Read CHAPTER IX - THE CHRISTMAS VISIT of The Visionary Pictures From Nordland, free online book, by Jonas Lie, on ReadCentral.com.

About Christmas-time that winter in our part of Lofoten there were a number of foreigners, mostly ships’ captains, who, on account of bad weather or damage to their vessels, were staying at different places on shore, as Martinez was with us. There were also notabilities from the south on public business. One result of this was a number of social gatherings, in which the hosts vied with one another in open hospitality.

On the third New Year’s day [The 3rd of January.] we were invited to dinner and a ball at the house of the wealthy magistrate, Roest, where some of the gentlemen from the south were staying for the time. It was only a journey of a mile and a half [Between ten and eleven English miles.] for us, but many had six or eight miles to go, and the greater part of that by sea.

Roest’s large rooms could accommodate a great number of guests, but this time, in order to put up for the night all those invited, he had had to take a neighbouring house in addition.

In proceeding with the account of this visit, which was to be so eventful and exciting for me, I have promised myself to be short, and shall thus omit many a feature and many an outline that belongs to a more detailed representation of the life in Nordland.

According to the invitation, we were to dine at three, but most of the boats made their appearance two or three hours in advance of that time. While the ladies were dressing upstairs, the gentlemen assembled in an intentionally dimly-lighted room, where they could take a “mouthful” and a dram, which were very acceptable after the journey. They were also made acquainted with one another by the careful host.

We waited long and in vain for the minister and his ladies, and at last had to go to table without them.

The doors of the large, brilliantly-lighted dining-room were now thrown open, the guests streamed upstairs, and, after much stopping in the doorway and long polite disputes over the order of precedence, took their places round the great loaded horse-shoe table, that glittered gaily with a compact row of wine bottles, treble-branched candlesticks, high cake-dishes, and, especially up by the place of honour, a perfect heap of massive silver plate. Three places were reserved for the minister and his family up by the notabilities. My father sat by Senor Martinez at the principal table, and I, in modesty, farther down at one of the side tables.

The dinner was of that good, old, genial sort which is now unfortunately going more and more out of fashion. It is true, people ate with their knives and knew nothing about silver forks; but on the other hand there was real happiness in the gathering, and it formed the subject of many an entertaining conversation for long after.

At first, while we were still chilled by the cold feeling of the white cloth, and awed by the festal atmosphere, it was indeed very stiff. Neighbours scarcely ventured to whisper to one another, and the young ladies in ball-dresses, who, as if by a magnetic cohesion, were all together, sat for a long time in a row in deep, embarrassed silence, like a hedge of blue, red, and white flowers, in which no bird dared sing.

The dinner began by the host bidding his guests welcome. He next proposed in succession the healths of the notabilities present in rather long, prepared speeches, which were responded to by them.

After this everyone felt that they had passed over the official threshold to enjoyment.

The host, with lightened heart, now entered upon the much shorter and simpler toasts for the absent, among whom, first and foremost, was the “good minister and his family.” Several besides myself noticed that my father left his glass untouched at this toast.

In the meantime the courses went round, and as the level of the wine in the bottles sank, the gaiety rose. Many a quick, sharp brain that here found its own ground now came to the fore, and the falling hail of jests and witty and amusing sayings the last generally in the form of stories with a point that was sometimes, perhaps, rather coarse gave a lively impression of the peculiar Nordland humour.

It was only what, at that time, usually happened at parties, when the company leave the table, that there were a few who could not rise from their chairs, and others who, as a result of the attempt, were afterwards missing. Among the latter I was unfortunately classed.

The impression of the moment has always had a great power over me, and, unaccustomed as I was both to this kind of gaiety and to strong drink, I had surrendered myself without a thought to the mirth that buzzed around me. I think I never laughed so much in my whole life together as I did at that dinner-table. Nearly opposite to me sat the red-haired merchant Wadel, with his long, dryly comical face, firing off one witticism after another, and at my side whispered the hump-backed clerk Gram, who was famed for his cleverness, and feared for his biting tongue. His sharp remarks upon the different people who sat at the table, grew in ill-nature as he drank, and if his words had been heard, the expression of many a beaming face would certainly have changed. I believe, also, that he took a secret pleasure in trying to make me intoxicated; at any rate he was unwearied in filling my glass, especially when the heating wines began to go round. His quick, sharp snake’s-eyes and a few whispered words directed my now thoroughly beclouded attention to many a comical scene around me.

At length it seemed to me that the room and the table were going up and down, as if we were sitting in a large cabin in rough weather. I also remember indistinctly that afterwards in the moving room we squeezed past each other, round the table, between the wall and the chairs, in two opposite streams, and thanked our hosts for the dinner. [It is a Norwegian custom to shake hands with and thank the host and hostess, after a meal, for the hospitality of which one has partaken. Children in the same way always thank their parents.]

After all this I remember nothing, until I awoke, in total darkness, as if out of a heavy confused dream, and felt that I was lying in a soft eider-down bed. Little by little all that had passed dawned upon my recollection, and I comprehended that I had been put to bed in one of the guest-chambers in the neighbouring house.

While I lay pondering over this, and feeling intensely unhappy, the elder Senor Martinez came in with a candle in his hand to look after me. It then appeared that it was past two o’clock in the morning, and to the circumstance that I had thus slept six or seven hours in succession I probably owed the fact that I no longer felt any physical indisposition; but morally I suffered all the more from a feeling of shame.

As far as I could understand, as I dressed myself, the house had been turned into a perfect lazaretto for the same class of fallen after dinner as myself, and among them I noticed, with a kind of revengeful joy, Gram the clerk, my hump-backed mischievous neighbour.

Senor Martinez made known to me, by all kinds of spirited gesticulations, that dancing was now going on briskly, and that I must join the dancers.

The thought that Susanna must have come long ago, and must have been waiting in vain, shot like lightning through my mind. How I could have forgotten her, though even for an instant, was a riddle; but the fact that I had done so weighed heavily upon me.

The dining-room was now transformed into a ball-room, and dancing had already been going on merrily for several hours to the sound of violin, clarionet, and violoncello. At an opportune moment, in the middle of a dance, I slipped in unnoticed.

At first, as I stood in my tight white kid gloves, pale and embarrassed, down by the open door through which the heat streamed out into the cold passage like a mist, I suffered very much from the feeling that every one would look at me and remember my unseemly behaviour.

Couple after couple glided past, so near that the ladies’ dresses touched me, and gradually I began, as far as my near sight would allow, to find my bearings in the room.

The minister’s wife sat on the sofa, farthest up among some elderly ladies, in earnest conversation with the little bald doctor.

The minister was probably playing cards downstairs; but of Susanna I saw nothing.

At the upper end of the room, young Martinez, with a beaming face, was just dancing a polka with a strikingly beautiful girl dressed in white, with a fluttering blue ribbon round her waist. She had thick beautiful hair of a shade nearly golden, with a large silver pin like a dart run through it, and a light wreath. The lady was taller and fuller in figure than Susanna, but with a certain grace that reminded me of her. The light, almost fashionably delicate way in which she placed her small feet in dancing it was as though she floated also resembled Susanna, and I therefore followed the pair with unconscious interest.

My short sight prevented me from distinguishing well, and as they passed me, the lady’s bent head was hidden by her own arm, which rested confidingly on the shoulder of the evidently happy Martinez. What I saw was only a broad, pure, innocent brow, which could belong to but one person in the world, and that an escaped lock of hair played upon the round white shoulder.

I felt my knees tremble. This tall, elegant, distinguished lady could never be Susanna!

With a feeling of jealousy I watched the pair intently until the next time they came by. When just opposite to me the lady raised her eyes, her glance fell upon me, and a deep blush suddenly overspread her face and neck right down to the lace edging on her dress.

It was Susanna!

During the scarcely more than two years that we had been separated her beauty had developed wonderfully. The tender seventeen-year-old girl-bud had developed into a splendid full-grown woman.

The pair sat down at the top of the room near the row of elderly ladies.

I saw next that these two were going through the last long-dance of the ball, the cotillon, which is generally varied by an endless number of figures, and the thought darted through my mind, that probably young Martinez had been winning favour with Susanna the whole evening, since he was now her partner in this particular dance. I noticed how the minister’s wife paid him marked attention, and I reflected bitterly that he was both a rich man, and also, though shorter in stature, looked much more grown-up and manly than I.

A knife seemed to go through my heart. I had been lying intoxicated, like a beast, and allowed a stranger to take Susanna from me.

With wild jealousy I noticed how the handsome Martinez, dumb, but speaking with his dark, fiery eyes, was trying, amid laughter and all kinds of lively nods and gestures, to explain to Susanna a new figure which was just going to begin, how he sometimes bent over her, as if whispering confidentially, and how she, from her seat, looked up at him and laughed merrily, as only Susanna could laugh. He took her hand and made her try the step on the floor in front of their seats, and this seemed to be even more amusing.

Young Martinez evidently engrossed her, and I feared she perhaps thought our old relations were only childish fancies, which as a grown-up woman she now wished forgotten. She might consider that after our agreement about the two trial years, everything between us was to be at an end, so that, as grown-up people we could talk and laugh over the whole affair without misunderstanding each other.

My blood boiled, and I felt that I must revenge myself. Before I had quite considered how, I began, with a sudden inspiration, to converse eagerly with Merchant R.’s pretty daughter, who happened to be standing close to me, so that it might appear as if I were paying court to her.

When presently Susanna passed us in the new figure, she looked in a wondering, questioning way at me. The next time she passed, she inadvertently dropped her handkerchief just at the place where I stood. I picked it up, went up the room, and stiffly handed it to the minister’s wife, who in consequence either of my behaviour at the dinner-table, or of something else received me with marked reserve and coldness. I bowed as coldly to her, and then returned to my old place, where I resumed the interrupted lively conversation with Miss R.

Shortly after, Susanna again came past, and this time looked at me with a serious, but uncertain expression, as if she could not quite make up her mind what to think; after that she purposely dropped her eyes every time she passed me.

I discovered to my satisfaction that Martinez really danced clumsily. While I talked with forced gaiety to my pretty companion, I was secretly tempted, all unnoticed, to put out my foot, a little ill-naturedly, so that he should trip over it. And I do not quite know how it happened, but the next time Martinez passed, he fell full length on the floor, and must have hurt himself considerably; in falling, however, he was gallant enough to let go the support he might have had in his partner, so that Susanna only half fell.

He rose, and looked angrily at me, the innocent cause of the mishap, who was apparently too much engrossed in my neighbour to have even noticed what was going on. The look he received in return for his, however, revealed to him, though involuntarily, the whole truth; for he was in the act of rushing at me, when he was unexpectedly stopped by Susanna, a trifle pale, stepping in front of him, and, with the bearing of a woman of the world, quietly stretching out her hand for him to conduct her farther.

As Susanna went arm in arm up the room with the limping Martinez, she suddenly turned her face to me with a look so beaming with joy, that from deep despair I was suddenly raised to the happiest, most exulting certainty.

She had evidently understood that Martinez’s misfortune was an act of revenge on my part, for her sake, and her mind was thereby relieved of the doubt which my conduct for the last hour must have occasioned her; for she had soon seen that I was not intoxicated, and coquetry was a thing too far from her own sincere, truthful nature for her to be able to imagine it in me. In perfect truthfulness, she was really only a refined, feminine edition of her father’s strong nature.

I went and made repeated apologies to young Martinez for my awkwardness, while Susanna sat by and listened, and at length, good-natured as in reality he was, he consented to be appeased. His face did grow rather long when, immediately after, Susanna proposed that I should lead her through the figure now going on, so that he could rest his injured leg for the next.

Yes, I danced with her, a beautiful, full-grown woman in the white ball-dress, whom a short while ago I had not recognised, because her own splendidly developed beauty hid her.

We had taught one another to dance, and I think we both danced unusually well. The light wreath with its delicate white flowers, set off the beauty of her luxuriant hair; my arm was round her waist, and I felt how yieldingly she leant upon me, happy and trusting as a child, as we swayed in the dance. Her forehead was near my lips, and as our eyes sought each other’s during the dance, they said again and again, how delightful it was to meet, when we had longed so for one another for two whole years.

When I took her back to her place I received a pressure of the hand and a look, which made me completely invulnerable to the less friendly glances of her mother. It appeared that Susanna was then reprimanded for her neglect of the young Senor Martinez, but the doctor, who sat beside her, spoke in her defence.

I stood once more in my old place, and saw Susanna and Martinez go through the next figure.

Her curling lip showed at first a trace of the old childish defiance after reproof; but soon her expression became more tranquil and thoughtful.

Taken up as I was with the sight of her; and possibly weak after the many and varied emotions I had experienced, I suddenly felt the oppressive, uneasy sense of terror and misfortune come over me, which generally accompanies my visions. I attempted to leave the room, but the vision was upon me before I could do so.

I saw Susanna’s face while she danced with Martinez, as white as that of a strikingly beautiful corpse, and the green wreath with the small white flowers hung in her hair like wet sea-grass. It seemed as if water were streaming down her.

The blood rushed to my heart; the room was now dark, amid sparks from thousands of lights, going round before my eyes with the dancing pair.

I should certainly have fainted at the door, had not the doctor taken me by the arm, and led me out into the cool passage, and from thence into a little guest-chamber, where he made me drink some water and lie down on the bed.

When he came back, half an hour after the attack, and saw that I had recovered, he sat down by me on the bed, gentle and friendly, and began in his sincere way to speak out, as he said.

As he thoughtfully unravelled with the snuffers the wick of the candle which he had in his hand, having taken it from the dressing-table, in order, I suppose, to observe me, he said he had noticed me this evening, from the time I came into the room, and thought that my fancy inclined to the beautiful Susanna L., but that I was jealous of young Martinez. He had also heard a little bird sing about this before.

It was a feeling which many young people would only be the better for and be developed by, but for me, with my mental disposition, this kind of exciting idea was harmful in the highest degree; he had, he gently added, unfortunately had experience of this in the case of my own poor mother; for her discovery, in my childhood, that I had inherited her mental disease, had only been the accidental cause of her loss of reason.

As a physician and a friend he would now say this, while he thought there was still time for me to prevent this fancy taking root. And he would say it not only for my own sake, but also for Susanna’s, for he was very fond of her, and would very unwillingly see her led into what, from a human point of view, could only end in sorrow.

One thing I must consider, he continued after a long pause, during which he seemed to be considering whether he should say all he had to say, and finally decided upon doing so and that was, that my unfortunate hereditary disposition did not allow of my thinking of marriage; it might, he went on with a gesture, as if performing a last, decisive operation on the candle, even be regarded in the same light as if a leper married without heeding that he thereby transmitted his disease to his children. I must not, however here he rose and laid his hand consolingly on my shoulder take these things too much to heart. The most bitter remedies and unfortunately the truth was such are generally the wholesomest, and for my sick, dreaming nature, he thought, after earnest, mature consideration, that the unvarnished truth was the only means of giving health and salvation.

After once more holding up the candle over me, he retired with, a serious nod; be could easily see that for the moment I was not in a condition to carry on any conversation, or give him any answer.

It was, in all friendliness, the death-blow to all my dreams and illusions.

I felt stunned by the blow, although my inward understanding had not yet taken it in clearly. My life’s old foreboding of misfortune was now at last confirmed. Susanna had therefore, for me, been but borrowed sunshine now, and my hopes were to be extinguished for ever.

I lay perfectly calm, rather seeing this with my mind’s eye than thinking it, while the music sounded faintly from the ball-room, and little by little I felt myself with a dull pain die away, as it were, from everything that was dear to me in the world. My body seemed to stiffen under the sorrow, and Susanna’s face, without a gleam of life in it, stood before me like something unnatural: my love was a dead history.

As I still lay in a dull, motionless stupor, through which everything without appeared to me in a half mist, the door opened, and a lady came in. She began hastily to repair with pins before the mirror a rent in her dress, but suddenly stopped, alarmed at seeing some one in the half-darkness lying on the bed.

I recognised Susanna, and, as it seemed to me, something told her that it must be I who lay there, for she approached as if to see, and whispered my name.

She probably thought I was asleep, as no answer came, and that it was neither right nor the time to wake me. She stood by me for a moment as if considering, then bent over me till I felt her warm breath, gently kissed my forehead, and went out.

A Christmas visit in northern districts generally lasts a couple of days, often more. But, as my father and the Martinezes had so much to do and our house was not very far, we were to go home as early as the next evening, while most of the others were to wait until the following day.

The minister’s family, however, were to remain as guests, together with the “notabilities,” to the end of the week. In the meantime, as, early the next day, the minister and his wife were going to call on a family in the neighbourhood, Susanna had to stay at the magistrate’s house.

I, like the other guests, had not risen until far on in the morning, but in my brain during all the time Dr. K.’s words about my position being like that of a leper had throbbed as a boil, growing harder and more painful with my changing ideas on the subject, until all at once their meaning stood clear with its whole sting before me.

I loved Susanna a thousand times more than myself, and should I selfishly wish to unite her fate to a man who was insane, only because that man was myself? And perhaps my mental condition would grow worse as time went on.

I began to feel within me a pious courage for self-sacrifice, and with it came calm, soothing peacefulness. When all was said and done, it was really the best thing I could think of, to give my life for Susanna, and this thought at last inspired me with an almost fanatical wish to do so.

My mind was made up; and my plan was the simple one of speaking out decidedly and clearly to her; for I would not for all the world deceive her in any way.

It was in the afternoon, in the twilight, while the others were out for a walk, that I found an opportunity of talking to her alone.

That day Susanna had on a black silk dress which fitted her to perfection, a lace collar and narrow sleeves with cuffs at the wrists. Her hair was fastened with a silver arrow as at the ball, but it was her only ornament.

She sat thoughtfully listening to me in front of the newly-lighted stove where we had placed ourselves. Every time she bent forward into the light from the stove door, it fell upon her expressive face, while I, in my endeavour to be true, told her, possibly with exaggerated colouring, all about my mental condition, and what Dr. K. had said.

As I talked I saw her face growing paler and more and more serious, until at last, leaning her elbows on her knees, she covered her eyes with her hands so that I could only see that her lips were trembling and that she was crying.

When I came to what the doctor had said about my condition resembling that of a leper, and that thus God Himself had placed an obstacle in the way of our union, while I tried consolingly to represent to her that for the whole of our life, with the exception of the last two years, we had really loved one another in a different way, like brother and sister she suddenly raised her head in wild defiance, so that I could look straight into her tear-stained face, threw her arms around my neck and forced me down on my knees in front of her. She pressed my head close up to her throbbing heart as if she would defend me against all who wanted to injure me. Then with her hand she stroked the hair back from my forehead I felt her tears falling on my face and she repeated caressingly again and again as if in delirium, that no one in the world should take me from her.

This was too much for my weary, suffering heart; I seized both her hands in mine and cried over them, with my head in her lap. My weeping grew more violent, until at last it rose to a desperate, convulsive sobbing, which I could no longer control, and which thoroughly alarmed Susanna; for she hushed me, called me by my name, and kissed me like a child, to quiet me. I felt such a deep need of having my cry out, that it could not now be stopped.

When at last I became quieter she once more clasped her hands about my neck, as if to compel my attention, bent forward, and looked long into my eyes with an expression both persuasively eloquent and strong-willed in her beautiful, agitated face. I must believe, she at last assured me with the quick movement of her head, with which she always emphasised her words, that concerning ourselves she knew a thousand times better than any doctor what God would have, and in this we ought to obey God and not a doctor’s human wisdom. And I was in many things so intensely simple-minded, that I could be made to believe anything.

People like the doctor, she said, had no idea what love was. Had I been strong and well, it would certainly have been God’s will that she should have shared the good with me, and so it must just as much be His will that the same love should share my sorrow and sickness; but it was in this that Dr. K. he evidently became more and more an object of hatred to her the longer she discussed him thought differently from God. Besides, she believed so surely and her voice here became wonderfully gentle and soft, almost a whisper that just this, as we two were so fond of one another, would be a better cure for me than anything a doctor could invent. At any rate, she felt within herself that she would fall ill and give way to despair if I no longer cared for her, for had we not cared for each other as long as we could remember, and it was certainly too late to think of separating us.

One thing must now be settled and at the thought her face assumed an expression of determined will, which reminded me of her father and that was that, as soon as possible, she would confide everything about our engagement to her father. It ought, both for my sake and hers, to be no longer a secret. Her father was very fond of her, and, if need be, she would tell him seriously that it would be of no use either for him, or for anyone else by this she meant her mother to try any longer to get a doctor to separate us by guile.

Anything like a brotherly and sisterly love between us, as she, with scornful contempt in her look, expressed it, she would not hear of, least of all now, and as if entirely to dispel this idea, she stood upright before me, and asked me, as she looked with passionate eagerness into my face, to say that we still were, and in spite of everything and everybody always should remain, faithfully betrothed, even if I never became so well that we could marry here on earth and to give her my kiss upon it.

I took her in my arms, and kissed her warmly and passionately once, twice, three times, until she freed herself.

While she was speaking it had dawned upon me that she, with her strong, healthy, loving nature, had fought the fight for us both and for a right that could not, perhaps, be proved in words, but the sanctity of which, I felt, was beyond all artificial proof.

Susanna now again belonged to me in another, truer, and more real way than I had ever dreamt of or suspected, as I comprehended that everything that could be called chivalrous sacrifice on my side only lay lower than our love, was even simply an unworthy offence to it. In true love the cross is borne by both the lovers, and the one who “chivalrously” wishes to bear it alone, only cheats the other of part of his best possession.

An hour after this interview with Susanna, which ended in renewed vows and promises, I was sitting in the stern of our ten-oared boat, together with my father and the two Martinezes, in the dark winter evening, while the moon was sailing behind a countless number of little grey clouds.

Father sat in silence and steered, while the men rowed against a rather stiff breeze which blew up the Sound, so that we might get the wind in our sails the rest of the way.

I quietly thought over everything that had passed during this short visit, and felt infinitely happy.

We reached home late at night. I tried to keep awake and to think about Susanna and all she had said to me, but I slept like a log, and awoke with a feeling of such health, happiness, and joy, as only those know to whose lot it has fallen to sleep the sleep of the really happy. And thus it was every night. I fell asleep before my prayers were ended, sang in the morning, and felt light-hearted almost to reckless gaiety, happy and ready for work the whole day long.

This proved how truly Susanna had said that our love would become to me a spring of health, better than any doctor’s human wisdom could devise.