Read INTRODUCTION of The Visionary Pictures From Nordland, free online book, by Jonas Lie, on

I know many people who have felt the same inclination that sometimes comes over me, to choose bad weather to go out in. They are generally men who have passed from a childhood lived in the open air of the country, to an occupation which entails much sitting still, and for whom the room sometimes seems to become too narrow and confined or else they are poets. Their recollection and imagination live, more or less unknown to themselves, in a continual longing to get away from the confined air of a room, and the barrack-life of a town.

So one day when the country comes into the town in the shape of a downright storm of wind and rain, which shakes the tiles on the roofs, and now and then flings one after you, while the streets become rivers, and every corner an ambush from which the whirlwind makes a sudden attack upon your umbrella, and, after a more or less prolonged and adroit struggle, tears it, and turns it inside out, until at last you stand with only the stick and the ribs left in your hand at such a time, it now and then happens that a quiet, dignified civil servant, or business man, instead of sitting at home, as usual, in the afternoon in his comfortable room after the day’s toil in the office, says to his wife that he “is sorry he must go out into the town for a little while.” And what he unfortunately must go out for is, of course, “business.” For little would it become a sedate, grave man, perhaps an alderman, and one of the fathers of the town, to acknowledge, even to himself, that he is childish enough to go and wander about in bad weather, that he only wants to walk down to the quay to see the spray dash over the bitts, and to watch the ships in the harbour playing at shipwreck. He must, of course, have something to do there; if nothing else, at any rate to see “ne quid detrimenti capiat respublica”; that is to say, that the town, whose welfare, in one way or another, it is his business to look after, is not blown down.

The fact is, there is a revolution in the streets not a political revolution, Heaven preserve him from that but one which has an attraction for him, because it awakens all his old recollections, and in which, much to his disgrace, he contrives surreptitiously to join, although, in its own way, it too defies all police arrangements, breaks windows, puts out street-lamps, tears the tiles from the house-roofs, damages piers and moorings, and chases police and watchmen into their holes. It is Nature’s loud war-cry, in the very midst of the civilised town, to all the recollections of his childhood, to his imagination and his love of Nature; and he obeys it like an old trumpeter’s horse that hears the signal of his youth, and instantly leaps the fence.

After an hour or two out in the storm, the fire in his veins is subdued, and home he comes once more a quiet, grave man, carefully puts his stick and goloshes in their accustomed places in the hall, and is pitied by his wife, who has been anxious about him, and is now helping him off with his wet things. Strange to say, he himself, in spite of adverse circumstances, is in capital spirits that evening, and has such a number of things to tell about this storm every thing of course, as becomes the occasion, in the form of anxiety lest damage should be done, or fire break out in the town.

It was in such weather that I a practising doctor, and having, as such, good reason, both on my own account and on that of others, for being out at all times of the day or night one rainy, misty, stormy October afternoon, roamed the streets of Kristiania, finding pleasure in letting the rain dash in my face, while my mackintosh protected the rest of my person.

Darkness had gradually fallen, and the lighted gas-lamps flared in the gusty wind, making me think of the revolving lights on a foggy night out on the coast. Now and again an unfastened door swung open and shut again, with a bang like a minute gun. My inward comment on these occasions was that, even in our nervous times, there must still be an astonishing number of people without nerves; for such bangs thunder through the whole house right up to the garret, as a gust fills the passage, and doors fly open and shut, shut and open; everybody feels the discomfort, but no one will take the trouble to go down and fasten the origin of the evil; the porter is out in the town, and as long as he is away the inmates must put up with an absence of all domestic comfort.

It was just such an unfastened, unweariedly banging door that led to what I have to relate.

As I passed it, I heard a voice, which seemed familiar to me, an old beloved voice though at first I could not recall where I had heard it calling impatiently to the porter. It was on the subject of the banging door. The man was evidently the only nervous individual in that house; at any rate, the porter was not, for he appeared to be quite wanting in feeling both for his door and for the man who had interested himself in it, and was now fumbling in vain with a latch-key, which did not appear to fit.

At last the porter came out of his subterranean hole, and it was during a little altercation between the now placable and gentle voice, sorry for its previous irritability, and the growling porter, that with all the power of an awakened recollection I recognised my old friend of student-days, David Holst, with whom I had lived three of the richest years of my youth.

“If that is you, David, you must let me in before you lock the door!” I cried, just as I should have done in the good old days, twenty years before.

The door opened wide, and a warm shake of the hand from the dark advancing form, told me that he had not needed to search so long through the chambers of his memory as I, but had recognised me at once.

“Follow me!” were his only words, and then we mounted silently, he in front and I behind, up the dark stairs, one, two, three floors and one considerably narrower flight above. There he took my hand to guide me a very necessary proceeding, for, as far as I could make out, the way led across a dark loft, hung with clothes-lines. He told me, too, to bend my head.

As I mounted I drew my own conclusions. His hand I remembered that in old days he used to be rather proud of it was damp, perhaps with mental agitation, and he sometimes stopped as if to take breath. The narrow garret-stairs whispered to me too, that my friend David, who in his time had given promise of good abilities, could not have made great use of them for his own worldly advancement.

He opened a door and bade me go in first.

Upon a table stood a lamp, whose shade concentrated the light round its foot, in a circle of scarcely more than half a yard’s radius, upon an inkstand and papers which lay there, leaving the ends of the table in apparent darkness. Behind the table was what looked like a black grave, which, however, when the eye became accustomed to the abrupt transition from light to shadow, revealed itself as a sofa, before which stood an almost correspondingly long, painted, wooden table with square ends.

When two old friends meet in such a way, there is often, under their frank manner, a secret shyness to overcome; for there is a layer of the different experiences of many years that has to be cleared away.

After a short pause, my friend, as if with a sudden resolve, went quickly up to the table and took the shade off the lamp, so that the whole room became light.

“You see,” said he, “things are just the same with me as in the old days, only that there are now two garret windows instead of one, a few more shelves with books, and a rather better monthly salary, which I get by combining a teachership in one of the lower-class schools here, with an easy post on a daily paper. It is all I need, you see. I moved here from Bergen this spring, and ought properly to have paid you a call, but have not yet managed it; when I have seen you in the street, you have always looked as if you were too much taken up with your practice. But now that I have you in my den, we will have a chat about old times, and what you are doing. Take off your coat, while I go down and see about getting some toddy made.” Whereupon he replaced the lamp shade, and disappeared through the doorway.

My friend’s somewhat forced introductory speech did not seem natural to me; it was as though, in his ready confidence, he were regulated rather by my circumstances than by his own, and the whole thing gave me the impression that at the outset he would parry all unnecessary questions.

As yet I, at least, had not said a word; indeed, I had not seen more of my friend than a brief glimpse of his face, as he turned towards the lamp and replaced the shade. Still I recognised, in spite of the difference in age, the same thin, delicate, pale face, which, in the old days, would sometimes assume such a beautiful, melancholy expression it was with that he was always photographed in my memory but the features had now acquired a striking sharpness, and in the quick glance I caught there was an expression, both suffering and searching, which made me indescribably sad. I have seen sick people look at me in the same way, when they were afraid they were to be operated upon; and I thought I now understood at any rate this much, that what wanted operating on here was my friend’s confidence, and this would require all my dexterity.

I was once the most confiding fellow under the sun; but since I became a doctor and saw what people really are, I have become thoroughly suspicious; for there is nothing in the whole world you may not have to presuppose, even with the best of mortals, if you do not want to be misled as to the cause of their disease. I suspect everybody and everything, even, as the reader has seen above, those sedate men who go out in stormy weather. An Indian does not steal more unperceived and noiselessly through a primeval forest than I, when necessary, into my patient’s confidence; and my friend David had all at once become my patient. He would scarcely succeed in deceiving me any longer with his talk about “old days” and a glass of punch in his “unchanged student’s den.”

My first strategem was now hastily to continue the inspection of the room, which my friend had somewhat cursorily allowed me to begin. I took the lamp and began to look about me.

Under the sloping ceiling, against the wall opposite the sofa, was the bed, with a little round table beside it. On some bookshelves, which stood on the floor against the wall in the corner at the foot of the bed, I recognised Henrik Wergeland’s bust, even more defective about the chin and nose than in my time, and now, in addition, blind in one eye; he had fared almost as badly as the old pipe I used to smoke, which I recognised again, in spite of its being cut and hacked in every direction. For my friend had a habit of cutting marks in it while he sat smoking, now and then throwing a word into the conversation to keep it going, just as one throws fuel on a fire it was the spirit of the conversation, and that something should be said, rather than the thought itself, he cared about. When sitting thus, his face often wore a melancholy, peaceful expression, as if he were smiling at something beautiful we others did not see.

Between the bed and the shelves I discovered some bottles, ordinary spirit bottles, and the suspicion flashed like lightning through my mind I have, as I said, become suspicion personified, not naturally, but through disappointment that my friend was perhaps given to drink.

I put the lamp down upon the floor. In one bottle was ink, in the second paraffin, and in the third, a smaller one, cod-liver oil, which he probably took for his chest.

I remembered his clammy hand, his stopping, and heavy breathing on the stairs, and I felt thoroughly ashamed that I could have been such a wretch as to think the dear friend, I might also say ideal, of my youth, was no better than any scamp in vulgar life, who positively ought to be suspected.

I offered him, in silence, a penitent apology, while I read over the titles on the backs of the books, recognising one and another. These shelves seemed to be the bookshelves of his student days. I drew out a thick volume, old “Saxo Grammaticus,” which I remembered to have bought at an auction, and presented to him; but now I found something quite different to think about.

It happened with me as with a man who draws out a brick and suddenly finds a secret passage I all at once felt myself at the entrance to my friend’s secret, though, as yet, only before a deep, dark room through which my imagination might wander, but which I could not really see, unless my friend himself held the light for me.

What thus attracted my attention and rivetted my thought and recollection to the spot, was no hole, but the head of a violin, with a dusty neck, and a tangle of strings about the screws which was stuck up at the back of the shelf. The fourth string hung loosely down; the over-stretched, broken first had curled up, and under the two whole strings the bridge lay flat, as I ascertained by taking several books out of the row and feeling for it. I examined the violin, which I could easily remove, as carefully as if I had found a friend ill and starving; there was an unmended crack in the body. Enchained by old memories, I could not help falling into a very sad frame of mind.

I put the books on the shelves again, replaced the lamp on the table, and sat myself on the sofa, where puffing away at the pipe (I found on it among others my own initials, cut by myself) I gave myself up to reflections, which I will here impart to the reader even at the risk of his thinking my friend is rather a long time getting the punch. Through these reflections he will stand before the reader, as he did before my mind’s eye in the light of youthful recollections, and as the reader must know him, if he will understand him.

Our acquaintance as students arose naturally from the fact that we were both from Nordland. He was three or four years older than I, and his being the trusted though anonymous theatrical reviewer on the H paper, was enough of itself to give him, in my eyes, an official superiority, before which I bowed.

But what worked still more strongly upon my youthful imagination was his manner. There was something unusually noble about his slender figure and his delicate, oval-shaped, earnest face, with the high forehead and the heavy masses of dark, curly hair on the temples. His strongly-marked eyebrows and a decided Roman nose drew one’s attention away from his eyes, which were light blue, and more in keeping with his pale and beardless face than with his more energetic features. But yet it was his eyes that gave one the first impression of him. I learned later to read his features differently, and to see that in them was reflected the meeting of the currents of that twofold nature by which his life was gradually crushed out.

A sweet smile when he talked and a reserved manner gave him a distinguished air, which at any rate impressed me greatly. He was the only student I knew who did not wear a student’s cap; he used to wear a flat blue sailor’s cap with a short peak, which suited him very well. When he became eager, as might happen in a dispute for he was a great logician, though it was only his intellect that took part in a discussion, and never, as far as I could see, his heart or his deeper feelings his voice would give way; it became overstrained and harsh, as if from a weak chest. Such encounters always told upon him, and left him in irritable restlessness for some time after.

One of his peculiarities was that he sometimes went on walking tours of several days out in the country, both in summer and winter. Companionship he would never hear of. Had he wished for it, he would have asked me I knew, and therefore I never thought of forcing myself upon him.

On these occasions he would set off without a knapsack; I noticed this once when I happened to be roaming in the fields two or three miles [A Norwegian mile is about seven English miles.] from a town, where I had gone on a visit. When he came home again, he would be in capital spirits, but before setting out he was always so silent and melancholy that I had to sustain nearly the whole burden of the conversation. He used to have periods of low spirits.

One indication of these moods was his manner in playing on the violin I had now found with broken strings, at the back of his bookshelf. As it lay there, it recalled the incidents of twenty years ago.

This violin he once held in high esteem; it had the place of honour on his wall, with the bow beside it. It had been left him by a friend, an old clerk, [Norw. “klokker,” almost answering to the Scotch precentor, but a klokker, in addition to leading the singing in church, has to read the opening prayer and to assist the priest in putting on his vestments.] at his home up in the north, who had taught him to play, and had evidently been one of those musical geniuses who are never fully appreciated in this world.

David loved to give play to his fancy, not only upon this violin he had a good ear, and had learnt not a little but also about it: where it really came from, and how old it might be? He would exceedingly have liked an indistinct mark inside to mean that it was “possibly a Cremona”; it was one of his weak points, and this room for conjecture was evidently, in his eyes, one of the excellences of the violin.

David had a small collection of what he called classical music, long compositions which he played from the notes. They were not much to my fancy, and always struck me as being of a piece with what was strange in his manner when he posed as a logician. When he played them it was more like severe, mental, school exercise than anything his heart was in; and he played as correctly as he argued or wrote.

The times when classical music and critical conversations ruled in his room, were certainly those in which he felt his mind most in balance. He was less hearty in manner then, even towards me.

But then would come times when the music-stand would remain in the corner. He would sit for a long time looking straight before him, as if lost in thought, and then give expression to his feeling, on his violin, in all kinds of fantasies, which pleased my uncultivated ear far more than his so-called classical music.

He sometimes played a variety of small pieces, and then gradually sank into his own peculiar minor strain, and sometimes into a wonderfully sad melody. I very seldom heard him play anything right through, and then always in a kind of self-forgetfulness. At such times, I had a feeling that he was confiding to me something beautiful that he had lost, and over which he could never cease to mourn.

At a later period of our friendship he became, as I have said, more irregular in his habits, and was seldom to be found at home; he would sometimes talk ironically about his comrades, the professors and things in general, and his sarcasm was almost biting.

I was privileged to take my friend’s key, and go into his room, even when he was not at home. If his violin hung uncared for, I knew that something was wrong, and that his own condition answered to that of his instrument. The first thing he did, when all was right again, was carefully to put it in order.

But never during those times had I seen his treasure so badly treated and neglected as when twenty years later, I found it again, dusty and cracked at the back of the bookshelf. The reader will now be able to understand how sorrowful were the reflections it aroused, and how it led me to suspect the story of a joyless life; and I trust he will forgive me for having taken him so far from David Holst’s room where I sat and waited for my friend to come with the punch into the land of my youthful recollections. For three years we had been together almost daily. After that David had to go out as tutor, and our ways parted, as they so often do in this life.

And this evening we had met again.

There was a jingling in the passage, and immediately after David Holst carefully opened the door for a servant-girl, who brought in a steaming jug of hot water and other requisites for punch, which were most welcome to a man who had been out several hours in the wind and rain, as I had that very afternoon.

David found me installed on the sofa with his pipe in my mouth and his slippers on my feet, just as he would have done in the old days, and this I reckoned as one of my cunning artifices; for with these passes, his pipe and slippers, I reinstated myself, without more ado, on the old friendly footing. I felt like a general who is fortunate enough to open the campaign by occupying a whole province.

In default of his accustomed place on the sofa, David drew a chair up to the table and sat down opposite to me, with the punch tray between us.

We were now once more on the banks of the same river of delight, in which we had so often bathed and tumbled in our youth; but now we both approached it more carefully.

In the course of conversation, he often leaned over towards me, as if listening, and in this way his head came within the region of the lamp’s bright light. I then noticed that his hair was much thinner, and sprinkled rather plentifully with grey, and that the perspiration stood in beads on his no longer unwrinkled brow. His pallid, sharp-featured face, and a strange brilliancy in his eyes, told me that either his physical or his mental being hid an underground fire, perhaps no longer quenchable. Thinking from his repeated fits of coughing, that his bending over towards me arose quite as much from the fact that he was tired and was trying to rest against the edge of the table, as from his interest in the conversation, I determined to enter at once upon the question of the state of his health, and thus put myself in possession of yet another important outwork of his confidence.

I rose suddenly, determined and serious, and said that, as an experienced doctor, I unfortunately saw that he was ill in no such slight degree as he perhaps thought, and that, as he was evidently weak and languid as the drops of perspiration on his forehead showed he must, at any rate, at once seat himself on the comfortable sofa I had hitherto occupied.

He acknowledged that going twice downstairs had been rather too much for him the first time he had only gone down to put an end to the uncomfortable draught through the house and willingly took his place on the sofa at my desire.

It was his chest, he said. By the help of the stethoscope, I found that this was only too true. His chest, indeed, was in such a condition that it was only a question of gaining time, not of saving life; for one lung was entirely gone, and the other seriously affected.

During the remainder of the evening, both he and I felt ourselves re-established on the old footing, my authority as doctor now giving me a slight superiority.

At nine o’clock, I declared that he must go to bed, and I told him that the next morning I intended to come again, and prescribe what was needful. I heard he was not to be at school before eleven: until that hour he promised me not to go out.

When I came home, I found my wife in great anxiety about me. She could not conceive how a sensible man, and a doctor into the bargain, who gave others such good advice, could be out more than was necessary in such dreadful weather; and I had been out in it the whole time since dinner.

There was nothing to be said to this, and I only considered, while she talked, how I could best win her over to the cause which I now had at heart. My wife had not the slightest acquaintance with my dying friend, and, if I knew her aright, might even feel hurt when I told her that he had, in a way, possessed my affection before I knew her.

Things turned out as I foresaw; for it was only after a rather doubtful pause that she came up to me, and said that my best friend should of course be dear to her.

And from that moment no one could have been more helpful than she. Whatever she undertakes, she always does thoroughly, and she settled that very evening how the matter should be arranged.

At ten the next morning I was up in my friend’s room with my wife, and I introduced her to him, saying that she wished to be regarded as an old friend like myself. I told him, as consolingly as I could but when I said it, my wife looked away that his illness absolutely required that he should put himself under treatment for six months, until the warm weather came and completed his cure, and that I hoped he would consent to let me arrange matters at the school for him.

He was evidently both surprised and touched. Life had not offered him friendship, he said; he was so little used to accept it, even when it came to him as true and good as this was. After a little parleying, he surrendered at discretion to my wife, who never liked being defeated.

He would not, however, move to our house, as I suggested, for he had a fondness for this room, and, as he frankly said, he would not feel happy if obligations of a pecuniary nature were introduced into the matter.

From this time I visited him as a rule every morning, and generally had a little chat about different things in the town which I thought might interest, or at any rate divert him.

My wife treated him in her own way. Contrary to what I had been a little afraid of, she carried out no radical revolution in his housekeeping arrangements. That the servant-girl had her reasons for coming up to him so often, and that every day she waited in fear and trembling my wife’s quiet inspection whether the room were properly dusted and in order, he could have no suspicion.

The only thing that my wife openly effected, was the sending of all kinds of strengthening food. One of the children often went with the maid who took these, and it sometimes amused and entertained him, to keep the child with him for a while.

This new and unaccustomed state of affairs seemed at first to divert him; but in the course of a month he began to be depressed again. Our visits evidently troubled him, and, for this reason, were discontinued for a time. He spent almost the whole day on the sofa at the dark end of the room.

One evening the girl said she had heard a sound as of crying and sobbing in his room, so she did not go in, but remained standing outside. A little while after it seemed to her as if he were praying earnestly, but she did not understand the words. The next evening she heard him playing a soft melody, as if on a violin which did not give a clear sound.

The following morning when I came to him his mood was entirely changed, and to my surprise I saw that his violin, dusted and with strings in order, but still cracked, hung on the wall with the bow beside it. On the table, by the bed, I noticed too an old Bible that I had never before seen, probably because this treasure had always been kept in his drawer as a sacred thing.

He looked more languid and worn out than usual; but his face wore a beatified expression, as of a man who had wrestled with his fate, and had won rest and resignation.

If possible, he said, he would like to speak to my wife that same morning; but he would rather talk with me at once, and so I must sit down for a little while.

With a smile that same quiet, sweet, mysterious smile of his that I knew so well, but which now seemed no longer to shun observation he turned to me saying, as he laid his hand on my shoulder and looked into my face:

“My dear, kind Frederick! I know for certain, though I cannot tell you why, that I shall not live to see the spring again. What is wanting neither you nor any one else can give me, only God; but of all men you have been the kindest to me, and your friendship has reached farther than you would ever imagine. You have a right to know him who has been your friend. When I am gone and that will undoubtedly be this winter, perhaps sooner than you, judging from my condition, think you will find some memoranda in my drawer; they are the history of my early youth, but uneventful as that was, it has had its effect upon my whole life. It will tell you that the world has been sad, very sad for me, and that I am as glad as an escaped bird to leave it.”

“There was a time,” he added after some hesitation, “when I wished to be buried in a churchyard up in Nordland; but now I think that the place does not make any difference, and that one can rest just as peacefully down here.”

Saying which, he pressed my hand, and asked me to go for my wife.

When she came, she was surprised to see him brighter and in better spirits than she had ever thought he could be. He wanted, he said, to ask a favour of her. It was a whim of his; but, if he should be called away, she must promise him to plant a wild rose upon his grave next spring.

My wife understood how sad the request was when I told her what had already passed; for David had looked so confident and bright when he was talking to her, that the sorrowful element was absent.

My friend’s prophecy about himself proved to be only too true. Though his mood grew constantly brighter, so that he sometimes even had a gleam of the joy of living, his illness went in the opposite direction, always toward the worst.

One day I found him lying and watching from his bed where he now spent nearly the whole day my little Anton, who had “made a steamboat” out of his old violin-case of which the lid was gone and was travelling with it on the floor, touching at foreign ports. When I came up to the bed, David told me, smiling, that he had been at home in Nordland playing on the beach again.

My wife had, meantime, become more and more his sick-nurse. She was with him two or three times a day, and sat at his bedside. He often held her hand, or asked her to read him something out of his old Bible. The portions he chose were generally those in which the Old Testament speaks of love and lovers. He dwelt especially on the story of Jacob and Rachel.

My wife, who had now become very fond of him, confided to me one day that she was sure she knew what my friend was suffering from; it was certainly nothing but unrequited love.

She had never thought any one could look so touchingly beautiful as he did, when death was near. When he lay still and smiled, it was as though he were thinking of a tryst he should go to, as soon as he had done with us here on earth.

One evening he asked my wife to sit with him. At nine o’clock a message came for me; but when I got there, he was gone.

He had asked my wife to read to him, for the first time, a part of Solomon’s Song, where she found an old mark in his Bible. It was the second chapter, in which both the bride and the bridegroom speak, and which begins: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley”; and ends: “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.”

He had asked her to read it a second time, but during the reading he had quietly fallen asleep.

And there he lay, beautiful in death, with a peaceful smile, as though he were greeting just such a grove, on the other side of the mountains of Bether.

Next summer there stood a wooden cross, and a blooming, wild briar-rose, on a grave in one of the churchyards of the town. There rests my friend David Holst.

As a beginning of the story of my friend’s life, I found, laid aside, a section, part of which seems to have been added at a riper age. It shows with what strong ties nature had bound him to his home, and with what affection he clung to it.