Home  »  The Rider on the White Horse  »  Paras. 600–699

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

Paras. 600–699

The child lay motionless in her father’s arms. It seemed as if it breathed with difficulty under the pressure of the sultry air. He bent down his head to her: “Well, Wienke?” he asked.

The child looked at him a while: “Father,” she said, “you can do that. Can’t you do everything?”

“What is it that I can do, Wienke?”

But she was silent; she seemed not to have understood her own question.

It was high tide. When they came to the dike, the reflection of the sun on the wide water flashed into her eyes, a whirlwind made the waves eddy and raised them high up, ever new waves came and beat splashing against the beach. Then, in her fear, her little hands clung round her father’s fist which was holding the reins, so that the horse made a bound to the side. The pale-blue eyes looked up at Hauke in confused fright: “The water, father! The water!” she cried.

But he gently freed his hand and said: “Be calm, child; you are with your father; the water won’t hurt you!”

She pushed her pale blond hair from her forehead and again dared to look upon the sea. “It won’t hurt me,” she said trembling; “no, tell it not to hurt us; you can do that, and then it won’t do anything to us!”

“I can’t do that, child,” replied Hauke seriously; “but the dike on which we are riding shelters us, and this your father has thought out and has had built.”

Her eyes turned upon him as if she did not quite understand that; then she buried her strikingly small head in the wide folds of her father’s coat.

“Why are you hiding, Wienke?” he whispered to her; “are you afraid?” And a trembling little voice rose out of the folds of the coat: “Wienke would rather not look; but you can do everything, can’t you, father?”

Distant thunder was rolling against the wind. “Hoho!” cried Hauke, “there it comes!” And he turned his horse round to ride back. “Now we want to go home to mother!”

The child drew a deep breath; but not until they had reached the hill and the house did she raise her little head from her father’s breast. When Elke had taken off the little shawl and cap in the room, the child remained standing before her mother like a dumb little ninepin.

“Well, Wienke,” she said, and shook her gently, “do you like the big water?”

But the child opened her eyes wide. “It talks,” she said. “Wienke is afraid!”

“It doesn’t talk; it only murmurs and roars!”

The child looked into the void: “Has it got legs?” she asked again; “can it come over the dike?”

“No, Wienke; your father looks out for that, he is the dikemaster.”

“Yes,” said the child and clapped her little hands together with an idiotic smile. “Father can do everything—everything!” Then suddenly, turning away from her mother, she cried: “Let Wienke go to Trin Jans, she has red apples!”

And Elke opened the door and let the child out. When she had closed it again, she glanced at her husband with the deepest anguish in her eyes from which hitherto he had drawn only comfort and courage that had helped him.

He gave her his hand and pressed hers, as if there were no further need for words between them; then she said in a low voice: “No, Hauke, let me speak: the child that I have borne you after years will stay a child always. Oh, good God! It is feeble-minded! I have to say it once in your hearing.”

“I knew it long ago,” said Hauke and held tightly his wife’s hand which she wanted to draw away.

“So we are left alone after all,” she said again.

But Hauke shook his head: “I love her, and she throws her little arms round me and presses close to my breast; for all the treasures of the world I wouldn’t miss that!”

The woman stared ahead darkly: “But why?” she asked; “what have I, poor mother, done?”

“Yes, Elke, that I have asked, too, of Him who alone can know; but you know, too, that the Almighty gives men no answer—perhaps because we would not grasp it.”

“He had seized his wife’s other hand too, and gently drew her toward him. “Don’t let yourself be kept from loving your child as you do; be sure it understands that.”

Then Elke threw herself on her husband’s breast and cried to her heart’s content and was on longer alone with her grief. Then suddenly she smiled at him; after pressing his hand passionately, she ran out and got her child from old Trin Jans’ room, took it on her lap and caressed and kissed it, until it stammered:

“Mother, my dear mother!”

Thus the people on the dikemaster’s farm lived quietly; if the child had not been there, it would have been greatly missed.

Gradually the summer passed by; the migrating birds had flown away, the song of larks was no longer in the air; only in front of the barns, where they pecked at the grain in thrashing time, one could hear some of them scream as they flew away. Already everything was frozen hard. In the kitchen of the main house Trin Jans sat one afternoon on the wooden steps of a stairway that started beside the stove and led to the attic. In the last weeks it seemed as if a new life had entered into her. Now she liked to go into the kitchen occasionally and watch Elke at work; there was no longer any idea of her legs not being able to carry her so far, since one day little Wienke had pulled her up here by her apron. Now the child was kneeling beside her, looking with her quiet eyes into the flames that were blazing up out of the stove-hole; one of her little hands was clinging to the old woman’s sleeve, the other was in her own pale blonde hair. Trin Jans was telling a story: “You know,” she said, “I was in the service at your great-grandfather’s, as housemaid, and there I had to feed the pigs. He was cleverer than all the rest—then it happened—it was awfully long ago—but, one night, by moonlight, they had the lock to the sea closed, and she couldn’t go back into the sea. Oh, how she screamed and clutched her hard, bristly hair with her fish-hands! Yes, child, I saw her and heard her scream. The ditches between the fens were all full of water, and the moon beamed on them so that they shone like silver; and she swam from one ditch into another and raised her arms and clapped what hands she had together, so that one could hear the splash from far, as if she wanted to pray. But, child, those creatures can’t pray. I sat in front of the house door on a few beams that had been driven there to build with, and looked far over the fens; and the mermaid was still swimming in the ditches, and when she raised her arms, they were glittering with silver and diamonds. At last I saw her no longer, and the wild geese and gulls that I had not been hearing all the time were again flying through the air with whistling and cackling.”

The old woman stopped. The child had caught one word: “Couldn’t pray?” she asked. “What are you saying? Who was that?”

“Child,” said the old woman; “it was the mermaid; they are monsters and can’t be saved.”

“Can’t be saved!” repeated the child, and a deep sigh made her little breast heave, as if she had understood that.

“Trin Jans!” a deep voice sounded from the kitchen door, and the old woman was a little startled. It was the dikemaster Hauke Haien, who leaned there by the post; “what are you telling the child? Haven’t I told you to keep your fairy-tales for yourself or else to tell them to the geese and hens?”

The old woman looked at him with an angry glance and pushed the little girl away. “That’s no fairy-tale,” she murmured, “my great-uncle told it to me!”

“Your great-uncle, Trin? You just said you had seen it yourself.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said the old woman; “but you don’t believe me, Hauke Haien; you want to make my great-uncle a liar!” Then she moved nearer to the stove and stretched her hands out over the flames of the stove-hole.

The dikemaster cast a glance at the window: twilight had scarcely begun. “Come, Wienke!” he said and drew his feeble-minded child toward him; “come with me, I want to show you something outside, from the dike. But we have to walk; the white horse is at the blacksmith’s.” Then he took her into the room and Elke wrapped thick woolen shawls round the child’s neck and shoulders; and soon her father walked with her on the old dike toward the north-west, past Jeverssand, where the flats stretched out broad and almost endless.

Now he would carry her, now she would walk holding his hand; the twilight thickened; in the distance everything vanished in mist and vapour. But in parts still in sight, the invisibly swelling streams that washed the flats had broken the ice and, as Hauke Haien had once seen it in his youth, steaming mists rose out of the cracks as at that time, and there again the uncanny foolish figures were hopping toward one another, bowed and suddenly stretched out into horrible breadths.

The child clung frightened to her father and covered her face with his hand. “The sea devils!” she whispered, trembling, through his fingers; “the sea devils!”

He shook his head: “No, Wienke, they are neither mermaids nor sea devils; there are no such things; who told you about them?”

She looked up to him with a dull glance; but she did not reply. Tenderly he stroked her cheeks: “Look there again!” he said, “they are only poor hungry birds! Look now, how that big one spreads its wings; they are getting the fish that go into those steaming cracks!”

“Fish!” repeated Wienke.

“Yes, child, they are all alive, just as we are; there is nothing else; but God is everywhere!”

Little Wienke had fixed her eyes on the ground and held her breath; she looked frightened as if she were gazing into an abyss. Perhaps it only seemed so; her father looked at her a long while, he bent down and looked at her little face, but on it was written no emotion of her inscrutable soul. He lifted her on his arm and put her icy little hands into one of his thick woollen mittens. “There, my Wienke”—the child could not have been aware of the note of passionate tenderness in his words—“there, warm yourself, near me! You are our child, our only one. You love us—” The man’s voice broke; but the little girl pressed her small head tenderly against his rough beard.

And so they went home in peace.

After New Year care had once more entered the house. A fever of the marshes had seized the dikemaster; he too had hovered near the edge of the grave, and when he had revived under Elke’s nursing and care, he scarcely seemed the same man. The fatigue of his body also lay upon his spirit, and Elke noticed with some worry that he was always easily satisfied. Nevertheless, toward the end of March, he had a desire to mount his white horse and for the first time to ride along his dike again. This was one afternoon when the sun that had shone before, was shrouded for a long while by dim mist.

In the winter there had been a few floods; but they had not been serious. Only over by the other shore a flock of sheep had been drowned on an island and a piece of the foreland torn away; here on this side and on the new land no damage worth mentioning had been done. But in the last night a stronger storm had raged; now the dikemaster had to go out and inspect everything with his own eyes. He had ridden along on the new dike from the southeastern corner and everything was well preserved. But when he reached the northeastern corner, at the point where the new dike meets the old one, the new one, to be sure, was unharmed. But where formerly the channel had reached the old dike and flowed along it, he saw a great, broad piece of the grassy scar destroyed and washed away and a hollow in the body of the dike worn by the flood, in which, moreover, a network of paths made by mice was exposed. Hauke dismounted and inspected the damage close by: there was no doubt that the mischief done by the mice extended on invisible.

He was startled violently. All this should have been considered when the new dike was being built; as it had been overlooked then, something had to be done now. The cattle were not yet grazing in the fens, the growth of the grass was unusually backward; wherever he looked there was barrenness and void. He mounted his horse again and rode up and down the shore; it was low tide, and he was well aware of how the current had again dug itself a new bed in the clay and had now hit upon the old dike. The new dike, however, when it was hit, had been able to withstand the attack on account of its gentler slope.

A heap of new toil and care rose before the mind’s eye of the dikemaster. Not only did the old dike have to be reenforced, its profile, too, had to be made more like that of the new one; above all, the channel, which again had proved dangerous, had to be turned aside by new dams or walls.

Once more he rode on the new dike up to the farthest northwestern corner, then back again, keeping his eyes continually on the newly worn bed of the channel which was marked off clearly on the exposed clay beside him. The white horse pushed forward, snorted and pawed with its front hoofs; but the rider held him back, for he wanted to ride slowly, and to curb the inner unrest that was seething within him more and more wildly.

If a storm flood should come again—a flood like the one in 1655, when property and unnumbered human beings were swallowed up—if it should come again, as it had come several times before! A violent shudder came over the rider—the old dike would not hold out against the sudden attack. What then—what would happen then? There would be only one, one single way of possibly saving the old enclosed land with the property and life in it. Hauke felt his heart stand still, his usually so steady head grew dizzy. He did not utter it, but something spoke within him strongly enough: your land, the Hauke-Haien-land, would have to be sacrificed and the new dike pierced.

In his mind’s eye he saw the rushing tide break in and cover grass and clover with its salty, foaming spray. His spur pricked the flanks of his white horse, which, with a sudden scream, flew along the dike and down the road that led to the hill of the dikemaster.

He came home with his head full of inner fright and disorderly plans. He threw himself into his armchair, and when Elke came into the room with their daughter, he rose again, lifted up the child and kissed it. Then he chased away the little yellow dog with a few light slaps. “I have to go up to the inn again,” he said, and took his cap from the hook by the door, where he had only just put it.

His wife looked at him anxiously. “What do you want to do there? It is near evening, Hauke.”

“Dike matters!” he muttered. “I’ll meet some of the overseers there.”

She followed him and pressed his hand, for with these words he had already left the door. Hauke Haien, who hitherto had made all decisions by himself, now was eager for a word from those whom he had not considered worthy of taking an interest before. In the room of the tavern he found Ole Peters with two of the overseers and an inhabitant of the district at the card table.

“I suppose you come from out there, dikemaster?” said Ole, who took up the already half distributed cards and threw them down again.

“Yes, Ole,” Hauke replied; “I was there; it looks bad.”

“Bad? Well, it’ll cost a few hundred pieces of sod and a straw covering. I was there too this afternoon.

“It won’t be done so cheaply, Ole,” replied the dikemaster; “the channel is there again, and even if it doesn’t hit the old dike from the north, it hits it from the north-west.”

“You should have left it where you found it,” said Ole drily.

“That means,” returned Hauke, “the new land’s none of your business; and therefore it should not exist. That is your own fault. But if we have to make walls to protect the old dike, the green clover behind the new one will bring us a profit above the cost.”

“What are you saying, dikemaster?” cried the overseers; “Walls? How many? You like to have the most expensive of everything.”

The cards lay untouched upon the table. “I’ll tell you, dikemaster,” said Ole Peters, and leaned on both elbows, “Your new land that you presented to us is a devouring thing. Everybody is still laboring under the heavy cost of your broad dike; and now that is devouring our old dike too we are expected to renew it. Fortunately it isn’t so bad; the dike has held out so far and will continue to hold out. Mount your white horse to-morrow and look at it again!”

Hauke had come here from the peace of his own house; behind these words he had just heard, moderate though they were, there lay—and he could not but be aware of it—tough resistance; he felt, too, as if he were lacking his old strength to cope with it. “I will do as you advise, Ole,” he said; “only I fear I shall find it as I have seen it to-day.”

A restless night followed this day. Hauke tossed sleepless upon his pillows. “What is the matter?” asked Elke who was kept awake by worry over her husband; “if something depresses you, speak it out; that’s the way we’ve always done.”

“It’s of no consequence, Elke,” he replied, “there is something to repair on the dike at the locks; you know that I always have to work over these things at night.” That was all he said; he wanted to keep freedom of action; unconsciously the clear insight and strong intelligence of his wife was a hindrance to him which he instinctively avoided in his present weakness.

The following morning when he came out on to the dike once more the world was different from the one he had seen the day before; it was low tide again, to be sure, but the day had not yet attained its noon, and beams of the bright spring sun fell almost perpendicularly onto the endless flats. The white gulls flew quietly hither and thither, and invisible above them, high under the azure sky, larks sang their eternal melody. Hauke, who did not know how nature can deceive one with her charms, stood on the north-western corner of the dike and looked for the new bed of the channel that had startled him so yesterday, but in the sunlight pouring down from the zenith, he did not even find it at first. Not until he had shaded his eyes from the blinding rays, did he recognise it. Yet the shadows in the twilight of yesterday must have deceived him: it could be discerned but faintly. The exposed mouse business must have done more damage to the dike than the flood. To be sure, things had to be changed; however, this could be done by careful digging and, as Ole Peters had said, the damage could be repaired by fresh sod and some bundles of straw for covering.

“It wasn’t so bad,” he said to himself, relieved; “you fooled yourself yesterday.” He called the overseers, and the work was decided on without contradiction, something that had never happened before.

The dikemaster felt as if a strengthening calm were spreading through his still weakened body and after a few weeks everything was neatly carried out.

The year went on, but the more it advanced and the more undisturbed the newly spread turf grew green through the straw covering, the more restlessly Hauke walked or rode past the spot. He turned his eyes away, he rode on the inside edge of the dike. A few times, when it occurred to him that he would have to pass by the place, he had his horse, though it was already saddled, led back into the stable. Then again, when he had no business there, he would wander to it, suddenly and on foot, so as to leave his hill quickly and unseen. Sometimes he had turned back again, unable once more to inflict on himself the sight of this uncanny place. Finally, he felt like breaking up the whole thing with his own hands, for this piece of the dike lay before his eyes like a bite of conscience that had taken on form outside of himself. And yet his hand could not touch it any more; and to no one, not even his wife, could he talk about it. Thus September had come; at night a moderate storm had raged and at last had blown away to the northwest. On the dull forenoon after it, at low tide, Hauke rode out on the dike and, as his glance swept over the flats, something shot through him: there, on from the northwest, he suddenly saw the ghostly new bed of the channel again, more sharply marked and worn deeper. No matter how hard he strained his eyes, it would not go.

When he came home, Elke seized his hand. “What’s the matter, Hauke?” she said, as she looked at his gloomy face. “There is no new calamity, is there? We are so happy now; it seems, you are at peace now with all of them.”

After these words, he did not feel equal to expressing his confused fear.

“No, Elke,” he said, “nobody is hostile to me; but it is a responsible function—to protect the community from our Lord’s sea.”

He withdrew, so as to escape further questioning by his beloved wife. He walked through stable and barn, as if he had to look over everything; but he saw nothing round about. He was preoccupied only with hushing up his conscience, with convincing himself that it was a morbidly exaggerated fear.

The year that I am telling about, my host, the school-master, said after a while, was the year 1756, which will surely never be forgotten in this region. Into the house of Hauke Haien it brought a death. At the end of September Trin Jans, almost ninety years old, was dying in the barn furnished for her. According to her wishes, they had propped her up in her pillows, and her eyes wandered through the little windows with their leaden casements far out into the distance. A thin layer of atmosphere must have lain above a thicker one up in the sky, for there was a high mirage and the reflection raised the sea like a glittering strip of silver above the edge of the dike, so that it shone dazzlingly into the room. The southern tip of Jeverssand was visible, too.

At the foot of the bed little Wienke was cowering, holding with one hand that of her father who stood beside her. On the face of the dying woman death was just imprinting the Hippocratic face, and the child stared breathlessly on the uncanny incomprehensible change in the plain, but familiar features.

“What is she doing? What is that, father?” she whispered, full of fear, and dug her finger nails into her father’s hand.

“She is dying!” said the dikemaster.

“Dying!” repeated the child, and seemed to have fallen into a confused pondering.

But the old woman moved her lips once more: ”Jens! Jens!” her screams broke out, like cries in danger, and her long arms were stretched out against the glittering reflection of the sea; “Help me! Help me! You are in the water—— God have mercy on the others!”

Her arms sank down, a low creaking of the bedstead could be heard; she had ceased to live.

The child drew a deep breath and lifted her pale eyes to her father’s. “Is she still dying?” she asked.

“She has done it!” said the dikemaster, and took his child in his arms. “Now she is far from us with God.”

“With God!” repeated the child and was silent for a while, as if she had to think about these words. “Is that good—with God?”

“Yes, that is the best.” In Hauke’s heart, however, the last words of the dying woman resounded heavily. “God have mercy on the others!” a low voice said within him. “What did the old hag mean? Are the dying prophets—?”

Soon after Trin Jans had been buried by the church, there was more and more talk about all kinds of mischief and strange vermin that had frightened the people in North Frisia, and there was no doubt that on mid-Lent Sunday the golden cock was thrown down by a whirlwind. It was true, too, that in midsummer a great cloud of vermin fell down, like snow, from the sky, so that one could scarcely open one’s eyes, and afterwards it lay on the fens in a layer as high as a hand, and no one had ever seen anything like it. But at the end of September, after the hired man had driven to the city market with grain and the maid Ann Grethe with butter, they both climbed down, when they came home, with faces pale from fright. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter with you?” cried the other maids, who had come running out when they heard the wagon roll up.

Ann Grethe in her travelling clothes stepped breathless into the spacious kitchen. “Well, tell us,” cried the maids again, “what has happened?”

“Oh, our Lord Jesus protect us!” cried Ann Grethe. “You know, old Marike of the brickworks from over there across the water—we always stand together with our butter by the drugstore at the corner—she told me, and Iven Johns said too—‘There’s going to be a calamity!’ he said; ‘a calamity for all North Frisia; believe me, Ann Grethe!’ And”—she muffled her voice—“maybe there’s something wrong after all about the dikemaster’s white horse!”

“Sh! Sh!” replied the other maids.

“Oh, yes, what do I care! But over there, on the other side, it’s even worse than ours. Not only flies and vermin, but blood has poured down from the sky like rain. And the Sunday morning after that, when the pastor went to his washbowl, he found five death’s heads in it, as big as peas, and everybody came to look at them. In the month of August horrible red-headed caterpillars crawled all over the land and devoured what they found, grain and flour and bread, and no fire could kill them off.”

The talker broke off suddenly; none of the maids had noticed that the mistress of the house had stepped into the kitchen. “What are you talking about there?” she said. “Don’t let your master hear that!” And as they all wanted to tell about it now, she stopped them. “Never mind; I heard enough; go to your work; that will bring you better blessings.” Then she took Ann Grethe with her into the room and settled the accounts of the market business.

Thus the superstitious talk in the house of the dikemaster found no reception from its master and mistress. But it spread into the other houses, and the longer the evenings grew, the more easily it found its way in. Something like sultry air weighed on all, and it was secretly said that a calamity, a serious one, would come over North Frisia.

It was All Saints’ Day, in October. During the day a southwest wind had raged; at night a half moon was in the sky, dark brown clouds chased by it, and shadows and dim light flitted over the earth in confusion. The storm was growing. In the room of the dikemaster’s house stood the cleared supper table, the hired men were sent to the stables to look after the cattle; the maids had to see if the doors and shutters were closed everywhere in the house and attic, so that the storm would not blow in and do harm. Inside stood Hauke beside his wife at the window, after he had hurriedly eaten his supper. He had been outside on the dike. On foot he had marched out, early in the afternoon. Pointed posts and bags full of clay or earth he had had brought to the place where the dike seemed to betray a weakness. Everywhere he had engaged people to ram in the posts and make a dam of them and the bags, as soon as the flood began to damage the dike; at the northwestern corner, where the old and the new dike met, he had placed the most people, who were allowed to leave their appointed posts only in case of need. These orders he had left when, scarcely a quarter of an hour ago, he had come home wet and dishevelled, and now, as he listened to the gusts of wind that made the windows rattle in their leaden casements, he gazed absently out into the wild night. The clock on the wall was just striking eight. The child that stood beside her mother, started and buried her head in her mother’s clothes. “Claus!” she exclaimed crying, “where’s my Claus?”

She had a right to ask, for this year, as well as the year before, the gull had not gone on its winter journey. Her father overheard the question; her mother took the child on her arm. “Your Claus is in the barn,” she said; “there he is warm.”

“Why?” said Wienke, “is that good?”

“Yes, that is good.”

The master of the house was still standing by the window.

“This won’t do any longer, Elke!” he said; “call one of the maids; the storm will break through the windowpanes—the shutters have to be fastened!”