Read AN EVENING IN THE SITTING-ROOM of Strife and Peace , free online book, by Fredrika Bremer, on ReadCentral.com.

And is it once morning, then is it noon-day,
For the light must eternally conquer.

Foss.

It was a lovely summer evening. Through the open windows of the sitting-room streamed in the delicious summer air with the fragrance of the hay, which now lay in swath in the dale. At one table, Susanna prepared the steaming tea, which the Norwegians like almost as much as the English; at another sate Mrs. Astrid with Harald and Alette, occupied with the newly-published beautiful work, “Snorre Sturleson’s Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, translated from the Icelandic of J. Aal.” The fourth number of this work lay before Harald, open at the section “The Discovery of Vineland.” He had just read aloud Mr. Aal’s interesting introduction to the Sagas of Erik Roede and Karlefne, and now proceeded to read these two Sagas themselves, which contained the narrative of the first discovery of America, and of which we here give a brief compendium.

“At the end of the tenth century, at the period when the Northmen sought with warlike Viking hosts the south, and the Christianity with the Gospel of Peace made its way towards the North, there lived in Iceland a man of consequence, named Herjulf. His son was called Bjarne, and was a courageous young man. His mind was early turned towards travel and adventures. He soon had the command of his own ship, and sailed in it for foreign lands. As he one summer returned to the island of his ancestors, his father had shortly before sailed for Greenland, and had settled himself there. Then also steered Bjarne out to sea, saying, ’He would, after the old custom, take up his winter’s board with his father, and would sail for Greenland.’

“After three days’ sail, a fierce north wind arose, followed by so thick a fog that Bjarne and his people could no longer tell where they were. This continued many days. After that they began to see the sun again, and could discern the quarters of the heaven. They saw before them land, which was overgrown with wood, and had gentle éminences. Bjarne would not land there, because it could not be Greenland, where he knew that they should find great icebergs. They sailed on with a south-west wind for three days, and got sight of another land, which was mountainous, and had lofty icebergs. But Bjarne perceived that neither was this Greenland, and sailed farther, till he at length discovered the land which he sought, and his father’s court.

“On a visit to Erik Jarl in Norway, Bjarne related his voyage, and spoke of the strange country which he had seen. But people thought that he had had little curiosity not to have been able to say more about this country, and some blamed him much on this account. Erik Roede’s son Leif, the descendant of a distinguished line, was filled with zeal at Bjarne’s relation, to pursue the discovery, and purchased of him a ship, which he manned with five-and-thirty men, and so set out to sea, to discover this new land. They came first to a country full of snow and mountains, which seemed to them to be destitute of all magnificence. They then came in sight of one whose shore was of white sand, and its surface overgrown with woods. They sailed yet farther westward, and arrived at a splendid country, where they found grapes and Indian corn and the noble tree ’Masur.’

“This country they called ‘Vineland,’ and built a house, and remained there through the winter, which was so mild that the grass was but little withered. Moreover, the day and night were of more equal length than in Iceland or Greenland. And Leif was a tall and strong man, of a manly aspect, and at the same time wise and prudent in all matters. After this expedition, he grew both in consideration and wealth, and was universally called ‘The Happy.’

“Amongst the voyages to this new country which followed on that of Leif, Karlefne’s is the most remarkable. But the new colonists were attacked with heavy sickness; and the peculiar home-sickness of the inhabitants of the North might perhaps, in part, drive them back from the grapes of Vineland to their own snowy home: certain it is, that they retained no permanent settlement in the new country. They were also continually assaulted by the natives, whom their weapons were not powerful enough to restrain.

“In the mean time, several Icelandic annalists have recorded that, in every age, from the time of Leif to that of Columbus, America was visited by the Northmen. Testimonies and memories of these voyages we have now only in these relations, and in the remarkable stone called ‘Dighton written Rock,’ on the bank of Taunton river, in Massachusetts, and whose ruins and hieroglyphics, at length, in 1830, copied by learned Americans, corroborate the truth of these relations.”

Harald now commented on these figures with great zeal, remarking that, in Norway, similar ones were yet found engraven on the face of rocks, on tombstones, etc. “Do you see, Alette,” continued he, eagerly, “this represents a woman and a little child; probably Karlefne’s wife, who bore a son during this visit to Vineland. And this must be a bull; and in Karlefne’s Saga a bull is mentioned, which terrified the natives by his bellowings; and these figures to the right represent the natives. This must be a shield, and these Runic letters.”

“It requires a right good strength of imagination for all this, my brother,” here interrupted Alette, smilingly, who was not altogether so patriotic as Harald; “but granted that all this was evidence of the first discovery of America by our ancestors, what then? What good, what advantage has the world derived thence? Is it not rather sorrowful to see that such important discoveries should have been lost, that they could be obliterated, as if they had never been, and must be made anew? Had not Columbus, some centuries later, braved both the narrow-mindedness of men and the yet unmeasured tracks of the ocean, it is probable that to-day we should know nothing of America, and of these stones, the traces of our forefathers on this foreign soil.”

“But, my dear Alette,” exclaimed Harald in astonishment, “is it not then clear as the sun, that without the Vineland voyages of the Northmen, Columbus could certainly never have fallen upon the idea of seeking a land beyond the great ocean? In the time of Columbus, the Northmen sailed in their Snaeckor about all the coasts of Europe; they made voyages to Spain, and rumours of the Vineland voyages went with them. Besides and this is worthy of notice Columbus himself visited Iceland a few years prior to his great voyage of discovery; and, as Robertson says, rather to extend his knowledge of sea affairs than to augment his property.”

“But,” said Alette, “Washington Irving, in his ‘Columbus,’ which I have recently read, speaks indeed of his voyage to Iceland, but denies that he derived thence any clue to his great discovery.”

“But that is incredible, impossible, after what we here see and hear! Listen now to what Aal says of the time when Columbus made his sojourn in Iceland: ’In Iceland flourished then the written Sagas, and the various Sagas passed from hand to hand in various copies, serving then, as now, but in a higher degree, to shorten the winter evenings. Our old manuscript Sagas thus certainly kindled a light in his dim conceptions; and this must have so much the more brought him upon the track, as it was nearer to the events themselves, and could in part be orally communicated by those who were the direct lineal descendants of the discoverers.’

“Is not this most natural and essential? Can you doubt any longer, Alette? I pray you convert and improve yourself. Convert yourself from Irving to Aal.”

“I am disposed to take Harald’s side,” said now Mrs. Astrid, with a lively voice and look. “Great, and for mankind, important discoveries have never occurred without preparatory circumstances, often silently operating through whole centuries, till in a happy moment the spirit of genius and of good fortune has blown up the fire which glowed beneath the ashes, into a clear, and for the world, magnificent flame. Wherever we see a flower we can look down to a stem, to the roots hidden in the earth, and finally look to a seed, which in its dark form contained the yet undeveloped but living plant. And may not everything in the world be regulated by the same law of development? In the tempestuous voyages of the Northmen through the misty seas, I could see the weather-driven seed which, under the guidance of Providence, from the soil of Vineland, stretched its roots through centuries, till a mighty genius was guided by them to complete the work, and to the Old World to discover the New.”

Harald was delighted with this idea, which blew fresh wind into his sails; and thereby enlivened, he gave vent to the admiration of the ancient times of the North, which lived in his bosom.

“It belonged,” said he, “to those men of few words but of powerful deeds; those men to whom danger was a sport, the storm music, and the swell of waves a dance: to this race of youths it belonged to discover new worlds without imagining that to be any exploit. Great achievements were their every-day occupation.”

Alette shook her beautiful head at this enthusiasm for antiquity. She would not deny these times had a certain greatness, but she could not pronounce them truly great. She spoke of the revenge, the violence, the base cruelties which the past ages of the North openly paid homage to.

But, continued Harald, the contempt of pain and death, this noble contempt, so universal amongst the men of that time, deprived cruelty of its sting. Our degenerate race has scarcely a conception of the strength which made the men of past times find a pleasure even in pains, since they spurred their courageous souls to the highest pitch of heroism; since in such moments they felt themselves able to be more than men. Therefore sung heroes amid the very pains of death. Thus died the Swedish Hjalmar, in the arms of his friend Odd, the Norwegian, while he greeted the eagles which came to drink his blood. Thus died Ragnar Lodbrok, in the den of serpents; and while the snakes hissing, gnawed their way into his heart, he sung his victories, and concluded with the words

Gone are the hours of existence!
Smiling shall I die.

“How noble and admirable is this strength, amid torments and death! Could we but thus die!”

“But the rudest savages of America,” said Alette, “know and practise this species of heroism; before me floats another ideal, both of life and death. The strong spirit of past ages, which you, my brother, so highly prize, could not support old age, the weary days, the silent suffering, the great portion of the lot of man. I will prize the spirit which elevates every condition of humanity; which animates the dying hero to praise, not himself, but God, and die; and which to the lonely one, who wanders through the night of life towards his unnoticed grave, imparts a strength, a peace, and enables him in his darkness to triumph over all the powers of darkness. Ah! I who deeply feel myself to be one of the weak ones in the earth, who possess no single drop of Northern heroic blood; I rejoice that we can live and die in a manner which is noble, which is beautiful, which requires not the Berserker-mood, and of which the strongest spirit need not be ashamed. Do you remember, my brother, ‘The old poet’ of Rein? This poem perfectly expresses the tone of mind which I would wish to possess in my last hour.”

Harald recollected but faintly The old poet, and both he and Mrs. Astrid begged Alette to make them better acquainted with him. Alette could not remember the whole of the poem, but gave an account of the most essential of its contents in these words

It is spring. The aged poet wanders through wood and mead, in the country where he once sung, where he had once been happy, amongst those whom he had made glad. His voice is now broken; his strength, his fire, are over. Like a shadow of that which once he was, he goes about in the young world still fresh with life. The birds of spring gather around him, welcome him with joy, and implore him to take his harp and sing to it of the new-born year, of the smiling spring. He answers

O ye dear little singer quire,
No more can I strike the harp with fire;
No more in youth is renewed my spring;
No more the old poet can gaily sing;
And yet I am so blest
In my heart is heavenly rest.

“He wanders farther through wood and meadow. The brook murmuring between green banks, whispers to him its joy over its loosed bands, and greets the singer as the messenger of spring and freedom:

Thy harp, my fleet stream fondly haileth
It leaps, it exults, it bewaileth;
Let it sound then O make no delay!
Like me the days hasten away.

“The aged singer replies:

O spring! which dost leap in thy sheen,
No more am I what I have been.
The name of the past I hear alone
A feeble echo of days that are flown.
And yet I am so blest;
In my heart is heavenly rest.

“He wanders farther. The Dryads surround him in their dance; the Flowers present him garlands, and beg him to sing their festival; the Zéphyrs, which were wont to play amid his harp-strings, seek in the bushes, and ask whether he has forgotten them there; caress the old man, and seek again, but in vain. They are about to fly, but he entreats:

O dear ones, depart not I pray!
O flowers, spread with beauty my way!
My harp is broken, but no sigh
Spring’s spirits gay shall cause to fly.
And I am still so blest;
In my heart is heavenly rest.

“He wanders farther, and seeks out every beloved nook. The youth of the country assemble, and surround the aged singer ’the friend of youth and gladness.’ They entreat him with his music to beautify their festival:

For spring is dead, with all its pleasure,
Without the harp and song’s glad measure.

“The old man replies:

Quenched, ye youth, is my fire so wild;
My evening twilight is cool, but mild;
And the blissful hours of my youth are brought,
By your lively songs, into my thought.
Bewail me not; I am still so blest
In my heart lieth heaven’s own rest.

“And now he exhorts the songsters of the wood, flowers, youth, everything that is lovely in nature and in life, to rejoice in its existence, and to praise the Creator. The beauty and joy of all creatures are the garland in his silver hair; and grateful and happy, admiring and singing praises, he sinks softly into the maternal bosom of Nature.”

Alette was silent; a tender emotion trembled in her voice as she uttered the last words, and beamed in her charming countenance. The tears of Mrs. Astrid flowed; her hands were convulsively clasped together, whilst she exclaimed, “Oh thus to feel before one dies! and thus to be permitted to die!” She drew Alette to her with a kind of vehemence, kissed her, and then wept silently, leaning on her shoulder. Harald, too, was affected; but he appeared to restrain his feelings, and gazed with earnest and tearful eyes on the group before him.

Silently and unobserved stole Susanna out of the room. She felt a sting in her heart; a serpent raged in her bosom. Driven by a nameless agonised disquiet, she hastened forth into the free air, and ascended, almost without being aware of it herself, the steep footpath up the mountain, where many a time, in calmer moments, she had admired the beautiful prospect.

Great and beautiful scenes had, during the foregoing conversation, arisen before her view; she felt herself so little, so poor beside them. Ah! she could not once speak of the great and beautiful, for her tongue was bound. She felt so warmly, and yet could warm no one! The happy Alette won without trouble, perhaps even without much valuing it, a regard, an approval, which Susanna would have purchased with her life. The Barbra-spirit boiled up in her, and with a reproachful glance to heaven she exclaimed, “Shall I then, for my whole life remain nothing but a poor despised maid-servant!”

The heaven looked clown on the young maiden mildly, but smilingly; soft rain-drops sprinkled her forehead; and all nature around her stood silent, and, as it were, in sorrow. This sorrowing calm operated on Susanna like the tenderly accusing glance of a good mother. She looked down into her heart, and saw there envy and pride, and she shuddered at herself. She gazed down into the stream which waved beneath her feet, and she thought with longing, “Oh, that one could but plunge down, deep, deep into these waves, and then arise purified improved!”

But already this wish had operated like a purifying baptism on Susanna’s soul; and she felt fresh and light thoughts ascend within her. “A poor maid-servant!” repeated now Sanna; “and why should that be so contemptible a lot? The Highest himself has served on earth; served for all, for the very least; yes, even for me. Oh! ” and it became continually lighter and warmer in her mind. “I will be a true maid-servant, and place my honour in it, and desire to be nothing else! Charm I cannot; beauty and genius, and beautiful talents, I have not; but I can love and I can serve, and that will I do with my whole heart, and with all my strength, and in all humility; and if men despise me, yet God will not forsake the poor and faithful maid-servant!”

When Susanna again cast her tearful eyes on the ground, they fell on a little piece of moss, one of those very least children of nature, which in silence and unheeded pass through the metamorphoses of their quiet life. The little plant stood in fresh green, on its head hung the clear rain-drops, and the sun which now shone through the clouds, glittered in them.

Susanna contemplated the little moss, and it seemed to say to her: “See thou! though I am so insignificant, yet I enjoy the dew of heaven and the beams of the sun, as fully as the roses and the lilacs of the garden!” Susanna understood the speech of the little plant, and grateful and calmed, she repeated many times to herself, with a species of silent gladness “a humble, a faithful maid-servant!”

When Susanna came home, she found Mrs. Astrid not well. She had been much excited, and on such occasions an attack of the spasms was always to be apprehended. Susanna begged earnestly, and received the permission to watch by her to-night; at least, till Mrs. Astrid slept. Mrs. Astrid had, indeed, another maid with her, but she was old and very deaf, and Susanna had no confidence in her.

Mrs. Astrid retired to rest. Susanna seated herself on a stool by the window, silently occupied with her thoughts, and with knitting a stocking. The window had stood open during the day, and a host of flies had entered the room. Mrs. Astrid was much disturbed by them, and complained that they prevented her sleeping. Quietly Susanna laid bare her white shoulders, neck, and arms, and when the flies in swarms darted down upon her, and her mistress now left at peace slept calmly, Susanna sate still, let the flies enjoy themselves, and enjoyed herself thereby more than one can believe.