my ring, and Hauke Haien is my betrothed.”

    “And when—I think I may ask that, as I held you at your baptism, Elke Volkerts—when did that happen?”

    “That happened some time ago; but I was of age, godfather Manners,” she said; “my father’s health had already fallen off, and as I knew him, I thought I had better not get him excited over this; now that he is with God, he will see that his child is in safekeeping with this man. I should have kept still about it through the year of mourning; but for the sake of Hauke and of the diked-in land, I had to speak.” And turning to the dikemaster general, she added: “Your Honor will please forgive me.”

    The three men looked at one another; the pastor laughed, the old overseer limited himself to a “hm, hm!” while the dikemaster general rubbed his forehead as if he were about to make an important decision. “Yes, dear miss,” he said at last, “but how about marriage property rights here in this district? I must confess I am not very well versed in these things at this moment in all this confusion.”

    “You don’t need to be, your Honor,” replied the daughter of the dikemaster, “before my wedding I shall make my goods over to my betrothed. I have my little pride too,” she added smiling; “I want to marry the richest man in the village.”

    “Well, Manners,” said the pastor, “I think you, as godfather, won’t mind if I join the young dikemaster with the old one’s daughter!”

    The old man shook his head gently: “Our Lord give His blessing!” he said devoutly.

    But the dikemaster general gave the girl his hand: “You have spoken truly and wisely, Elke Volkerts; I thank you for your firm explanations and hope to be a guest in your house in the future, too, on happier occasions than today. But that a dikemaster should have been made by such a young lady—that is the wonderful part of this story!”

    “Your Honor,” replied Elke and looked at the kindly high official with her serious eyes, “a true man ought to be allowed the help of his wife!” Then she went into the adjoining parlor and laid her hand silently in that of Hauke Haien.

    Several years had gone by: in the little house of Tede Haien now lived a vigorous workman with his wife and child; the young dikemaster Hauke Haien lived with his wife Elke Volkerts on the farm of her father. In summer the mighty ash tree murmured as before in front of the house; but on the bench that now stood beneath it, the young wife was usually seen alone in the evening, sitting with some sewing in her hands; there was no child yet from this marriage. The husband had other things to do than to sit in front of his house door, for, in spite of his having helped in the old man’s management before, there was still a multitude of labors to be done which, in those other times, he had not found it wise to touch upon; but now everything had to be cleared up gradually, and he swept with a stiff broom. Besides that, there was the management of the farm, enlarged by his own land, especially as he was trying to save a second hired man. So it came about that, except on Sundays, when they went to church, the two married people saw each other usually only during dinner, which Hauke ate with great haste, and at the rise and close of day; it was a life of continuous work, although one of content.

    Then a troublesome rumor started. When one Sunday, after church, a somewhat noisy company of young land-owners from the marshes and the higher land had stayed over their cups at the inn, they talked, when it came to the fourth and fifth glass, not about the king and the government, to be sure—they did not soar so high in those days—but about communal and higher officials, specially about the taxes demanded of the community. And the longer they talked, the less there was that found mercy in their eyes, particularly not the new dike taxes. All the sluices and locks had always held out before, and now they have to be repaired; always new places were found on the dike that required hundreds of cartloads of earth—the devil take the whole affair!

    “That’s all on account of your clever dikemaster,” cried one of the people of the higher land, “who always goes round pondering and sticks his finger into every pie!”

    “Yes, he is tricky and wants to win the favor of the dikemaster general; but we have caught him!”

    “Why did you let him be thrust on you?” said the other; “now you have to pay in cash.”

    Ole Peters laughed. “Yes, Marten Fedders, that’s the way it is here, and it can’t be helped: the old one was made dikemaster on account of his father, the new one on account of his wife.” The laughter which ran round the table showed how this sally was appreciated.

    But as it had been spoken at the public table of an inn, it did not stay there, and it was circulated in the village of the high land as well as that of the marshes below; and so it reached Hauke. Again the row of ill-meaning faces passed by his inner eye, and he heard the laughter round the tavern table more jeering than it really was. “Dogs!” he shouted, and his eyes looked grimly to the side, as if he wanted to have these people whipped.

    Then Elke laid her hand upon his arm: “Let them be; they all would like to be what you are.”

    “That’s just it,” he replied angrily.

    “And,” she went on, “didn’t Ole Peters better himself by marriage?”

    “He did, Elke; but what he married with Vollina wasn’t enough to be dikemaster on.”

    “Say rather: he wasn’t enough,” and Elke turned her husband round so that he had to look into the mirror, for they stood between the windows in their room. “There is the dikemaster!” she said; “now look at him; only he who can manage an office has it.”

    “You’re not wrong,” he replied pensively, “and yet—Well, Elke, I have to go to the eastern lock; the gates won’t close again.”

    He went; but he was not gone long, before the repairing of the lock was forgotten. Another idea, which he had only half thought out and carried round with him for years, which, however, had been pushed back by the urgent affairs of his office, now took hold of him again and more powerfully than before, as if he had suddenly grown wings.

    Before he was really aware of it himself, he found himself on the sea-dike a good way south toward the city; the village that lay on this side had some time ago vanished to the left. He was still walking on, fixing his eyes constantly on the seaward side of the broad foreland. If some one had walked beside him, he must have seen what concentrated mental work was going on behind those eyes. At last he stood still: the foreland here dwindled into a narrow strip along the dike. “It will have to work!” he said to himself. “Seven years in the office—they shan’t say any more that I am dikemaster only because of my wife.”

    He was still standing there, and his eyes swept sharply and thoughtfully on all sides over the green foreland. Then he walked back until, here too, the broad plain that lay before him ended in a narrow strip of green pastureland. Through this, close by the dike, shot a strong arm of the sea which divided almost the whole foreland from the mainland and made it an island; a crude wooden bridge led to it, so that one could go back and forth with cattle or teams of hay or grain. It was low tide now, and the golden September sun was glistening on the strip of wet clay, about a hundred feet broad, and on the deep channel in the middle of it through which the sea was even now driving its waters. “That can be damned!” said Hauke to himself, after he had watched this playing of the water for a while. Then he looked up, and on from the dike upon which he stood, past the channel, he drew an imaginary line along the edge of the isolated land, round toward the south and back again to the east over the eastern continuation of the channel, up to the dike. But the line which he had drawn invisibly was a new dike, new also in the construction of its outline, which as yet existed only in his head.

    “That would make dammed-in land of about a thousand acres,” he said smiling to himself; “not so large; but—”

    Another calculation came into his mind: the foreland here belonged to the community, or rather, a number of shares to the single members, according to the size of their property in the municipality or other legal income. He began to count up how many shares he had received from his father and how many from Elke’s father, and how many he had already bought during his marriage, partly with a dim foreboding of future gain, partly because of his increased sheep stock. It was a considerable lot; for he had also bought all of Ole Peter’s shares when the latter had been disgusted because his best ram had been drowned, once when the foreland had been partly flooded. What excellent pasture and farm land that must make and how valuable it would be if it were all surrounded by his new dike! Like intoxication this idea rose into his brain; but he pressed his nails into the hollows of his hands and forced his eyes to see clearly and soberly what lay there before him: a great plain without a dike exposed to who knew what storms and floods in the next years, and at its outermost edge a herd of dirty sheep now wandering and grazing slowly. That meant a heap of work, struggle, and annoyance for him! In spite of all that, as he was walking on the footpath down from the dike across the fens toward his hill, he felt as if he were carrying home a great treasure.

    In the hall Elke came to meet him: “How about the lock?” she asked.

    He looked down at her with a mysterious smile: “We shall soon need another lock,” he said; “and sluices and a new dike.”

    “I don’t understand,” returned Elke, as they walked into the room; “what do you want to do, Hauke?”

    “I want,” he began slowly and then stopped for a second, “I want the big foreland that begins opposite our place and stretches on westward to be diked in and made into a solid enclosure. The high floods have left us in peace for almost a generation now; but when one of the bad ones comes again and destroys the growth down there—then all at once there’ll be an end to all this glory. Only the old slackway has let things stay like this till to-day.”

    She looked at him with astonishment: “Why, you are scolding yourself!” she said.

    “I am, Elke; but till now there were so many other things to do.”

    “Yes, Hauke; surely, you have done enough.”

    He had sat down in the armchair of the old dikemaster, and his hands were clutching both arms fast.

    “Have you the courage for it?” his wife asked him.

    “I have that, Elke,” he spoke hastily.

    “Don’t be too hasty, Hauke; that work is a matter of life and death; and almost all the people will be against you, they won’t thank you for your labor and trouble.”

    He nodded. “I know that!” he said.

    “And if it will only succeed,” she cried again, “ever since I was a child I heard that the channel can’t be stopped up, and that therefore one shouldn’t touch it.”

    “That was an excuse for the lazy ones!” said Hauke; “why shouldn’t one be able to stop up the channel?”

    “That I have not heard; perhaps because it goes right through; the rush of the water is too strong.” A remembrance came over her and an almost mischievous smile gleamed out of her serious eyes: “When I was a child,” she told, “I heard our hired men talk about it once; they said, if a dam was to hold there, some live thing would have to be thrown into the hold and diked up with the rest; when they were building a dike on the other side, about a hundred years ago, a gipsy child was dammed in that they had bought from its mother for a lot of money. But now I suppose no one would sell her child.”

    Hauke shook his head: “Then it is just as well that we have none; else they would do nothing less than demand it of us.”

    “They shouldn’t get it!” said Elke and folded her arms across her body as if in fear.

    And Hauke smiled; but she asked again: “And the huge cost? Have you thought of that?”

    “I have, Elke; what we will get out of it will far surpass the cost; even the cost of keeping up the old dike will be covered a good bit by the new one. We do our own work and there are over eight teams of horses in the community, and there is no lack of young strong arms. At least you shan’t have made me dikemaster for nothing, Elke; I want to show them that I am one!”

    She had been crouching in front of him and looking at him full of care; now she rose with a sigh. “I have to go back to my day’s work,” she said, and gently stroked his cheek; “you do yours, Hauke.”

    “Amen, Elke!” he said with a serious smile; “there is work enough for us both.”

    There was truly work enough for both, but the heaviest burden was now on the man’s shoulder. On Sunday afternoons, often too in the evenings, Hauke sat together with a good surveyor, deep in calculations, drawings and plans; when he was alone, he did the same and often did not stop till long after midnight. Then he would slip into their common sleeping-room—for the stuffy beds fixed to the wall in the living-room were no longer used in Hauke’s household—and his wife would lie with her eyes closed, pretending to sleep, so that he would get his rest at last, although she was really waiting for him with a beating heart. Then he would sometimes kiss her forehead and say a low word of love, and then lie down to sleep, though sleep often did not come to him before the first crowing of the cock. In the winter storms he ran out on the dike with pencil and paper in his hand, and stood and made drawings and took notes while a gust of wind would tear his cap from his head and make his long, light hair fly round his heated face. Soon, as long as the ice did not bar his way, he rowed with a servant out into the sea and with plumb line and rods measured the depths of the currents about which he was not yet sure. Often enough Elke trembled for his life, but when he was safely back, he could hardly have noticed anything, except by the tight clasp of her hand or by the bright lightning that gleamed from her usually so quiet eyes. “Have patience, Elke,” he said once when it seemed to him as if his wife would not let him alone; “I have to have the whole thing clear to myself before I propose it.” Then she nodded and let him be. There were no less rides into the city, either, to see the dikemaster general, and all these and the labors for house and farm were always followed by work late into the night. His intercourse with other people outside of his work and business vanished almost entirely; even with his wife it grew less and less. “These are bad times, and they will last long yet,” said Elke to herself and went to her work.