Good day to you, Hrolfur, said the doctor.
Good day to you, grunted Hrolfur as he straightened himself up and spat a stream of yellowish-brown liquid from his mouth. Hand me that stone over there.
These last words were addressed not to the doctor or me, but to the man on the jetty. Hrolfur vouchsafed me one quick, unfriendly glance, but apart from that scarcely seemed to notice me. The look in those sharp, haunting eyes went through me like a knife. Never before had anyone looked at me with a glance so piercing and so full of misgiving.
He was a small man, and lively, though ageing fast. The face was thin, rather wrinkled, dark and weather-beaten, with light untidy wisps of hair round the mouth. I was immediately struck by a curious twitching in his features, perhaps a relic of former bouts of drinking. Otherwise his expression was harsh and melancholy. His hands were red, swollen and calloused as if by years of rowing.
Don't you think it's blowing rather hard, Hrolfur? asked the doctor after a long silence.
Oh, so-so, answered Hrolfur, without looking up.
Again there was silence. It was as if Hrolfur had neither time nor inclination for gossiping, even though it was the district medical officer talking to him.
The doctor looked at me and smiled. I was meant to understand that this was exactly what he had expected.
After another interval the doctor said: You are going to do this traveller a favour then, Hrolfur?
Oh, well, the boat won't mind taking him.
In other words, I was to be nothing but so much ballast.
Don't you think it's going to be tricky landing there in Mular Creek?
Hrolfur straightened up, putting his hand to his back.
Oh, no, damn it, he said. There's an offshore wind and the sea's not bad, and anyway we'll probably get there with the incoming tide.
It isn't going to take you out of your way? I asked.
We won't argue about that. We'll get there all the same. We often give ourselves a rest in the old creek when we have to row.
Immediately afterwards I said good-bye to the doctor and slid down into the boat. The man on the jetty cast off, threw the rope down into the boat and jumped in after it.
One of the crew thrust the handle of an oar against the breakwater and pushed off. Then they rowed for a short spell to get into the wind, whilst old Hrolfur fixed the rudder.
The sail filled out; the boat heeled gently over and ran in a long curve. The islets at the harbour mouth rushed past us. We were making straight for the open bay.
On the horizon before us the mountainous cliffs, dark blue with a thick, ragged patch of mist at the top, towered steeply over the waves. In between, the sea stretched out, seemingly for miles.
Hrolfur was at the rudder. He sat back in the stern on a crossbeam flush with the gunwale, his feet braced against the ribs on either side and in his hands the rudder lines, one on each side, close to his thighs.
I was up with the crew near the mast. We all knew from experience that Icelandic boats sailed better when well-loaded forward. All four of us were lying down on the windward side, but to leeward the foam still bubbled up over the rowlocks.
If you think we're not going fast enough, lads, you'd better start rowing—but no extra pay, said old Hrolfur, grinning.
We all took his joke well, and I felt that it brought me nearer to the old man; up to then I'd been just a little scared of him. A joke is always like an outstretched hand.
For a long time we hardly spoke. In front of the mast we lay in silence, whilst old Hrolfur was at the stern with the whole length of the boat between us.
The crew did all they could to make me comfortable. I lay on some soft sacking just in front of the thwart and kept my head under the gunwale for protection. The spray from the sea went right over me and splashed down into the boat on the far side.
The boy who had come for me to the doctor's settled himself down in the bows in front of me. His name was Eric Ericsson, and the more I saw of him the more I liked him.
The second member of the crew sat crosswise over the thwart with his back to the mast. He too was young, his beard just beginning to grow, red-faced, quiet and rather indolent-looking. He seemed completely indifferent, even though showers of spray blew, one after another, straight into his face.
The third member of the crew lay down across the boat behind the thwart; he put a folded oilskin jacket under his head and fell asleep.
For a long time, almost an hour, I lay in silence, thinking only of what I saw and heard around me. There was more than enough to keep me awake.
I noticed how the sail billowed out, full of wind, pulling hard at the clew-line, which was made fast to the gunwhale beside Hrolfur. The fore-sail resembled a beautifully curved sheet of steel, stiff and unyielding. Both sails were snow-white, semi-transparent and supple in movement, like the ivory sails on the model ships in Rosenborg Palace. The mast seemed to bend slightly and the stays were as taut as fiddle-strings. The boat quivered like a leaf. The waves pounded hard against the thin strakes of the boat's side. I could feel them on my cheek, though their dampness never penetrated; but in between these hammer blows their little pats were wonderfully friendly. Every now and then I could see the white frothing of the wave-crests above the gunwale, and sometimes under the sail the horizon was visible but, more often, there was nothing to be seen but the broad back of a wave, on which, for a time, the boat tossed before sinking down once more. The roll was scarcely noticeable, for the boat kept at the same angle all the time and cleft her way through the waves. The motion was comfortable and soothing to the mind; quite unlike the violent lunging of bigger ships.
Gradually the conversation came to life again. It was Eric who proved to be the most talkative, though the man on the thwart also threw in a word here and there.
We began to talk about old Hrolfur.
We spoke in a low voice so that he shouldn't hear what we said. There was, indeed, little danger of his doing so—the distance was too great and the storm was bound to carry our words away; but men always lower their voices when they speak of those they can see, even though they are speaking well of them.
My eyes scarcely left old Hrolfur, and as the men told me more, my picture of him became clearer and clearer.
He sat there silent, holding on to the steering ropes and staring straight ahead, not deigning us a single glance.
The crew's story was roughly this.
He was born and bred in the village, and he had never left it. The croft which he lived in was just opposite the weir in the river which flowed through the village, and was named after it.
He went to sea whenever possible; fished for shark in the spring and for cod and haddock in the other seasons. He never felt so happy as when he was on the sea; and if he couldn't go to sea, he sat alone at home in the croft mending his gear. He never went down to the harbour for work like the other fishermen and never worked on the land. Humming away and talking to himself he fiddled about in his shed, around his boat-house or his croft, his hands all grubby with tar and grease. If addressed, he was abrupt and curt in his answers, sometimes even abusive. Hardly anyone dared go near him.
Yet everyone liked him really. Everyone who got to know him said that he improved on acquaintance. His eccentricity increased as he grew older, but particularly after he had lost his son.
His son was already grown-up and had been a most promising young fellow. He was thought to be the most daring of all the skippers in the village and always went furthest out to sea; he was also the most successful fisherman of them all. But one day a sudden storm had caught them far out to sea, well outside the mouth of the fjord. Rowing hard, in the teeth of wind and tide, they managed to reach the cliffs, but by that time they were quite exhausted. Their idea had been to land at Mular Creek, but unfortunately their boat overturned as they tried to enter. Hrolfur's son and one other on board had been drowned, though the rest were saved.
After the disaster Hrolfur ignored everybody for a long time. It wasn't that he wept or lost heart. Perhaps he had done so for the first few days, but not afterwards. He just kept to himself. He took not the slightest notice of his wife and his other children, just as if they were no longer his concern. It was as though he felt he'd lost everything. He lived all alone with his sorrow and talked of it to no one. Nobody tried to question him; no one dared try to comfort him. Then, one winter, he started talking to himself.
Day and night, for a long time, he talked to himself, talked as though two or more men were chatting together, changing his tone of voice and acting in every way as though he were taking part in a lively and interesting conversation. There was nothing silly in what he said, although the subject matter was often difficult to follow. He would always answer if anyone spoke to him, slowly to be sure, but always sensibly and agreeably. Often, before he could answer, it was as though he had to wake up as from a sleep, and yet his work never suffered from these bouts of absentmindedness.
He never talked about his son. The conversations he held with himself were mostly concerned with various adventures he thought had befallen him; some were exaggerated, others pure invention. Sometimes he would talk of things he was going to do in the future, or things he would have done or ought to have in the past, but never about the present.
It wasn't long before the rumour spread that old Hrolfur was crazy, and for a long time hardly anyone dared to go to sea with him.
Now, that's all a thing of the past, said Eric and smiled. Nowadays there are always more who would like to go with him than he can take.
And does he catch plenty of fish?
Yes, he rarely fails.
Isn't he quite well-off then?
I don't know. At any rate he's not dependent on anyone else, and he's the sole owner of his boat and tackle.
He's rolling in money, the old devil, said the man at the mast, wiping the spray from his face with his hand.
Then they began to tell me about Mular Island and the life they would lead there in the coming week.
The island was a barren rock beyond the cliffs, and, in the autumn storms, was almost covered by the waves. The first thing they'd have to do, when they arrived, was to rebuild their refuge from the year before, roof it over with bits of driftwood and cover them with seaweed. That was to be their shelter at night, no matter what the weather. Nature had provided a landing-place, so that they'd no trouble with that, though the spot was so treacherous that one of them would have to stand watch over the boat every night.
Each evening they would row off from the island with their lines to some well-known fishing bank, for it was after midnight that the shark was most eager to take the bait. Savouring in his nostrils the smell of horse flesh soaked in rum and of rotten seal blubber, he would rush on the scent and greedily swallow whatever was offered. When he realised the sad truth that a huge hook with a strong barb was hidden inside this tempting dish and that it was no easy matter to disgorge the tasty morsel, he would try to gnaw through the shaft of the hook with his teeth. Very occasionally he might succeed, but usually his efforts failed. Attached to the book was a length of strong iron chain; and sometimes, though defeated by the hook, he would manage to snip through the chain. Then, in his joy at being free, this creature with the magnificent appetite would immediately rush to the next hook, only to be caught there when the lines were drawn in. If the shark failed in his efforts to gnaw himself free, he would try, by twisting and turning, to break either the hook or the chain; but man had foreseen this possibility and had made the hook to turn with him. With exemplary patience 'the grey one' would continue his twisting until he had been drawn right up to the side of the boat and a second hook made fast in him. His sea-green, light-shy, pig-like eyes would glare malevolently up at his tormentors, and in his maddened fury he would bite, snap and fight until he almost capsized the boat.
For centuries our forefathers had hunted the shark like this in open boats, but nowadays men preferred to use decked vessels. No one in the district still used the old method, apart from old Hrolfur.
He had dragged in many a 'grey one'. From the bottom of the boat Eric picked up one of the hooks and passed it to me; it was of wrought iron, half an inch thick, with a point of cast steel. But the spinning joint was almost chewed through and the hook shaft bitten and gnawed—the 'grey one' had fought hard that time.
The crew told me so much about their fishing adventures that I longed to go to the island with them.
Suddenly Eric gave me a nudge.
The conversation stopped, and we all looked back at old Hrolfur.
Now he's talking to himself.
We all held our breath and listened.
Hrolfur sat like a statue, holding the rudder-lines. His eyes wore a far-away look and a curious smile of happiness played over his face.
After a short silence, he spoke again—in a perfectly normal voice.
When I was on the frigate—
For the time being that was all.
There was a touch of vanity in his smile, as though in memory of some old, half-ludicrous story from the past.
Yes, when I was on the frigate, my lad—
It was just as if there were someone sitting next to him beside the rudder, to whom he was relating his adventures.
Has he ever been on a warship? I whispered.
Never in his life, said Eric.
Our eyes never left him. I can still remember the curious twitching and working of his features. The eyes themselves were invisible; it was as though the man were asleep. But his forehead and temples were forever on the move, as if in mimicry of what he said.
I couldn't utter a sound. Everything was blurred before my eyes, for it was only then that the full realisation came upon me that the man at the rudder—the man who held all our lives in his hands—was half-crazed.
The crew nudged each other and chortled. They'd seen all this before.
She was running aground—heading straight for the reef,—a total loss, said Hrolfur, a total loss, I tell you. She was a beautiful craft, shining black and diced with white along the sides—ten fighting mouths on either side and a carved figure on her prow. I think the king would have been sorry to lose her. She was far too lovely to be ground to pieces there—they were glad when I turned up.
The crew did their best to smother their laughter.
'Top-sails up,' I shouted.—'Top-sails up, my lad.' The officer, for all his gold braid, went as pale as death. 'Top-sails up, in the devil's name.' The blue-jackets on the deck fell over themselves in fear. Yes, my lad, even though I hadn't a sword dangling by my side, I said, 'Top-sails up, in the devil's name.' And they obeyed me— they obeyed me. They didn't dart not to. 'Top-sails up, in the devil's name.'
Hrolfur raised himself up on the crossbeam, his fists clenched round the steering-ropes.
Eric was almost bursting with laughter and trying hard not to let it be heard; but the man at the mast made little attempt to stifle his.
She's made it, said Hrolfur, his face all smiles and nodding his head.—Out to sea. Straight out to sea. Let her lie down a bit, if she wants to. It'll do her no harm to ship a drop or two. Let it 'bubble up over her rowlocks,' as we Icelanders say. Even though she creaks a bit, it's all to the good. Her planks aren't rotten when they make that noise. All right, we'll sail the bottom out of her— but forward she'll go—forward, forward she shall go!
Hrolfur let his voice drop and drew out his jet words slowly.
By now we were far out in the fjord. The sea was rising and becoming more choppy because of tide currents. Good steering became more and more difficult. Hrolfur seemed to do it instinctively. He never once looked up and yet seemed to see all around him. He seemed to sense the approach of those bigger waves which had to be avoided or passed by. The general direction was never lost, but the boat ran wonderfully smoothly in and out of the waves—over them, before them and through them, as though she were possessed with human understanding. Not a single wave fell on her; they towered high above, advanced on her foaming and raging, but somehow—at the last moment—she turned aside. She was as sensitive as a frightened hind, quick to answer the rudder, as supple in her movements as a willing racehorse. Over her reigned the spirit of Hrolfur.
But Hrolfur himself was no longer there. He was 'on the frigate'. It was not his own boat he was steering in that hour, but a huge three- master with a whole cloud of sails above her and ten cannon on either side—a miracle of the shipwright's craft. The mainstays were of many-stranded steelwire, the halyards, all clustered together, struck at the mast and stays; they seemed inextricably tangled, and yet were in fact all ship-shape, taut and true, like the nerves in a human body. There was no need to steer her enormous bulk to avoid the waves or pass them by; it was enough to let her crush them with all her weight, let her grind them down and push them before her like drifts of snow. Groaning and creaking she ploughed straight on through all that came against her, heeling before the wind right down to her gunwale and leaving behind her a long furrow in the sea. High above the deck of this magnificent vessel, between two curved iron pillars, Hrolfur's boat hung like a tiny mussel shell.
Once upon a time this had been a dream of the future. But now that all hope of its fulfilment had been lost, the dream had long since become a reality. Hrolfur's adventure 'on the frigate' was a thing of the past.
For a long time he continued talking to himself, talked of how he had brought 'the frigate' safely to harbour, and how he had been awarded a 'gold medal' by the king. We could hear only anppets of this long rigmarole, but we never lost the drift of it. He spoke alternately in Danish and Icelandic, in many different tones of voice, and one could always tell, by the way he spoke, where he was in 'the frigate': whether he was addressing the crew on the deck, or the officers on the bridge, and when, his fantastic feat accomplished, he clinked glasses with them in the cabin on the poop.
The wind had slackened somewhat, but now that we had reached so far out into the bay the waves were higher; they were the remains of the huge ocean waves which raged on the high seas, remains which, despite the adverse wind, made their way far up the fjord.
Hrolfur no longer talked aloud, but he continued to hum quietly to himself. The crew around me began to doze off, and I think even I was almost asleep for a time. To tell the truth I wasn't very far from feeling seasick.
Soon afterwards the man who had been asleep in the space behind the mast rose to his feet, yawned once or twice, shook himself to restore his circulation and looked around.
It won't be long now before we get to Mular Creek, he said with his mouth still wide-open.
I was wide awake at once when I heard this, and raised myself up on my elbow. The mountain I had seen from the village—which then had been wrapped in a dark haze—now towered directly above us, rocky and enormous, with black sea-crags at its feet. The rocks were drenched with spray from the breakers, and the booming of the sea as it crashed into the basalt caves resounded like the roar of cannon.
There'll be no landing in the creek today, Hrolfur, the man said and yawned again. The breakers are too heavy.
Hrolfur pretended he hadn't heard.
Everybody aboard was awake now and watching the shore; and I think he was not the only one amongst us to shudder at the thought of landing.
On the mountain in front of us it was as though a panel was slowly moved to one side: the valleys of Muladalir opened up before us. Soon we glimpsed the roofs of the farms up on the hill-side. The beach itself was covered with rocks.
The boat turned into the inlet. It was quieter there than outside, and the sea was just a little another.
Loosen the foresail, Hrolfur ordered. It was Eric who obeyed and held on to the sheet Hrolfur himself untied the mainsail, whilst at the same time keeping hold of the sheet. I imagined Hrolfur must be thinking it safer to have the sails loose as it was likely to be gusty in the inlet.
Are you going to sail in? said the man who'd been asleep. His voice came through a nose filled with snuff.
Shut up, said Hrolfur savagely.
The man took the hint and asked no more questions. No one asked a question, though every moment now was one of suspense.
We all gazed in silence at the cliffs, which were lathered in white foam.
One wave after another passed under the boat. They lifted her high up, as if to show us the surf. As the boat sank slowly down into the trough of the wave, the surf disappeared and with it much of the shore. The wave had shut it out.
I was surprised how little the boat moved, but an explanation of the mystery was soon forthcoming: the boat and all she carried were still subject to Hrolfur's will.
He let the wind out of the mainsail and, by careful manipulation of the rudder, kept the boat wonderfully still. He was standing up now in front of the crossbeam and staring fixedly out in front of the boat. He was no longer talking to himself, he was no longer 'on the frigate', but in his own boat; he knew well how much depended on him.
After waiting for a while, watching his opportunity, Hrolfur suddenly let her go at full speed once more.
Now the moment had come—a moment I shall never forget—nor probably any of us who were in the boat with him. It was not fear that gripped us but something more like excitement before a battle. Yet, if the choice had been mine, we should have turned back from the creek that day.
Hrolfur stood at the rudder, immovable, his eyes shifting from side to side, now under the sail, now past it. He chewed vigorously on his quid of tobacco and spat. There was much less sign now of the twitchings round his eyes than there'd been earlier in the day, and his very calmness had a soothing effect on us all.
As we approached the creek, a huge wave rose up behind us. Hrolfur glanced at it with the corner of his eye. He spat and bared his teeth. The wave rose and rose, and it reached us just at the mouth of the creek, its overhanging peak so sharp as to be almost transparent. It seemed to be making straight for the boat.
As I watched, I felt the boat plummet down, as if the sea was snatched from under her; it was the undertow—the wave was drawing the waters back beneath it. By the gunwale the blue-green sea frothed white as it poured back from the skerries near the entrance to the creek.
The boat almost stood on end; it was as if the sea was boiling around us—boiling until the very seaweed on the rocks was turned to broth.
Suddenly an ice-cold lash, as of a whip, seemed to strike me in the face. I staggered forwards under the blow and grasped at one of the mainstays.
Let go the foresail, shouted Hrolfur.
When I was able to look up, the sails were flapping idly over the gunwale. The boat floated gently into the creek, thwart-deep in water.
We all felt fine.
It's true, I could feel the cold sea water dripping down my bare back, underneath my shirt, but I didn't mind. All that had happened to me was but a kiss, given me in token of farewell by the youngest daughter of the goddess of the waves.
The boat floated slowly in on the unaccustomed calm of the waters and stopped at the landing-place.
Standing there watching were two men from the farm.
I thought as much, it had to be old Hrolfur, one of them called out as we landed. It's no ordinary man's job to get into the creek on a day like this.
Hrolfur's face was wreathed in smiles: he made no answer, but slipping off the rudder in case it should touch bottom he laid it down across the stern.
We were given a royal welcome by the fanners from Mular, and all that I needed to further me on my journey was readily available and willingly granted. Nowhere does Iceland's hospitality flourish so well as in her outlying stations and in the remotest of her valleys, where travellers are few.
We all got out of the boat and pulled her clear of the waves. Every one of us was only too glad to get the opportunity of stretching his legs after sitting cramped up on the hard boards for nearly four hours.
I walked up to where old Hrolfur stood apart, on the low, flat rocks, thanked him for the trip and asked him what it cost.
Cost? he said, scarce looking at me. What does it cost? Just a minute now, my lad,—just a minute.
He answered me with the complete lack of formality one accords an old friend, though we had met for the first time that day. His whole face was scowling now, as he answered me brusquely—indeed, almost curtly; and yet there was something attractive about him, something that aroused both trust and respect and which made it impossible for me to resent his familiarity.
How much the trip costs? Just a minute now.
It seemed that his thoughts were elsewhere. He unloosened the brace of his overalls, reached down into the pocket of his patched garments beneath and, drawing out a fine length of chewing tobacco, took a bite. Then, breaking off a smallish length, he dropped it into the crown of his seaman's hat. Finally, slowly and very deliberately, he refastened the top of his overalls.
I expect you got a bit wet out there coming into the creek.
Oh, not really.
Sometimes one gets unpleasantly damp out there.
Hrolfur stood still, chewing his quid of tobacco and staring out at the entrance to the creek. He seemed to have forgotten all about answering my question.
Sometimes one gets unpleasantly damp out there, he repeated, laying great emphasis on every word. I looked straight at him and saw there were tears in his eyes. Now his features were all working again and twitching as they had done earlier.
There's many a boat filled up there, he added, and some have got no further. But I've floated in and out so far. Oh well, 'The silver cup sinks, but the wooden bowl floats on', as the proverb says. There was a time when I had to drag out of the water here a man who was better than me in every way—that's when I really got to know the old creek.
For a time he continued to stand there, staring out at the creek without saying a word. But, at last, after wiping the tears from his face with the back of his glove, he seemed to come to himself once more.
You were asking, my lad, what the journey costs—it costs nothing.
Nothing? What nonsense!
Not since you got wet, said Hrolfur and smiled, though you could still see the tears in his eyes. It's an old law of ours that if the ferry-man lets his passengers get wet, even though it's only their big toe, then he forfeits his toll.
I repeatedly begged Hrolfur to let me pay him for the journey, but it was no use. At last he became serious again and said:
The journey costs nothing, as I said to you. I've brought many a traveller over here to the creek and never taken a penny in return. But if you ever come back to our village again, and old Hrolfur should happen to be on land, come over to Weir and drink a cup of coffee with him—black coffee with brown rock-sugar and a drop of brandy in it; that is, if you can bring yourself to do such a thing.
This I promised him, and old Hrolfur shook me firmly and meaningfully by the hand as we parted.
As they prepared to leave, we all three, the farmers from Mular and I, stood there on the rocks to see how Hrolfur would manage. The crew had furled the sails and sat down to the oars, whilst old Hrolfur stood in front of the crossbeam, holding the rudder-line.
They weren't rowing though, but held their oars up, waiting for their opportunity. All this while, wave after wave came riding through the entrance to the creek, pouring their white cascades of foam over the reefs.
Hrolfur watched them steadily and waited, like an animal ready to pounce on its prey.
Now, my lads, cried Hrolfur suddenly. The oars crashed into the sea, and the boat shot forward.
Just so, I thought, must the vikings in olden time have rowed to the attack.
Hrolfur's voice was lost to us in the roaring of the surf, but he seemed to be urging the men on to row their utmost. They rowed, indeed, like things possessed, and the boat hurtled forward.
At the mouth of the creek a surf-topped wave rose against them, sharp and concave, as it rushed on its way to the reefs. We held our breath. It was a terrifying but magnificent sight.
Hrolfur shouted something loudly, and at the same moment every oar hugged the side of the boat, like the fins of a salmon as it hurls itself at a waterfall. The boat plunged straight into the wave. For a moment we lost sight of her in the swirling spray; only the mast was visible. When we saw her again, she was well out past the breakers. She'd been moving fast and was well steered.
Hrolfur took his place on the crossbeam as if nothing had happened, just as he had sat there earlier in the day, whilst he was 'on the frigate'.
Two of the crew began to set the sails, whilst one started to bail out. Soon the boat was once more on the move.
I felt a strange lump in my throat as I watched old Hrolfur sailing away.
God bless you, old salt, I thought. You thoroughly deserved to cleave through the cold waters of Iceland in a shapely frigate.
The boat heeled over gracefully and floated over the waves like a gull with its wings outstretched. We stood there watching, without a move, until she disappeared behind the headland.
FATHER AND SON
The two of them lived just outside the They were both called Snjolfur, and they usually distinguished as old Snjolfur and little Snjolfur. They themselves, however, addressed each other only as Snjolfur. This was a habit of long standing: it may be that, having the same name, they felt themselves bound still more firmly together by using it unqualified in this way. Old Snjolfur was something over fifty, little Snjolfur only just over twelve.
They were close together, the pair of them—each felt lost without the other. It had been like that ever since little Snjolfur could remember. His father could look further back. He remembered that thirteen years ago he had lived on his farm within easy riding distance of the village; he had a good wife and three sturdy and hopeful children.
Then his luck turned and one disaster after struck him. His sheep went down with pest, his cattle died of anthrax and other diseases. Then the children got whooping-cough and all three died, close enough together to lie in one grave. To pay his debts Snjolfur had to give up his farm and sell the land. Then he bought the land on the Point just outside the village, knocked up a cabin divided into two by a partition, and a fish-drying shed. When that was done, there was enough left to buy a cockle-shell of a boat. This was the sum of his possessions.
It was a poor and dismal life they led there, Snjolfur and his wife. They were both used to hard work, but they had had no experience of privation and constant care for the morrow. Most days it meant putting to sea if they were to eat, and it was not every night they went to bed with a full stomach. There was little enough left over for clothing and comfort.
Snjolfur's wife worked at fish-drying for the factor in the summer months, but good drying-days could not be counted on and the money was not much. She lived just long enough to bring little Snjolfur into the world, and the last thing she did was to decide his name. From then on, father and son lived alone in the cabin.
Little Snjolfur had vague memories of times of desperate misery. He had to stay at home through days of unrelieved torment and agony. There had been no one to look after him while he was too small to go off in the boat with his father, and old Snjolfur was forced to tie the boy to the bed-post to keep him out of danger in his absence. Old Snjolfur could not sit at home all the time: he had to get something to put in the pot.
The boy had more vivid memories of happier times, smiling summer days on a sea glittering in the sunshine. He remembered sitting in the stern and watching his father pulling in the gleaming fish. But even those times were mingled with bitterness, for there were days when the sky wept and old Snjolfur rowed out alone.
But in time little Snjolfur grew big enough to go off with his father, whatever the weather. From then on they contentedly shared most days and every night: neither could be without the other for more than a minute. If one of them stirred in his sleep, the other was awake on the instant; and if one could not get to sleep, the other did not close his eyes either.
One might think that it was because they had a lot to talk about that they were so wrapped up in each other. But that was not so. They knew each other so well and their mutual confidence was so complete that words were unnecessary. For days on end no more than scattered phrases fell between them; they were as well content to be silent together as to be talking together. The one need only look at the other to make himself understood.
Among the few words that passed between them, however, was one sentence that came up again and again—when old Snjolfur was talking to his son. His words were:
The point is to pay your debts to everybody, not owe anybody anything, trust in Providence.
In fact, father and son together preferred to live on the edge of starvation rather than buy anything for which they could not pay on the spot. And they tacked together bits of old sacking and patched and patched them so as to cover their nakedness, unburdened by debt.
Most of their neighbours were in debt to some extent; some of them only repaid the factor at odd times, and they never repaid the whole amount. But as far as little Snjolfur knew, he and his father had never owed a penny to anyone. Before his time, his father had been on the factor's books like everyone else, but that was not a thing he spoke much about and little Snjolfur knew nothing of those dealings.
It was essential for the two of them to see they had supplies to last them through the winter, when for many days gales or heavy seas made fishing impossible. The fish that had to last them through the winter was either dried or salted; what they felt they could spare was sold, so that there might be a little ready money in the house against the arrival of winter. There was rarely anything left, and sometimes the cupboard was bare before the end of the winter; whatever was eatable had been eaten by the tune spring came on, and most often father and son knew what it was like to go hungry. Whenever the weather was fit, they put off in their boat but often rowed back empty-handed or with one skinny flat-fish in the bottom. This did not affect their outlook. They never complained; they bore their burden of distress, heavy as it was, with the same even temper as they showed in the face of good fortune on the rare occasions it smiled on them; in this, as in everything else, they were in harmony. For them there was always comfort enough in the hope that, if they ate nothing today, God would send them a meal tomorrow—or the next day. The advancing spring found them pale and hollow- cheeked, plagued by bad dreams, so that night after night they lay awake together.—And one such spring, a spring moreover that had been colder and stormier than usual, with hardly a single day of decent weather, evil chance paid another visit to old Snjolfur's home.
Early one morning a snow-slip landed on the cabin on the Point, burying both father and son. By some inexplicable means little Snjolfur managed to scratch his way out of the drift. As soon as he realised that for all his efforts he could not dig his father out single-handed, he raced off to the village and got people out of their beds. Help came too late—the old man was suffocated when they finally reached him through the snow.
For the time being his body was laid on a flat boulder in the shelter of a shallow cave in the cliffside nearby—later they would bring a sledge to fetch him into the village. For a long time little Snjolfur stood by old Snjolfur and stroked his white hair; he murmured something as he did it, but no one heard what he said. But he did not cry and he showed no dismay. The men with the snow- shovels agreed that he was a strange lad, with not a tear for his father's death, and they were half-inclined to dislike him for it.— He's a hard one! they said, but not in admiration.—You can carry things too far.
It was perhaps because of this that no one paid any further attention to little Snjolfur. When the rescue-party and the people who had come out of mere curiosity made their way back for a bite of breakfast and a sledge for the body, the boy was left alone on the Point.
The snow-slip had shifted the cabin and it was all twisted and smashed; posts missing their laths stuck up out of the snow, tools and household gear were visible here and there—when he laid hold of them, they were as if bonded the snow. Snjolfur wandered down to the shore with the idea of seeing what had become of the boat. When he saw with what cold glee the waves were playing with its shattered fragments amongst the lumpy masses of snow below highwatermark, his frown deepened, but he did not say anything.
He did not stay long on the shore this time. When he got back to the cave, he sat down wearily on the rock beside his dead father. It's a poor look-out, he thought; he might have sold the boat if it hadn't been smashed—somewhere he had to get enough to pay for the funeral. Snjolfur had always said it was essential to have enough to cover your own funeral—there was no greater or more irredeemable disgrace than to be slipped into the ground at the expense of the parish. Fortunately his prospects weren't so bad, he had said. They could both die peacefully whenever the time came—there was the cabin, the boat, the tools and other gear, and finally the land itself—these would surely fetch enough to meet the cost of coffin and funeral service, as well as a cup of coffee for anyone who would put himself out so far as to accept their hospitality on that occasion. But now, contrary to custom, his father had not proved an oracle—he was dead and everything else had gone with him—except the land on the Point. And how was that to be turned into cash when there was no cabin on it? He would probably have to starve to death himself. Wouldn't it be simplest to run down to the shore and throw himself in the sea? But—then both he and his father would have to be buried by the parish. There were only his shoulders to carry the burden. If they both rested in a shameful grave, it would be his fault—he hadn't the heart to do it.
Little Snjolfur's head hurt with all this hard thinking. He felt he wanted to give up and let things slide. But how can a man give up when he has nowhere to live? It would be cold spending the night out here in the open.
The boy thought this out. Then he began to drag posts, pieces of rafter and other wreckage over to the cave. He laid the longest pieces sloping against the cave-mouth—he badly wanted his father to be within four walls,—covered them over and filled the gaps with bits of sail-cloth and anything else handy, and finished by shovelling snow up over the whole structure. Before long it was rather better in the cave than out-of-doors, though the most important thing was to have Snjolfur with him for his last days above ground—it might be a week or more. It was no easy matter to make a coffin and dig out frozen ground. It would certainly be a poor coffin if he had to make it himself.
When little Snjolfur had finished making his shelter, he crept inside and sat down with outstretched legs close to his father. By this time the boy was tired out and sleepy. He was on the point of dropping off, when he remembered that he had still not decided how to pay for the funeral. He was wide awake again at once. That problem had to be solved without more ado—and suddenly he saw a gleam of hope—is wasn't so unattainable after all—he might meet the cost of the funeral and maintain himself into the bargain, at any rate for a start. His drowsiness fell from him, he slipped out of the cave and strode off towards the village.
He went straight along the street in the direction of the store, looking neither to right nor left, heedless of the unfriendly glances of the villagers.—Wretched boy—he didn't even cry when his father died! were the words of those respectable, generous-hearted and high-minded folk.
When little Snjolfur got to the factor's house, he went straight into the store and asked if he might speak to the master. The storeman stared and lingered before finally shuffling to the door of the office and knocking. In a moment the door was half opened by the factor himself, who, when he caught sight of little Snjolfur and heard that he wanted to speak to him, turned to him again and, after looking him up and down, invited him in.
Little Snjolfur put his cap on the counter and did not wait to be asked twice.
Well, young man? said the factor.
The youngster nearly lost heart completely, but he screwed himself up and inquired diffidently whether the factor knew that there were unusually good landing-facilities out on the Point.
It is much worse in your landing-place than it is in ours out there.
The factor had to smile at the gravity and spirit of the boy—he confessed that he had heard it spoken of.
Then little Snjolfur came to the heart of the—if he let out the use of the landing-place on the Point to the factor for the coming summer—how much would he be willing to pay to have his Faroese crews land their catches there?—Only for the coming summer, mind!
Wouldn't it be more straightforward if I bought the Point from you? asked the factor, doing his best to conceal his amusement.
Little Snjolfur stoutly rejected this suggestion—he didn't want that.—Then I have no home—if I sell the Point, I mean.
The factor tried to get him to see that he could not live there in any case, by himself, destitute, in the open.
They will not allow it, my boy.
The lad steadfastly refused to accept the notion that he would be in the open out there—he had already built himself a shelter where he could lie snug.
And as soon as spring comes, I shall build another cabin—it needn't be big and there's a good bit of wood out there. But, as I expect you know, I've lost Snjolfur—and the boat. I don't think there's any hope of putting the bits of her together again. Now that I've no boat, I thought I might let out the landing-place, if I could make something out of it. The Faroese would be sure to give me something for the pot if I gave them a hand with launching and unloading. They could row most ways from there—I'm not exaggerating—they had to stay at home time and time again last summer, when it was easy for Snjolfur and me to put off. There's a world of difference between a deep-water landing-place and a shallow-water one—that's what Snjolfur said many a time.
The factor asked his visitor what price he had thought of putting on it for the summer. I don't know what the funeral will cost yet, replied the orphan in worried tones. At any rate I should need enough to pay for Snjolfur's funeral. Then I should count myself lucky.
Then let's say that, struck in the factor, and went on to say that he would see about the coffin and everything—there was no need for little Snjolfur to fret about it any more. Without thinking, he found himself opening the door for his guest, diminutive though he was,—but the boy stood there as if he had not seen him do it, and it was written clear on his face that he had not yet finished the business that brought him; the anxious look was still strong on his ruddy face, firm-featured beyond his years.
When are you expecting the ship with your stores?
The factor replied that it would hardly come tomorrow, perhaps the day after. It was a puzzle to know why the boy had asked—the pair of them, father and son, did not usually ask about his stores until they brought the cash to buy them.
Little Snjolfur did not take his eyes from the factor's face. The words stuck in his throat, but at last he managed to get his question out: In that case, wouldn't the factor be needing a boy to help in the store?
The factor did not deny it.
But he ought to be past his confirmation for preference, he added with a smile.
It looked as if little Snjolfur was ready for this answer, and indeed his errand was now at an end, but he asked the factor to come out with him round the corner of the store. They went out, the boy in front, and onto the pebble-bank nearby. The boy stopped at a stone lying there, got a grip of it, lifted it without any obvious exertion and heaved it away from him. Then he turned to the factor.
We call this stone the Weakling. The boy you had last summer couldn't lift it high enough to let the damp in underneath—much less any further!
Oh, well then, seeing you are stronger than he was, it ought to be possible to make use of you in some way, even though you are on the wrong side of confirmation, replied the factor in a milder tone.
Do I get my keep while I'm with you? And the same wages as he had? continued the youngster, who was the sort that likes to know where he stands in good time.
But of course, answered the factor, who for once was in no mood to drive a hard bargain.
That's good—then I shan't go on the parish, said little Snjolfur, and was easier in his mind. The man who has got something to pot in himself and on himself isn't a pauper,—Snjolfur often used to say that, he added, and he straightened himself up proudly and offered his hand to the factor, just as he had seen his father do. Good-bye, he said. I shall come then—not tomorrow but the day after.
The factor told him to come in again for a minute and leading the way to the kitchen-door he ushered little Snjolfur into the warmth. He asked the cook if she couldn't give this nipper here a bite of something to eat, preferably something warm—he could do with it.
Little Snjolfur would not accept any food.
Aren't you hungry? asked the astonished factor.
The boy could not deny that he was—and for the rest he could hardly get his words out with the sharpness of his hunger whetted still keener by the blessed smell of cooking. But he resisted the temptation:
I am not a beggar, he said.
The factor was upset and he saw that he had set about it clumsily. He went over to the dogged youngster, patted his head and, with a nod to the cook, led little Snjolfur into the dining-room.
Have you never seen your father give his visitors a drink or offer them a cup of coffee when they came to see him? he asked, and he gave his words a resentful tone.
Little Snjolfur had to confess that his father had sometimes offered hospitality to a visitor.
There you are then, said the factor. It's just ordinary good manners to offer hospitality—and to accept it. Refusing a well-meant invitation for no reason can mean the end of a friendship. You are a visitor here, so naturally I offer you something to eat: we have made an important deal and, what's more, we have come to terms over a job. If you won't accept ordinary hospitality, it's hard to see how the rest is going to work out.
The boy sighed: of course, it must be as the factor said. But he was in a hurry. Snjolfur was by himself out on the Point. His eyes wandered round the room—then he added, very seriously: The point is to pay your debts, not owe anybody anything, and trust in Providence.
There was never a truer word spoken, agreed the factor, and as he said it he pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket. He's a chip of the old block, he muttered, and putting his hand on little Snjolfur's shoulder, he blessed him.
The boy was astonished to see a grown man with tears in his eyes.
Snjolfur never cried, he said, and went on: I haven't cried either since I was little—I nearly did when I knew Snjolfur was dead. But I was afraid he wouldn't like it, and I stopped myself.
A moment later and tears overwhelmed little Snjolfur.—It is a consolation, albeit a poor one, to lean for a while on the bosom of a companion.
GUDMUNDUR G. HAGALIN
THE FOX SKIN
No need to take care now about fastening the door, Arni of Bali said to himself as he wrapped the string around the nail driven into the door-post of the outlying sheepcote. Then he turned around, took out his handkerchief, and, putting it to his nose, blew vigorously. This done, he folded the handkerchief together again, wiped his mouth and nose, and took out his snuff horn.
What fine balmy weather, thought Arni. That miserable fox won't come near sheepcotes or houses now. Blast its hide! Yes, it had caused him many a wakeful night. All the neighbouring farmers would have the fool's luck to catch a fox every single winter. All but him. He couldn't even wound a vixen, and had in all his life never caught any kind of fox. Wouldn't it be fun to bring home a dark brown pelt, one with fine overhair? Yes, wouldn't that be fun? Arni shook his head in delight, cleared his throat vigorously, and took a pinch of snuff.
Bending his steps homeward, he tottered along with his body half stooped, as was his habit, and his hands behind his back. When he looked up, he did not straighten out, but bent his neck back so his head lay between his shoulder blades. Then his red-rimmed eyes looked as if they were about to pop out of his head, his dark red beard rose up as though striving to free itself from its roots, and his empurpled nose and scarlet cheek-bones protruded.
Pretty good under foot, thought Arni. At least it was easy to go between the sheepcotes and the house. Everything pretty quiet just now. The sheep took care of themselves during the day, and grazing was plentiful along the seashore and on the hillsides. No reason why he might not now and then lie in wait somewhat into the night in the hope of catching a fox; he wasn't too tired for that. But he had given up all that sort of thing. It brought only vexation and trouble. Besides, he had told everybody that he did not think it worth his while to waste his time on such things and perhaps catch his death to boot. The Lord knew that was mere pretence. Eighty crowns for a beautiful, dark brown fox skin was a tidy sum! But a man had to think up something to say for himself, the way they all harped on fox-hunting: Bjarni of Fell caught a white vixen night before last, or Einar of Brekka caught a brown dog-fox yesterday. Or if a man stepped over to a neighbour's for a moment: Any hunting? Anyone shot a fox? Our Gisli here caught a grayish brown one last evening. Such incessant twaddle!
Arni's breath came short. Wasn't it enough if a man made an honest living? Yet, work or achievement which brought no joy was unblessed. At this point Samur darted up. Arni thought the dog had deserted him and rushed off home. Now, what in the world ailed the creature? Shame on you for a pesky cur! Can't you be still a minute, you brute? Must I beat you? asked Arni, making threatening gestures at Samur, a large, black-spotted dog with ugly, shaggy hair. But Samur darted away, ran off whimpering; he would pause now and then and look back at his master, until finally he disappeared behind a big boulder.
What's got into the beast? He can't have found a fox trail, can he?
Arni walked straight to the rock where Samur had disappeared; then slowing down his pace, he tiptoed as if he expected to find a fox hidden there. Yes, there was Samur. There he lay in front of a hole, whimpering and wagging his tail.
Shame on you, Samur!
Arni lay down prone on the snow and stretched his arm into the hole. But all of a sudden he jerked his hand back, his heart beating as if it would tear itself out of his breast. He had so plainly felt something furry inside the hole, and he was badly mistaken if a strong fox odour did not come out of it. Was the fox alive, or was it dead? Might it bite him fatally? But that made no difference. Now that he had a good chance of taking a fox, it was do or die. He stood up straight and stretched every muscle, and pulled the mitten on his right hand carefully up over his wrist. Then he knelt down, thrust his hand in the hole, set his teeth, and screwed up his face. Yes, now he had caught hold of it and was pulling it carefully out. Well, well, well, well! Not so bad! A dark brown tail, a glossy body, and what fine over-hair! For once Arni of Bali had some luck! The fox was dead; it had been shot in the belly and just crept in there to die. Sly devil! Poor beast! Blessed creature! Arni ended by feeling quite tenderly towards the fox. He hardly knew how to give utterance to his joy.
Good old Samur, my own precious dog, let me pat you, said Arni, rubbing the dog's cheek with his own. They could shout themselves blue in the face. It was no trick to kill all you wanted of these little devils if you just had the powder and shot and were willing to waste your time on it. But here Arni's face fell. He did not even have his gun with him. It stood, all covered with rust, at home out in the shed. Just his luck! And how could he claim to have shot a fox without a gun?—Get out of here, Samur. Shame on you, you rascal!—And Arni booted Samur so hard that the dog yelped.
But, in direst need, help is at hand. He could wait for the cover of darkness. Not even his wife should know but that he had shot the fox. Wouldn't she stare at him? She had always defied him and tried to belittle him. No, she should not learn the truth, she least of all. He would not tell a soul. Now Samur, he knew how to hold his tongue, faithful creature! Arni sat down on the rock, with the fox on his knees, and started singing to pass the time, allowing his good cheer to ring out as far as his voice would carry:
My fine Sunday cap has been carried away By a furious gale; And I'll wear it no more to the chapel to pray In the wind and the hail.
He chanted this ballad over and over again until he was tired, then sat still, smiling and stroking the fox skin. He had learned the song when he was a child from his mother, who had sung it all day long one spring while she was shearing the sheep. And he could not think of any other for the moment. It wasn't, in fact, a bad song. There were many good rhymesters in Iceland. He began singing again, rocking his body back and forth vehemently, and stroking the fox skin the while. And Samur, who sat in front of him, cocked his head first on one side, then on the other, and gave him a knowing look. At last the dog stretched out his neck, raised his muzzle into the air and howled, using every variation of key known to him. At this Arni stopped short and stared at him, then bending his head slightly to one side to study him, he roared with laughter.
What an extraordinary dog! Yes, really extraordinary.
In the little kitchen at Bali, Groa, the mistress, crouched before the stove and poked the fire with such vigour that both ashes and embers flew out on the floor. She was preparing to heat a mouthful of porridge for supper for her old man and the brats. She stood up, rubbed her eyes and swore. The horrid smoke that always came from that rattletrap of a stove! And that wretched old fool of a husband was not man enough to fix it! Oh, no, he wasn't handy enough for that; he went at every blessed thing as if his fingers were all thumbs. And where could he be loafing tonight? Not home yet! Serve him right if she locked the house and allowed him to stay in the sheepcotes, or wherever it was he was dawdling. There now, those infernal brats were at the spinning wheel. Groa jumped up, darted into the passage, and went to the stairs.
Will you leave that spinning wheel be, you young devils? If you break the flier or the upright, your little old mother will be after you.
A dead calm ensued. So Groa returned to the kitchen, and taking a loaf of pot-bread from the cupboard, cut a few slices and spread them with dripping.
Now a scratching sound was heard at the door, and Arni entered.
Good evening to all, said he with urbanity, as he set down the gun behind the kitchen door. Here's that gun. It has certainly paid for itself, poor old thing.
His wife did not reply to his greeting, but she eyed him askance with a look that was anything but loving.
Been fooling around with that gun! Why the blazes couldn't you have come home and brought me a bit of peat from the pit? A fine hunter you are! I might as well have married the devil.—And his wife turned from him with a sneer.
You're in a nice temper now, my dear. But just take a look at this, said Arni, throwing down the brown fox on the kitchen floor.
At first Groa stared at her husband as if she had never seen him before. Then she shook her head and smiled sarcastically.
You found it dead, I'll wager!
Arni started. His face turned red and his eyes protruded.
You would say that! You don't let me forget what a superior woman I married! Found it dead!—And Arni plumped down on the woodbox.
His wife laughed.
I'll wager I hit the nail on the head that time!
Arni jumped to his feet. That confounded old witch should not spoil his pleasure.
You're as stark, raving mad as you always have been. But I don't care what you say. Kids, come and look at the fox your father has shot.
Three days later they had a visitor. Arni stood outside and stared at him. For a wonder, somebody had at last found his way to Arni's. Days and nights had passed, but nobody had come. They always came when they weren't wanted. And now came Jon of Lon, that overbearing fellow! But now he could see that Arni of Bali was also a man among men.
Howdy, Arni, you poor fish! said Jon, fixing his steely gray eyes on Arni.
How are you, you old snake! answered Arni, smiling contemptuously. What monstrous eyes Jon had when he looked at a person!
Has something special happened? You're somehow so puffed up today, said Jon with a sarcastic smile.
Darn him! muttered Arni. Was he going to act just like Groa? In that case, Arni had at least a trump card in reserve.
Did you say something? inquired Jon, sticking a quid of tobacco into his mouth. Or wasn't it meant for my ears? Oh, well, I don't care for your mutterings, you poor wretch. But now, go ask your wife to give me a little drink of sour whey.
Arni turned round slowly and lazily. Wasn't the old fellow going to notice the skin? It wasn't so small that it couldn't be seen. There it hung on the wall, right in the sunlight, combed and beautifully glossy.
That's quite a nice fox skin. Whose is it? asked Jon, walking over to the wall.
Arni turned round. He could feel his heart beating fast.
Mine, he said, with what calm he could muster.
What is the idea of you buying a fox skin, you poor beggar?
Buying? Arni sighed. You think I can't shoot me a fox?
You! Jon laughed. That's a downright lie, my dear Arni.
A lie! You'd best not tell people they lie unless you know more about it. A scoundrel like you, I say, a scoundrel like you! replied Arni, swelling. I think you'd better be getting in and see her. You know her pretty well, I believe.
Jon looked at the farmer of Bali with his steely eyes.
For whom are you keeping the skin, Arni?
No one, said Arni, crossly; then after some hesitation: The Lord gave it to me.
All right, Arni. Miracles never cease. That is plain enough after this, and no question about it. That's an eighty-crown skin, however you came by it. But now let's go in and see Groa. As you say, I know her pretty well. She was a smart girl, you poor wretch. Too bad I was married and had to throw her to a creature like you.
Arni grinned and, trotting to the door of the house, called: Groa, a visitor to see you.
The woman came to the door. A smile played about her lips, smouldering embers glowed in her blue eyes, and the sunlight lighted up the unkempt braids of golden hair which fell down about her pale cheeks.
But Arni for once was satisfied. At last Jon was properly impressed. The affair between Groa and Jon was something that could not be helped. Jon surely regretted having lost that girl! Yes, indeed! And she had her good points. She was smart, and a hundred crowns a year, besides everything else that was brought them from Lon, was pretty good compensation. Yes, many a man had married less well than Arni of Bali. And the children were his, most of them, anyway. Nobody need tell him anything else.
The fox skin became Arni of Bali's most cherished possession. Every day, when the weather was clear, he would hang it, well smoothed and combed, on the outside wall, and when he left home he carefully put it away in a safe place. The skin became famous throughout the district, and many of the younger men made special trips to Bali to examine it. Arni would beam with joy and strut around with a knowing, self-satisfied expression on his face, and would tell of the patience, the agility, and the marksmanship he had to put into killing this monstrously clever fox. It certainly wasn't hard to kill all you wanted of these devils, if you just had the powder and shot and were willing to give your time to it, he would say, as he turned the skin so that the sunlight shone full on the glossy pelt.
Then one day that fall, Arni came home from tending the sheep, which had just been brought down from the mountain pastures. He hung the skin out and went into the kitchen, where Groa was busy washing, sat down on a box by the wall on the other side of the room, let his head rest on his hands, and looked wise. For a while there was silence. At last Groa looked up from her washtub and gave Arni a piercing glance.
Have you got your eye on a cow to replace the greyspotted one we killed last spring?
Cow? asked Arni, scratching his head. Cow? Yes, so you say, my good woman.
So I say? Do you think the milk from Dumba alone goes very far in feeding such a flock of children as we have? You haven't gone and squandered the money we got for Skjalda? asked Groa, looking harder still at her husband.
Don't be foolish, woman! The money lies untouched at the factor's. But he wouldn't pay much for the meat and hide of Skjalda, not anywhere near enough to buy a good milking cow. He said the English on the trawlers don't set much store by cow's meat. The summer has been only so-so, and I'm sure we'll have plenty of uses for what money I've been able to scrape together. Of course, a cow is a good thing to buy, an enjoyable luxury, if only you have plenty of money.
If you can't scrape together the money for a cow, we must cut expenses somehow. Perhaps you could stop stuffing your nostrils with that dirty snuff? And you ought at any rate to be able to sell that fancy fox skin you play with so childishly.
Is that so!
Yes, you play with that wretched fox skin just exactly like any crazy youngster.
Wretched is it? Take care what you say, woman! Wretched skin! A fine judge of such matters you are!—And standing up, Arni paced the kitchen floor.—An eighty-crown skin! And you call it wretched! Jon of Lon didn't call it any names. You'll believe at least what he says.
Now, don't get puffed up. You ought to be thankful to get what you can for the skin. It will help in buying the cow.
The cow? Let me tell you, woman, that I am not going to buy a cow for the skin. You can take it from me that you will never get a cow for that skin. Or anything else, in fact. The farmer at Lon can shell out whatever is needed for buying the cow. That's the least he can do for you.
Groa stopped her washing, stared for a few seconds at Arni, and then with a quick movement walked up to him, brandishing a bit of wet linen.
Will you tell me what you're going to do with the skin? she asked, almost in a whisper.
Arni shrank back. The way to the door was cut off. He raised his arm in self-defence and retreated as far as possible into the corner.
I'm going to sell it. Now be reasonable, Groa. I'm going to sell it.
And what are you going to buy for it? his wife hissed, boring into him with her eyes.
A cow. I'm going to buy a cow for it.
You lie! You know you're not going to sell it. You're going to play with it. Know your children hungering for milk and play with the skin!
No, God be praised, they're—not—yours, said Groa, allowing the blows to rain on Arni.—But now I'll keep the skin for you.—And like an arrow she shot out of the door, all out of breath and trembling.
For a few seconds Arni stood still. His eyes seemed bursting out of their sockets, and the hair in his beard stood on end. In a flash he rushed over the kitchen floor and out of the house.
Groa had just taken the skin down off the nail on the wall. Now she brandished it and looked at Arni with fury in her gaze. But he did not wait. He rushed at her, gave her such a shove that she fell, and, snatching the skin from her, ran. A safe distance away, he turned and stood panting for several seconds. At last, exhausted and trembling with rage, he hissed:
I tell you, Groa. I'll have my way about this. The skin is the only thing that is all my own, and no one shall take it from me.
Arni fled then. He took to his heels, and ran away as fast as he could up the slopes.
Far in the innermost corner of the outlying sheepcote at Bali, to which the sun's rays never reach, Arni built himself a little cupboard. This cupboard is kept carefully locked, and Arni carries the key on a string which hangs around his neck. Arni now has become quite prosperous. For a long time it was thought that he must keep money in the cupboard, but last spring an acquaintance of his stopped at the outlying sheepcote on his way from the village. The man had some liquor with him and gave Arni a taste. At last the visitor was allowed to see what the cupboard contained—a carefully combed and smoothed dark brown fox skin. Arni was visibly moved by the unveiling of his secret. Staring at the ceiling, he licked his whiskers and sighed deeply.
It seems to me, Gisli, he said to his friend, that I'd rather lose all my ewes than this skin, for it was the thing which once made me say, 'Thus far and no farther!' And since then I seem to own something right here in my breast which not even Jon of Lon can take away from me. I think I am now beginning to understand what is meant in the Scriptures by 'the treasure which neither moth nor rust can currupt.'
Arni's red-rimmed eyes were moist. For a while he stood there thinking. But all of a sudden he shook his head and, turning to his acquaintance, said: Let's see the bottle. A man seems to feel warmer inside if he gets a little drop.—And Arni shook himself as if the mental strain of his philosophizing had occasioned in him a slight chill.
HALLDOR KILJAN LAXNESS
The road leads from Old Iceland to New Iceland. It is the way of men from the old to the new in the hope that the new will be better than the old. So Torfi Torfason has sold his sheep and his cows and his horses, torn himself away from his land, and journeyed to America— where the raisins grow all over the place and where a much brighter future awaits us and our children. And he took his ewes by the horn for the last time, led them to the highest bidder, and said: Now this one is my good Goldbrow who brings back her two lambs from Mulata every fall. And what do you say to the coat of wool on Bobbin here? She's a fine sturdy lass, Bobbin, isn't she?
And thus he sold them one after another, holding them himself by the horn. And he pressed their horns against the callouses on his palm for the last time. These were his ewes, who had crowded around the manger in the dead of winter and stuck their noses into the fragrant hay. And when he came home from the long trip to the market town after having wrangled with some of the rascals there, he marvelled at how snow-white they were in the fleece. They were like a special kind of people and yet better than people in general. And yonder were his cows being led off the place like large and foolish women, who are nevertheless kindness itself, and you are fond of them because you have known them since you were young. They were led out through the lanes, and strange boys urged them on with bits of strap. And he patted his horses on the rump for the last time and sold them to the highest bidder, these fine old fellows who were perhaps the only beings in the world that understood him and knew him and esteemed him. He had known them since they were boys full of pomp and show. Now he sold them for money because the way of man leads from the old to the new, from Old Iceland to New Iceland, and, the evening after this sale, he no more thought of saying his prayers than would a man who had taken God Almighty by the horn, patted Him on the rump, and sold Him, and let some strange boy urge Him on with a bit of strap. He felt that he was an evil man, a downright ungodly man, and he asked his wife what the devil she was sniffling about.
In the middle of July a new settler put up a log cabin on a grassy plot in the swamps along Icelandic River, a short distance from what is now called Riverton in New Iceland. Torfi hung the picture of Jon Sigurdsson on one wall, and on another his wife hung a calendar with a picture of a girl in a wide-brimmed hat. The neighbours were helpful to them in building their cabin, making ditches, and in other ways. All that summer Torfi stood up to his hips in mud digging ditches, and when the bottom was worn out of his shoes and the soles of his feet began to get sore from the shovel, he hit on a plan: he cut the bottom out of a tin can and stuck his toe into the cylinder. And the first evening when he came home from the ditch- digging. and was struggling to remove from himself that sticky clay which is peculiar to the soil of Manitoba, he could not help saying to his wife: It's really remarkable how filthy the mud is here in New Iceland.
But that summer there was an epidemic among the children, and Torfi Torfason lost two of his four, a six-year old girl and a three-year old boy. Their names were Jon and Maria. The neighbours helped him to make a coffin. A clergyman was brought from a distance, and he buried Jon and Maria, and Torfi Torfason paid what was asked. A few not very well washed Icelanders, their old hats in their toil-worn hands, stood over the grave and droned sadly. Torfi Torfason had seen to it that every body would get coffee and fritters and Christmas cakes. But when autumn came, the weather grew cold and the snow fell, and then his wife had a new baby who filled the log cabin with fresh crying. This was a Canadian Icelander. After that came Indian Summer with the multi-coloured forests.
And the Indians came down from the North by their winding trails along the river and wanted to buy themselves mittens. They took things very calmly and did not fuss about trifles, but bought a single pair of mittens for a whole haunch of venison together with the shoulder. Then they bought a scarf and socks for a whole carcass. After that they trudged off again with their mittens and scarfs like any other improvident wretches.
Then came the winter, and what was to be done now? Torfi christened his farm Riverbank. There was only one cow at Riverbank, three children, and very little in the cupboard. The cow's name was Mulley, in spite of the fact that she had very long horns, and she was known as Riverbank Mulley. And she had big eyes and stared like a foreigner at the farmer's wife and mooed every time anybody walked past the door.
I don't think poor Mulley will be able to feed us all this winter, said Torfi Torfason.
Have you thought of anything? asked Torfi Torfason's wife.
Nothing unless to go north and fish in the lake. It's said that those who go there often do well for themselves.
I was thinking that if you went somewhere, I might just as well go somewhere too for the winter. Sigridur of New Farm says there's lots of work for washerwomen in Winnipeg in the winter. Some of the women from this district are going south the beginning of next week. I could pack up my old clothes on a sled like them and go too. I'd just leave little Tota here with the youngsters. She's going on fourteen now, Tota is.
I could perhaps manage to send home a mess of fish once in a while, said Torfi Torfason.
This was an evening early in November, snow had fallen on the woods, the swamps were frozen over. They spoke no more of their parting. Jon Sigurdsson grinned out into the room, and the calendar girl with the wide-brimmed hat laid her blessing upon the sleeping children.
The tiny kerosene lamp burned in the window, but the frost flowers bloomed on the window-panes.
It seems to me it can get cold here, no less than at home, said Torfi Torfason presently.
Do you remember what fun it often was when guests came in the evening? There would be sure to be talk about the sheep at this time of the autumn on our farm.
Oh, it's not much of a sheep country here in the west, said Torfi Torfason. But there's fishing in the lake ... And if you have decided to go south and get yourself a 'job', as they say here, then ...
If you write to Iceland, be sure to ask about our old cow Skjalda, how she is getting along. Our old Skjalda. Good old cow.
Then Torfi Torfason's wife spoke again:
By the way, what do you think of the cows here in America, Torfi? Don't you think they're awfully poor milkers? Somehow or other I feel as if I could never get fond of Mulley. It seems to me as if it would be impossible to let yourself get fond of a foreign cow.
Oh, that's just a notion, said Torfi Torfason, spitting through his teeth, although he had long since given up chewing. Why shouldn't the cows here be up and down just the same as other cows? But there's one thing sure. I'll never get so attached to another horse again, since I sold my Skjoni ... There was a fine fellow.
They never referred in any other way than this to what they had owned or what they had lost, but sat long silent, and the tiny lamp cast a glow on the frost flowers like a garden—two poor Icelanders, man and wife, who put out their light and go to sleep. Then begins the great, soundless, Canadian winter night.—
The women started off for Winnipeg a few days later, walking through the snow-white woods, over the frozen fields, a good three days' journey. They tied their belongings on to sleds. Each one drew her own sled. This was known as going washing in Winnipeg. Torfi Torfason remained at home one night longer.
He stood in the front yard outside of the cabin and looked after the women as they disappeared into the woods with their sleds. The November forests listened in the frost to the speech of these foreign women, echoed it, without understanding it. Ahead of them, walked an old man to lead the way. They wore Icelandic homespun skirts, and had them tucked up at the waist. Around their heads, they had tied Icelandic woollen shawls. They say they are such good walkers. They intend to take lodging somewhere for the night for their pennies.
When the women had disappeared, Torfi Torfason looked into the cabin where they had drunk their last drop of coffee, and the mugs were still standing unwashed on the ledge. Tota was taking care of the little boy, but little Imba was sitting silent beside the stove. Mamma had gone away. Torfi Torfason patched up the door, patched up the walls, all that day, and carried in wood. In the evening, the little girls bring him porridge, bread, and a slice of meat. The little boy frets and cries. And his sister, big Tota with her big red hands, takes him up in her arms and rocks him: Little brother must be good, little brother mustn't cry, little brother's going to get a drop of milk from his good old Mulley.—But the boy keeps on crying.
My Mulley cow, moo, moo, moo Mulley in the byre, What great big horns she has. What great big eyes she has! Blessings on my Mulley cow, my good old Mulley cow.
Our Mamma went away, 'way, 'way, Away went our Mamma. Our Mamma's gone but where, where, where. Where has she gone, our Mamma? She'll come back after Christmas and Christmas and Christmas, Back with a new dress for me, a new dress, a new dress.
We mustn't be a-crying, a-crying, a-crying, For surely she'll be coming, our Mamma, our Mamma,
For she is our good Mamma, our Mamma, our Mamma. God bless our Mamma and our little brother's Mamma.
But the boy still kept on crying. And Torfi Torfason ate his meal like a man who is trying to eat something in a hurry at a concert.
The day after, Torfi Torfason started off. A Canadian winter day, blue, vast, and calm, with ravens hovering over the snow-covered woods. He threaded his way along the trails northward to the lake, carrying his pack on his back. This was through unsettled country, nowhere a soul, nowhere the smoke from a cabin mile after mile, only those ravens, flying above the white woods and alighting on the branches as on a clay statue of Pallas. 'Nevermore.' And Torfi Torfason thinks of his ewes and his cows and his horses and all that he has lost.
Then all of a sudden a wretched bitch waddled out from the woods into his path. It was a vagrant bitch, as thin as a skeleton, and so big in the belly that she walked with difficulty. Her dugs dragged along the snow, for she was in pup. They came from opposite directions, two lonely creatures, who are paddling their own canoes in America, and meet one cold winter day out in the snow. At first she pricked up her ears and stared at the man with brown mistrustful eyes. Then she crouched down in the snow and began to tremble, and he understood that she was telling him she wasn't feeling well, that she had lost her master, that she had often been beaten, beaten, beaten, and never in her life had enough to eat, and that nobody had ever been kind to her, never; nobody knew, she was sure, how all this would end for her. She was very poor, she said.
Well, it takes all kinds to make a world, said Torfi Torfason. And he took off his pack and sat down in the snow with his legs stretched out in front of him. In the mouth of the pack there was something that little Tota had scraped together for her papa on the trip. And then the bitch began to wag her tail back and forth in the snow and gaze with lustful eyes at the mouth of the pack.
Well, well, poor doggie, so you have lost your master and have had nothing to eat since God knows when, and I've just chased out my wife, yes, yes, and she went away yesterday. Yes, yes, she's going to try to shift for herself as a washerwoman down in Winnipeg this winter, yes, yes, that's how it is now. Yes, yes, we packed up and left a fairly decent living there at home and came here into this damnable log-cabin existence, yes, yes. ... Well, try that in your chops, you miserable cur, you can gobble that up, I tell you. Oh, this is nothing but damned scraps and hardly fit to offer a dog, not even a stray dog, oh, no. Well, I can't bring myself to chase you away, poor wretch—we're all stray dogs in the eyes of the Lord in any case, that's what we all are....
Time passed on and Torfi Torfason fished in the lake and lived in a hut on some outlying island with his boss, a red-bearded man, who made money out of his fishing fleet as well as by selling other fishermen tobacco, liquor, and twine. The fisherman vehemently disliked the dog and said every day that that damned bitch ought to be killed. He had built this cabin on the island himself. It was divided into two parts, a hall and a room. They slept in the room, and in the hall they kept fishing tackle, food, and other supplies, but the bitch slept on the step outside the cabin door. The fisherman was not a generous man and gave Torfi the smaller share of the food. He absolutely forbade giving the dog the tiniest morsel and said that bitch ought to be killed. To this Torfi made no answer, but always stole a bite for the dog when the fisherman had gone to bed. Now the time came when the bitch was to pup. The bitch pupped. And when she had finished pupping, he gave her a fine chunk of meat, which he stole from the fisherman, for he knew that bitter is the hunger of the woman in child-bed, and let her lie on an old sack in the hall, directly against the will of the fisherman. Then he lay down to sleep.
But he had not lain long when he is aroused by someone walking about and he cannot figure out why. But it turns out to be the fisherman, who gets up out of bed, walks out into the hall. lights the lamp, takes the bitch by the scruff of the neck, and throws her out in the snow. Then he closes the outer door, puts out the light, and lies down on his bunk. Now it is quiet for a while, until the bitch begins to howl outside and the pups to whine piteously in the hall. Then Torfi Torfason gets up, gropes his way out through the hall, lets the bitch in, and she crawls at once over her pups. After that he lies down to sleep. But he has not lain long when he is aroused by somebody walking about and he can not figure out why. But it turns out to be the fisherman, who gets up out of bed, walks out into the hall, lights the lamp, takes the bitch by the scruff of her neck for the second time and throws her out into the snow. Then he lies down to sleep again. Again the bitch begins to howl outside and the pups to whine, and Torfi Torfason gets up out of bed, lets the bitch in to the pups again, and again lies down. After a little while the fisherman gets up again, lights the lantern, and fares forth. But even soft iron can be whetted sharp, and now Torfi Torfason springs out of bed a third time and out into the hall after the fisherman.
Either you leave the dog alone or both of us will go, I and the dog, says Torfi Torfason, and it was only a matter of seconds till he laid hands on his master. A hard scuffle began and the cabin shook with it, and everything fell over and broke that was in the way. They gave each other many and heavy blows, but the fisherman was the more warlike, until Torfi tackled low, grasped him round the waist, and did not let up in the attack until he had the fisherman doubled up with his chin against his knees. Then he opened the door of the cabin and threw him out somewhere into the wide world.
Outside, the weather was calm, the stars were shining, it was extremely cold, and there was snow over everything. Torfi was all black and blue and bleeding, hot and panting after the struggle. So this was what had to happen to Torfi Torfason, renowned as a man of peace, who had never harmed a living creature—to throw a man out of his own house, hurl him out on the frozen ground in the middle of the night, and all for one she-dog. Perhaps I have even killed him, Torfi thought, but that's the end of that—that's how it had to be. To think that I ever moved to New Iceland!
And he sauntered out of the cabin, coatless as he stood, sauntered out on to the icy ground and headed for the woods. And he had hardly walked twenty feet when he had forgotten both his rage and the fisherman and started to think about what he had owned and what he had lost. Nobody knows what he has owned until he has lost it. He began to think about his sheep, which were as white as snow in the fleece, about his horses, fine old fellows, who were the only ones who understood him and knew him and esteemed him, and about his cows, which were led out the lanes one evening last spring and strange boys ran after them with bits of strap. And he began to think about Jon and Maria, whom God Almighty had taken to Himself up in yon great, foreign heaven, which vaults over New Iceland and is something altogether different from the heaven at home. And he saw still in his mind those Icelandic pioneers who had stood over the grave with their old hats in their sorely tired hands and droned.
And he threw himself down on the frozen ground among the trees and cried bitterly in the frosty night—this big strong man who had gone all the way from Old Iceland to New Iceland—this proletarian who had brought his children as a sacrifice to the hope of a much worthier future, a more perfect life. His tears fell on the ice.