A short distance from the bridge over the ravine, behind the hill, there was, at the time our story begins, a piece of land overgrown with bushes, which for years had been the cause of dispute between the two farms. The road to it had been barred by Jon Evjen twenty years before with three hedges, which looked very dry and fragile, it is true, but were recognized by the law as a sign of possession authenticated by years, and the land was given to Evjen.
This lawsuit impoverished the owner of Strömshagen, who dying left the estate, loaded with debt, to his widow and son Gjermund, a lad of twenty-two. He was a sturdy youth, with dark hair, heavy eyebrows, and a full, but clever, intelligent face. His fault was a proneness to sudden fits of anger, and a readiness to assert his rights with his fist, when fair words might have served his purpose. Besides, he was much prouder than he seemed, and in trading often thought that people would hardly have dared take advantage of him, if he had been a rich land-owner.
An air of prosperity pervaded Evjen. The oldest daughter's name was Sigrid; she was tall, fair, remarkably beautiful, and moreover very skilful in household work, with a quiet manner in which was a certain innate dignity. Whenever she spoke, her words were kind and sensible; she had the ruling voice in the family council. Every one said she looked like the heiress of a large estate, and there was no lack of suitors who offered them, but she refused all proposals. Her parents were displeased: either she did not wish to marry at all, or she showed less wisdom in this matter than in other things; but they let her have her will. Yet when one Sunday, on the way home from church, three of the richest peasants, who had vainly asked for Sigrid's hand, walked stiffly and proudly past them, old Jon Evjen could not help saying, "it seemed to him she would reject all her suitors till there was nobody left except that brawler Gjermund Strömshagen, who could scarcely support himself on his farm." At these words Sigrid grew scarlet and left the room. When she returned, it was evident that she had been weeping. Jon guessed that it was on account of his reproof, and almost regretted it, but said nothing.
Gjermund and Sigrid had often played together as children; they had met sometimes above by the bridge, sometimes below on the level shore of the bay. Their parents, however, had been less intimate, as they were not related, and their summer pastures were far away from each other. The farms, too, were not so near as would probably be supposed at the first glance, for the real bridge over the river was much farther below, at a place where the road from Evjen turned down to the fiord. Only a foot or bridle path led to it from Strömshagen.
The children, however, as has already been mentioned, had often played together. When Sigrid, who was three years younger, appeared under the birches on the shore, Gjermund was soon standing with his fishing-rod on the other side. From a cliff, beneath which the stream was somewhat narrower, he could swing himself by the aid of his pole to the lower side; there he built houses for her and made ponds, till it was time for him to return home across the lore bridge. She went with him to that point, but was forbidden to cross. It would be dangerous, her father said, and besides she had nothing to do on the other side.
When the lawsuit came they met more rarely, but always had an eye on each other, even when in course of time they grew up. The Birkberg is so much higher than the Evje alp, that Gjermund could overlook it; in summer he looked like a mere speck on the rocks, but she could distinguish him. Besides Gjermund was an active hunter, and they often met out of doors; then there was always a great deal to be said. On the way to church the opportunity was less favorable, but even then they frequently found means to exchange a few words.
At this time Gjermund had a grey horse, of which he was not a little proud. It was uncommonly well-formed, with a broad chest, slender limbs, and a graceful head, with large eyes, and small, pointed ears. It had been raised on the estate from a foal, was now eight years old, and on account of its color always called "the Grey."
It was always a pleasure to Gjermund when the Grey, escaping from the mountain, neighed at the gate. The animal occasionally made such excursions, to see how matters were progressing at home; it was sure of getting a handful of salt, or some special dainty. It usually trotted to the stable door, accompanied by a barking dog, thrust its head into the familiar place, then wheeled around, tossing its neck so that the fluttering mane fell back from its eyes, cantered around the farmyard snuffing at first one thing and then another, and finally stopped at the door of the house. There it waited quietly to see what would come next; but if the delay was too long, its body gradually disappeared within the little entry, till nothing was visible on the stone flags outside except the hind legs and tail. The people in the house were obliged to drive the Grey out, before they could open the door of the room.
However the rest of the cattle might fare - and in the spring the supply of fodder was often scanty enough, since here, as on many mountain farms, they kept too much stock - the Grey was always fat and in good condition. It was well known, though never mentioned aloud, that the brownie in the stable had chosen the horse for his special favorite. For this reason the Grey always looked into the stable-door first when he came into the farmyard; besides he wore in his mane an elf-braid, which is an unfailing sign. No one ventures to undo this braid, because the animal will then become as thin as it was fat.
The grey had also managed to make good friends at Evjen. When still a colt, roaming about the steep pasture by the river, Sigrid had often tossed bread to it across the stream. Since then, whenever it saw her, it always came neighing down the hill, and with raised head waited to see what was coming. If she then walked down the river bank, it followed along the opposite shore. Once it cautiously crossed the log bridge over the ravine and reached the Evjen farmyard, where Sigrid and her sisters gave it plenty of salt and bread. Although the owners of Strömshagen tried to prevent it, the memory of this feast was too tempting to the Grey for it not to find the way there again, in spite of fences.
One summer afternoon, when it was standing in the farmyard, the youngest child crept to the open well and stretched its little arms over the edge. The Grey went up to the child, seized its little skirt with its teeth, and drew it some distance away. Since that time the animal had been privileged. Jon Evjen, though he did not like to have it come, never drove it away; but as soon as the graceful creature had been fed, it trotted quietly home.
One day the log bridge broke down. According to an old custom between the farms each owner was to repair half; but when Gjermund crossed the stream to discuss the matter, Jon answered curtly he had no use for the bridge, and could not see why Gjermund needed it; if any road between the farms was wanted, there was the land way; the bridge had been built long ago before the other road was made.
Sigrid was standing at the well; she spoke to Gjermund as he passed, but did not come into the room. When he passed her again on his way home (she was now alone somewhat farther down the hill), he looked at her gravely.
"The Grey can't cross the ravine any more, Sigrid, your father wants nothing but the land road"
"That may be the shortest, Gjermund," she answered gently.
"But so many use it now," replied Gjermund bitterly, "I have no large estate to inherit like them."
"I will wait, as you know," she said in a still lower tone, with downcast eyes.
"God bless you for these words, Sigrid, I long to hear them oftener," said Gjermund as he turned.
Both were very pale, and could only exchange a few words in passing, but he took a wild-flower she had held in her hand.
Gjermund had always been greatly annoyed, when people said that in his circumstances he ought to sell the horse, he might perhaps get sixty thalers for it. But now he no longer heeded what they said, and to the surprise of all was as friendly and accessible as in former days. He had made up his mind to sell the animal to some good man, who he knew would take care of it, for he now meant to go out into the world as a horse-trader.
Many a quarrel about pastures and timber had taken place between the inhabitants of the two parishes on opposites sides of the Birkberg, and an old hatred consequently existed. The result of this state of affairs was continual brawls, when they met at market or elsewhere, and on the silent mountain many things had happened which were not fit for the ears of the magistrates. For this reason it was related as almost a miracle, that the rich Oesten Störsat came from the other side to Evjen. His business there could be easily guessed, and also that he had been refused. Everybody in the district rejoiced, but it was rumored in the other parish that Störsat had vowed that he would punish Gjermund Strömshagen, who was to blame for it, where he would feel it most. He was a man who had a great deal of money loaned in the neighborhood, but it was well known nobody in the parish owed him a shilling. So people laughed and wondered what he was going to do; where strength was concerned, he could not compare with Gjermund Strömshagen.
At midsummer the auction to raise money for taxes always took place. This did not mean much, as every one knew, for the magistrate always waited till it was convenient for the people to pay their assessments, but on account of the law all were obliged to go before him. Usually no one came to offer any higher bids, so matters were always left at the disposal of the judge. This year, however, at the first sound of the bell several people rode into the farmyard. It was Oesten Störsat with three companions. They bowed, sat down, and listened to the proceedings. When it came the turn of the grey horse, which was pledged for the last year's taxes, Oesten exclaimed that he would bid eighteen thalers. The magistrate looked at him gravely, and said that such was not the custom here, and besides it was a despicable. price.
"He is a poor magistrate who doesn't know the law," replied Oesten sharply, taking out a large purse and throwing a number of bank-notes on the table. "I believe that here as elsewhere the hammer falls at the best bid."
The veins on the judge's forehead swelled with anger, but he was forced to accept the offer.
When Gjermund heard that the Grey had been sold in such a way, and would be claimed in a few days, he was at first fairly beside himself with rage and desire for vengeance, but afterwards became so melancholy that he spent whole hours absorbed in thought, without making the slightest movement.
The day the Grey was to go, when the farewell hour had come, Gjermund went to the horse, patted it, and stood thoughtfully a long time with his arm thrown over its back, not noticing that his mother had come to the door several times and gazed anxiously at him; neither did he see that she went to Evjen in her holiday dress.
On reaching the other side she greeted the occupants of the farmhouse, and said if Sigrid wanted to see the Grey again she must go with her at once; it was already long past noon, and the horse would probably be taken away before supper.
There was something in the manner of the pale-faced woman with the black cap and white ribbon, which made this singular request seem almost natural to Sigrid's parents; she had certainly always been kind to the children.
After a short delay, during which the elderly visitor was urged to take some biscuits and coffee, Sigrid followed her, bareheaded, but in her Sunday dress, and with white sleeves, which at church are always concealed under a dark jacket.
The shadows were already beginning to lengthen, and the sun was casting a red light upon the Birkberg and glittering on the windows of Strömshagen, when the two walked up the hillside, one figure looking bent and diminutive under her large dark head-dress, the other, who was a little behind, tall and slender with braids of golden hair; but she too moved with drooping head and thoughts that oppressed her mind.
When they reached the farmyard, a third person came towards them, - it was the messenger. Gjermund had put the best bridle on the horse and was already standing with the halter in his hand, ready to deliver it. When he saw Sigrid, he started, and as he spoke to her every tinge of color left his face. The mother invited the messenger into the house to get something to eat; he would need it, she said, to strengthen him for the evil work he had to do, and it was already late in the day. And now the two were standing alone with the horse. Sigrid put its head on her shoulder, patted its slender neck, and took out some bread and salt she had brought with her; but the Grey, which had neighed softly at her approach, would not eat. The animal understood that something was going to happen. Gjermund stood silently leaning on its back, gazing at her. At last he said in a smothered tone, -
"It looks as if I were to lose not only the Grey, but more, far more, Sigrid."
Then she stretched her hand across the animal's back, clasped his firmly, and gazed into his eves as if, in spite of everything, she had the most perfect confidence in him - the two heads were of nearly equal height, her fair face was deeply flushed, his dark cheeks were pale.
"I'll try, Sigrid," he replied, answering her thought, "but there is little to be made here."
"You must become a trader, Gjermund, and be prudent - many a worthy man in the parish has begun in that way."
"How did you know I thought of it?"
"I suspected, and - your mother told me."
As the messenger came out at that moment, they withdrew their hands, and she only had time to whisper: "God will help you, Gjermund - I will wait."
The next morning, in the grey dawn, Gjermund drove a cow and heifer down to the fjord. He sold them to a merchant, filled a knapsack with various wares, and went out into the world as a trader.
One afternoon about seven years after, a man was sitting in a Skydo-Bauern's guest-room. He had arrived late the day before from a fair farther in the interior of the country, and spent the night here. The roads were bad for the Skydo-horses. The windows, into which the sun shone brightly, were wide open, and the man, who was clothed like a well-to-do trader, with silver buttons on his vest, seemed very thoughtful. On the table before him stood bread, butter, and cheese, with a bowl of milk, from which he drank, while a mug of beer was still untouched. Now and then he rested his head on his hand and looked out of the window.
The man, who sat so absorbed in thought, was Gjermund. His face now wore quite a different expression of manly vigor, and one might search a long time before recognizing the good, though quick-tempered lad, who had once lived at Strömshagen, and thought only of his betrothed.
During the first two years he had made but slow progress, especially as he was kind-hearted and credulous, and trusted people who cheated him. But afterwards he relied only on himself and trusted no one, and then fared admirably. From peddling he had risen to horse-trading, and of late carried it on on a large scale. He had now sold the last of his stock of horses, and was about to make a bargain for a piece of woodland.
Gjermund had long since sent home money enough to clear Strömshagen of debt. Then he thought it might be well for him to wait till he could buy the two large meadows adjoining his farm. And when he was able to do that, he thought, what would Jon Evjen say if there were a new house and out-buildings at Strömshagen? These buildings gradually grew in his imagination, till they were as high as the magistrate's, and had two stories. He now had a round sum of eighteen thousand thalers, besides Strömshagen, but thought he would buy the neighboring farm of Birkstrand, with the mountain pastures, an estate twice as large as his own. After a few years he would doubtless be able to do so, if successful in the speculation in woodland, in which he now intended to invest his money.
After the love of money had once taken root in his soul, he constantly thought more and more of what Jon Evjen would say, and less of the daughter. Only during the first few years, when he made little progress, was she always in his thoughts, the sole object of his labors. Since that time he had seen and experienced many things, and now his mind was fixed entirely upon seeing Jon Evjen, who had won the lawsuit, bow low before him, when he returned home, and of course asked for his daughter.
He was now considering whether to proceed along the highroad to bid for the woodland, or continue in his old trade, - dealing in timber was hazardous, people said. Resting his head on his hand, he sat thinking of Birkstrand and Strömshagen, when a horse thrust its head through the window, snuffed at his arm, and touched him. He pushed the animal gently away, but, when the head was put in again with a low whinny, gave it half absently a piece of bread. It was a small, very thin grey horse, with a clipped mane, and as dirty as if it had been rolling in the mire, which covered it like a crust. Its back and sides were bruised by the saddle and harness. Tears fell from the poor creature's eyes, which it is said often happens when a horse is going to be sold, and it acted in a strangely familiar way, as it moved its short tail restlessly and pressed close to the wall.
Gjermund did not know how it happened - he was probably in an excited mood - but he could not help thinking of the Grey, and the day it was taken away from Strömshagen. The Birkberg, with the grey houses and the red Evjen-Hof on the opposite side of the mountain stream, suddenly appeared before his memory as distinctly as if reflected in a mirror. The leaves must now be unfolding on the hillside - he saw his mother sitting at the window with her knitting, and the people moving about their work; he saw old Jon at the Evjen-Hof, and the tall, fair girl, moving quietly about, saying little, but from time to time going to Strömshagen in her Sunday dress with its white sleeves, to see his mother and linger a while in the farmyard, as on the day when she had looked after the Grey. It was a long time now since he had thought of the Grey - he had owned many horses, and, as has already been said, experienced many things.
As he sat dreamily at the sunny window, giving the animal one bit of bread after another, everything grew strangely real. It seemed as if he ought to know the horse's head, with the delicate ears and bright eyes, that was constantly pushed into the window. It seemed as if he could see in bodily form, beside the animal, the tall, fair maiden, who with tears in her eyes, had clasped his hand over the horse's back, and begged him so faithfully to try, - she would wait.
But he now read a different expression in her eyes-he was at first inclined to contradict it with the proofs he had in his money-belt; but her face said so proudly that she had waited for him, not his money.
As he sat absorbed in thought, he looked more and more troubled; he must have seen something that confirmed his suspicion, for with a loud cry, "It is the Grey!" he started from his seat, left the room, and went up to the horse. He stood quietly a moment looking at the poor creature, carefully raised the harness where he saw the bruises, examined the feet and the mouth cut by the bit, walked round and round it, saying: "Yes, it's the Grey." But another thought, to which he gave no utterance, was behind this. He angrily removed the wretched harness patched with ropes, and in the greatest agitation led the animal to the steps where the Skydo-Bauer, Anders Brunsberg, was standing watching him in no little astonishment. On the way, however, the horse-trader again awoke in Gjermund; and he asked carelessly, - "Will you take twelve thalers for the old thing, Brunsberg? It's not fit to work any longer, and I can still use it on my farm."
"You drove the horse fast enough from the market last night, Gjermund," the boy said."
The words troubled Gjermund, his mind had been filled with thoughts about his business, and he now remembered having driven unreasonably fast in the darkness, and even used the whip mercilessly, when the wheels sank deeper in the mud. He therefore only answered, -
"What will you take?"
Brunsberg began to talk volubly about the Grey's good qualities; he had bought the animal three years ago at auction from a man who was known to have only good horses, it wasn't more than eleven years old. Gjermund, it is true, knew better, for it was now fifteen; but he said nothing to lower the Grey's value, and when Brunsberg closed by saying that he would not sell him under thirty thalers, Gjermund, to the other's great surprise, paid the money without bargaining.
He now began to wash and clean the animal, devoting several hours to it before he went away, leading the horse by a halter behind him.
Brunsberg often told the story of how he had once got the better of Gjermund Strömshagen in a horse-trade. "The only thing was," he added as if regretting it, "the old Grey was not yet used up."
For some years Jon Evjen had thought more about Strömshagen than he would have confessed; he sometimes visited the widow, and he and his wife often spoke to her at church. Sigrid's parents knew she was waiting for Gjermund, and during the last three years had made no objection, for the rumor that he had become a rich man had reached even his native mountains. They only wondered that he did not return, they had already given away their younger daughters.
At last the state of affairs had changed, and the widow had come to Evjen several times without having her visit returned. This was Sigrid's desire, though she herself crossed the stream as often as usual.
Sigrid had now entered her twenty-sixth year. She was still paler and looked even more slender than in her girlhood, but was no less stately and beautiful; only of late there was still more dignity and self-possession in her quiet manner, and she devoted herself more closely to household affairs. "Some new idea has come into her head," said old Jon. The latter thought one day that he had done wrong to refuse Gjermund his assistance in building the bridge over the ravine, and now - six years afterwards - tried to make amends by saying he would take all the eight logs there himself. Sigrid said, "That is scarcely necessary." Jon gave her a long look, but yielded to her wish.
One evening there was an unusual bustle at Strömshagen. Something must have happened at the farm. Jon wondered about it to his wife, but they said nothing to their daughter. Sigrid was unusually busy that evening, and did not seem to have noticed anything.
Early the next morning Sigrid went down to the river with some clothes. The sun was pouring its golden rays full upon the Birkberg. As she stood on the bank, she heard a neigh on the opposite hillside and from the shadow of the birches came - she was not mistaken - the Grey, yes, the Grey. It raised its head as in the old days, and stood motionless. She gazed silently at the horse for a time, while her eyes slowly filled with tears. At last she exclaimed, -
"Oh, I thought he had forgotten you too, old Grey!" The next moment she added, in a voice trembling with wounded pride, "But you have been ill treated, I see, and he has cared little about you all this time."
With these words she turned away, leaving the clothes on the river bank; she felt that Gjermund could not be far off. The steel-grey eyes, usually so gentle and beautiful, flashed with the angry pride Gjermund so dreaded. On reaching home, she performed her morning tasks as usual.
Gjermund had arrived the night before, but lacked courage to appear before Sigrid, when his mother had told him how matters stood at Evjen. He had really been on the hillside in the morning, concealed behind the bushes, and seen how Sigrid recognized the Grey. But when he heard her words and saw her go away, he did not venture to approach her, as he had at first intended. He felt sure that he had lost her.
He usually preferred to attend to his own affairs himself, but now as he walked home absorbed in sorrowful thoughts he wondered whether it would not be better for his mother to go and speak to her first - but she must ride over on the Grey. True, people might think it foolish to use a horse for so short a distance, but Sigrid would understand the meaning.
This was done, though his mother at first thought he was old enough to go on his errands of love himself. She must not speak of money or anything of that sort, Gjermund said, only tell Sigrid what was strictly true, that he sincerely repented having stayed away so long, and did not venture to go to her himself. When his mother rode down the hillside on the Grey - which after a month of good care and feeding was in a very different condition from the day Gjermund found it - the son sat anxiously at home and waited. This ride was quite different from the foppish expedition he had so often imagined, when Jon Evjen would come to the gate to greet him as he went to ask for his daughter's hand.
When the widow from Strömshagen rode quietly up to the house, it was evident that she came on some important errand; old Jon went in and put on his coat. Entering the yard, she stopped at a short distance from the door, and behaved very differently in every respect from what would have been expected from the mother of a rich peasant, who boasted of his money. She made a low bow as she entered, modestly refused to sit down, and acted as if she desired to depreciate herself and everything connected with her. She had never had this manner in her poorest days. When her son's return was mentioned, she answered sighing, that she should take little pleasure in it if he were always as sad as he seemed now. Jon and his wife were not a little surprised at these words, but Sigrid looked earnestly at her, and a faint flush crimsoned her cheeks. At last the mother frankly said that she had come to speak a few words to Sigrid alone.
The two went into an adjoining room. As Sigrid crossed the threshold, every tinge of color faded from her face, and her expression grew cold and proud. Jon shook his head and thought that looked like "no" again.
But when both came out, Sigrid's cheeks were flushed and her eyes wet with tears, though they were evidently not tears of grief, while her hands trembled so that she could be of no use when she went to help Gjermund's mother on the horse.
When the latter came home, Gjermund learned what he had probably suspected; that the breach had been a serious one, but it had now been healed so far that it would probably be well for him to go to Evjen himself. The last words his mother uttered with so peculiar an expression that Gjermund's heart swelled with joy; he gave her no rest until she had told him all.
At first Sigrid had said, with icy coldness, that she thought Gjermund now cared more for his money than for her - otherwise he would not have remained absent so long, without sending her any message; she therefore believed it would be better for everything to continue as it was, and say no more about the matter, as it could only be painful to both. With these words she had put her hand on the door, to end the conversation; nor did she come any nearer when the mother raised her handkerchief to her eyes, and said that this was a sorrowful end to all the struggles of her youth, but merely answered curtly that people in this world strive for many things without attaining them; she, it is true, had had but one goal in view, but Gjermund now had other plans. When the mother replied that Gjermund would gladly give up his wandering life, and become a farmer again if she would consent to be his wife, and she ought not to send the Grey home with such sorrowful tidings, she had suddenly bent her head, embraced her, and wept till it seemed as if she would never stop, but looked so happy when she at last raised her eyes again.
That same afternoon Gjermund and his mother went to Evjen to ask the parents for their daughter. The two young people sat together in the dusky room, and would not unclasp their hands. But Sigrid was at last obliged to go out to make some cream porridge. Gjermund followed, and when the dish came in it was spoiled, a thing that had never happened before under Sigrid's hands. Old Jon said, laughing, that it was because the weather was too warm outside.
The widow made several attempts to go home, before, at a late hour, mother and son at last departed.
A few days after - matters move quickly on the mountains - the question of fixing the wedding-day was discussed. Now it was Gjermund who urged, and Sigrid who asked delay.
On a beautiful autumn Sunday morning the church was decorated for Sigrid. She wore the bridal wreath on her fair brow, and the bride's horse waited at the door; it was the Grey, now in good condition, and still tolerably swift-footed.
An unusually large crowd had assembled in the church to see the handsome couple. As they stood before the altar, both were of equal height, but the broad-shouldered Gjermund looked every inch the man.
The festivities were what had been expected when Sigrid Evjen should become a bride. According to the custom of the country, wedding-gifts were numerous. Old Jon's present was a deed of Evjen - each of the daughters would have a farm, and Evjen was Sigrid's inheritance. The old people had given up the house, and wished to end their days in a newly-built one at Livöre.
"Well, now that Gjermund is master of both farms," Jon said jestingly over a mug of foaming beer to the wedded pair, "he must build the bridge over the ravine for both."
"The bridge was built when these two joined hands," replied Gjermund's mother, "but both he and the Grey had to wander about the world a long time to get the logs."
"Yes, almost too long," said Jon.
- ^ Evje signifies a stream with a slow current.
- ^ Norwegian peasants bear the same name as their estates. As there are no nobles in Norway, the farmers or owners of estates occupy a much higher social position than in Germany.
- ^ The Skydo-Bauern along the principal roads supply travellers with beds and food.