Read CHAPTER XXXI of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

HOW THEY LIVE.

Every where on the route through the interior I found the peasants kind, hospitable, and simple-hearted. Sometimes I made a detour of several miles from the main road for the purpose of catching a glimpse of the home-life of the farmers; and, imperfect as my means of communication were, I never had any difficulty in making acquaintance with them after announcing myself as a traveler from California. They had all heard, more or less, of that wonderful land of gold, and entertained the most vague and exaggerated notions of its mineral resources. It was not uncommon to find men who believed that the whole country was yellow with gold; that such quantities of that ore abounded in it as to be of little or no value. When I told them that the country was very rich in the precious metals, but that every hill was not a mass of gold, nor the bed of every river lined with rocks and pebbles of the same material, they looked a little incredulous, not to say disappointed. Many of them seemed surprised that a Californian should be traveling through a distant land like Norway merely for amusement, and few seemed to be entirely satisfied when I assured them, in answer to their questions, that I was not very rich; that I was neither a merchant, nor a speculator, nor the owner of gold mines, but simply an indifferent artist making sketches of their country for pastime. French, German, and English artists they could believe in, for they saw plenty of them in the wilds of Norway every summer; but what use would such a poor business be in California, they said, where every man could make a thousand dollars a day digging for gold? I even fancied they looked at my rough and dusty costume as if they thought it concealed a glittering uniform, such as the rich men of my country must naturally wear when they go abroad to visit foreign lands. It was impossible to convince them that I was not extravagantly wealthy. On any other point there might be room for doubt, but the pertinacity with which they insisted upon that afforded me much amusement; and since I could not dispel the illusion, it generally cost me a few extra shillings when I had any thing to pay to avoid the stigma of meanness. Not that my extraordinary wealth ever gave them a plea for imposition or extortion. Such an idea never entered their heads. On the contrary, their main purpose seemed to be to show every possible kindness to the distinguished stranger; and more than once, at some of the post-stations, I had to remind them of things which they had omitted in the charge. For this very reason I was in a measure compelled to be rather more profuse than travelers usually are, so that the state from which I have the honor to hail owes me a considerable amount of money by this time for the handsome manner in which I have sustained its reputation. At some of the stopping-places on the road, where I obtained lodgings for the night, it was not uncommon to find intelligent and educated families of cultivated manners. Education of late years has made considerable progress in Norway; and the rising generation, owing to the facilities afforded by the excellent school system established throughout the country, but especially in the principal towns, will not be in any respect behind the times, so far as regards intellectual progress. It is the simplicity and honesty of these good people, however, that form their principal and most charming characteristic. To one long accustomed to sharp dealing and unscrupulous trickery, it is really refreshing their confidence in the integrity of a stranger. Usually they left the settlement of accounts to myself, merely stating that I must determine what I owed by adding up the items according to the tariff; and, although my knowledge of the language was so limited, I nowhere had the slightest approach to a dispute about the payment of expenses. On one occasion, not wishing to forfeit this confidence, I was obliged to ride back half a mile to pay for two cigars which I had forgotten in making up the reckoning, and of which the inn-keeper had not thought proper to remind me, or had forgotten to keep any account himself. No surprise was manifested at this conscientious act the inn-keeper merely nodding good-naturedly when I handed him the money, with the remark that it was “all right.”

In the districts remote from the sea-ports, the peasants, as may well be supposed, are extremely ignorant of the great outside world. Sweden and Denmark are the only countries known to them besides their own “Gamle Norge,” save such vague notions of other lands as they pick up from occasional travelers. To them “Amerika” is a terra incognita. A letter once or twice a year from some emigrant to the members of his family goes the rounds of the district, and gives them all the knowledge they have of that distant land of promise; and when they listen, with gaping eyes and open mouths, to the wonderful stories of adventure, life, enterprise, and wealth detailed by the enthusiastic rover, it is no wonder they shake their heads and say that Christian, or Hans, or Olé (as the case may be), “always was a capital fellow at drawing a long bow.” They firmly believe in ghosts and supernatural visitations of all sorts, but are very incredulous about any country in the world being equal to “Gamle Norge.” Naturally enough, they consider their climate the most genial, their barren rocks the most fertile, their government the best and most liberal on the face of the earth, and themselves the most highly favored of the human race. Goldsmith must have had special reference to the Norwegians when he sang of “that happiest spot below:”

“The shuddering tenant of the frigid zone
Boldly proclaims the happiest spot his own.”

And why should they be otherwise than contented if such a thing as contentment can exist upon earth? They have few wants and many children; a country free from internal commotion, and too far removed from the great scenes of European strife to excite the jealousy of external powers; sufficient food and raiment to satisfy the ordinary necessities of life, and no great extremes of wealth or poverty to militate against their independence, either in a political or social point of view. With good laws, an excellent Constitution, and a fair representation in the Storthing, they are justly proud of their freedom, and deeply imbued with the spirit of patriotism.

Very little of poverty or beggary is to be seen by the wayside during a tour through Norway. Only at one point between Kringelen and Laurgaard a wild and barren district exceedingly savage in its aspect, situated in a narrow gorge of the mountains near the head of the Logen was I solicited for alms. A portion of this route, after passing Sinclair’s Monument, is rudely fenced in, so as to render available every foot of the narrow valley. The road passes directly through the little farms, which at this stage of the journey are poor and unproductive. The climate is said to be very severe in this district, in consequence of its altitude, and the sharp winds which sweep down from the mountain gorges. At every gateway a gang of ragged little children always stood ready to open the gate, for which, of course, they expected a few shillings; and as these gates occur at intervals of every few hundred yards for some distance, it produces a sensible effect upon one’s purse to get through. Passing through some wretched hamlets in this vicinity, crowds of old women hobbled out to beg alms, and I did not get clear of the regiments of children who ran along behind the cariole to receive the remainder of my small change for several miles. Strange to say, this was the only place during my rambles through the interior in which I saw any thing like beggary. Generally speaking, the farming lands are sufficiently productive to supply all the wants of the peasants, and many of the farmers are even comfortably situated.

The houses in which these country people reside are not altogether unlike the small log cabins of the early settlers on our Western frontier. I have seen many such on the borders of Missouri and Kansas. Built in the most primitive style of pine logs, they stand upon stumps or columns of stone, elevated some two or three feet from the ground, in order to allow a draft of air underneath, which in this humid climate is considered necessary for health. They seldom consist of more than two or three rooms, but make up in number what they lack in size. Thus a single farming establishment often comprises some ten or a dozen little cabins, besides the large barn, which is the nucleus around which they all centre; with smaller cribs for pigs, chickens, etc., and here and there a shed for the cows and sheep, all huddled together among the rocks or on some open hill-side, without the least apparent regard to direction or architectural effect. The roofs are covered with sod, upon which it is not uncommon to see patches of oats, weeds, moss, flowers, or whatever comes most convenient to form roots and give consistency and strength to this singular overtopping. The object, I suppose, is to prevent the transmission of heat during the severe season of winter. Approaching some of these hamlets or farming establishments during the summer months, the traveler is frequently at a loss to distinguish their green-sodded roofs from the natural sod of the hill-sides, so that one is liable at any time to plunge into the midst of a settlement before he is aware of its existence. Something of a damp, earthy look about them, the weedy or grass-covered tops, the logs green and moss-grown, the dripping eaves, the veins of water oozing out of the rocks, give them a peculiarly Northern and chilling effect, and fill the mind with visions of long and dreary winters, rheumatisms, colds, coughs, and consumptions, to which it is said these people are subject. Nothing so wild and primitive is to be seen in any other part of Europe. A silence almost death-like hangs over these little hamlets during a great part of the day, when the inhabitants are out in the hills attending their flocks or cultivating their small patches of ground. I passed many groups of cabins without seeing the first sign of life, save now and then a few chickens or pigs rooting about the barn-yard. The constant impression was that it was Sunday, or at least a holiday, and that the people were either at church or asleep. For one who seeks retirement from the busy haunts of life, where he can indulge in uninterrupted reflection, I know of no country that can equal Norway. There are places in the interior where I am sure he would be astonished at the sound of his own voice. The deserts of Africa can scarcely present a scene of such utter isolation. With a rod in his hand, he can, if given to the gentle art, sit and dream upon some mossy bank,

“In close covert by some brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
And hide him from day’s garish noon.”

Thus you often come upon an English sportsman waiting for a nibble.

The food of the peasants consists principally of black bread, milk, butter, and cheese. Meat is too expensive for very general use, though at certain seasons of the year they indulge in it once or twice a week. Coffee is a luxury to which they are much addicted. Even the poorest classes strain a point to indulge in this favorite narcotic, and in no part of Norway did I fail to get a good cup of coffee. It is a very curious fact that the best coffee to be had at the most fashionable hotels on the Continent of Europe always excepting Paris is inferior to that furnished to the traveler at the commonest station-house in Norway. This is indeed one of the luxuries of a tour through this part of Scandinavia. The cream is rich and pure, and it is a rare treat to get a large bowlful of it for breakfast, with as much milk as you please, and no limit to bread and butter. Your appetite is not measured by infinitesimal bits and scraps as in Germany. A good wholesome meal is spread before you in the genuine backwoods style, and you may eat as much as you please, which is a rare luxury to one who has been stinted and starved at the hotels on the Continent. I remember, at one station beyond the Dovre Fjeld, Bennett’s Hand-book says, “Few rooms, but food supplied in first-rate style when Miss Marit is at home. She will be much offended if you do not prove that you have a good appetite.” On my arrival at this place, not wishing to offend Miss Marit for whom I entertained the highest respect in consequence of her hospitable reputation I called for every thing I could think of, and when it was placed upon the table by that accomplished young lady (a very pleasant, pretty young woman, by-the-way), fell to work and made it vanish at a most astonishing rate. Miss Marit stood by approvingly. During a pause in my heavy labors I called the attention of this estimable person to her own name in the printed pamphlet, at which she blushed and looked somewhat confused. Possibly there might be a mistake about it.

“Your name is Miss Marit?” I asked, very politely.

“Ja.”

“And this is Miss Marit in print?”

“Ja.”

She took the book and tried to read it.

“Nikka Forstoe!” she didn’t understand.

“What does it say?” she asked, rather gravely.

Here was a job to translate the paragraph into Norwegian! Besides, it would not do to translate it literally, so I made a sort of impromptu paraphrase upon it.

“Oh! it says Miss Marit is a very pretty young lady.”

“Ja!” blushing and looking somewhat astonished.

“And Miss Marit is a very nice housekeeper.”

“Ja.”

“And Miss Marit makes splendid coffee, and thoroughly understands how to cook a beefsteak.”

“Ja!”

“And Miss Marit would make a most excellent wife for any young gentleman who could succeed in winning her affections!”

“Nei!” said the young lady, blushing again, and looking more astonished than ever.

“Ja,” said I, “it is all in print” adding, with an internal reservation, “or ought to be.”

Who can blame me for paying tribute to Miss Marit’s kindness and hospitality? She is certainly deserving of much higher praise than that bestowed upon her, and I hope Mr. Bennett will pardon me for the liberal style of my translation. If he didn’t mean all I said, let the responsibility rest upon me, for I certainly meant every word of it.

The farming districts are limited chiefly to the valleys along the river-courses, and such portions of arable lands as lie along the shores of the Fjords. A large proportion of the country is extremely wild and rugged, and covered, for the most part, with dense pine forests. The peasants generally own their own farms, which are small, and cut up into patches of pasture, grain-lands, and tracts of forest. Even the most unpromising nooks among the rocks, in many parts of the Gudbransdalen Valley, where plows are wholly unavailable, are rooted up by means of hoes, and planted with oats and other grain. I sometimes saw as many as forty or fifty of these little arable patches perched up among the rocks, hundreds of feet above the roofs of the houses, where it would seem dangerous for goats to browse. The log cabins peep out from among the rocks and pine-clad cliffs all along the course of the Logen, giving the country a singular speckled appearance. This, it must be remembered, is one of the best districts in the interior. The richest agricultural region is said to be that bordering on the shores of the Miosen. One of the comforts enjoyed by the peasants, and without which it would scarcely be possible for them to exist in such a rigorous climate, consists in the unlimited quantity of fuel to which they have such easy access. This is an inconceivable luxury during the long winter months; and their large open fireplaces and blazing fires, even in the cool summer evenings, constantly remind one of the homes of the settlers in the Far West. When the roads are covered with snow the true season of internal communication commences. Then the means of transportation and travel are greatly facilitated, and the clumsy wagons used in summer are put aside for the lighter and more convenient sledges with which every farmer is abundantly provided. All along the route the snow-plows may be seen turned up against the rocks, ready to be used during the winter to clear and level the roads. In summer the means of transportation are little better than those existing between Placerville and Carson Valley.

It was during the height of the harvesting season that I passed through the Gudbransdalen. One of the most characteristic sights at this time of the year is the extraordinary amount of labor imposed upon the women, who seem really to do most of the heavy work. I thought I had seen the last of that in the Thuringenwald, Odenwald, and Schwartzwald, while on a foot-tour through Germany; but even the Germans are not so far advanced in civilization in this respect as the Norwegians, who do not hesitate to make their women cut wood, haul logs, pull carts, row boats, fish, and perform various other kinds of labor usually allotted to the stronger sex, which even a German would consider rather heavy for his “frow.” The men, in addition to this ungallant trait, are much addicted to the use of tobacco and native corn-brandy which, however, I can not but regard as a sign of civilization, since the same habits exist, to some extent, in our own country. Chewing and drinking are just as common as in California, the most enlightened country in the world. Wherever I saw a set of drunken fellows roaring and rollicking at some wayside inn, their faces smeared with tobacco, and their eyes rolling in their heads, I naturally felt drawn toward them by the great free-masonry of familiar customs.

The system of farming followed by the peasants is exceedingly primitive, though doubtless well adapted to the climate and soil. Nothing can be more striking to a stranger than the odd shapes of the wagons and carts, and the rudeness of the agricultural implements, which must be patterned upon those in vogue during the time of Odin, the founder of the Norwegian race. Owing to the humidity of the climate, it is necessary in harvest time to dry the hay and grain by staking it out in the fields on long poles, so that the sun and air may penetrate every part of it. The appearance of a farm is thus rendered unique as well as picturesque. In the long twilight nights of summer these ghostly stokes present the appearance of a gang of heathenish spirits standing about in the fields, with their long beards waving in the air, and their dusky robes trailing over the stubbles. The figures thus seen at every turn of the road often assume the most striking spectral forms, well calculated to augment those wild superstitions which prevail throughout the country. It was impossible for me ever to get quite rid of the idea that they were descendants of the old Scandinavian gods, holding counsel over the affairs of the nation, especially when some passing breeze caused their arms and robes to flutter in the twilight, and their heads to swing to and fro, as if in the enthusiasm of their ghostly deliberations.

Mingled with the wild superstitions of the people their piety is a prominent trait. Their prevailing religion is Episcopal Lutheran, though Catholicism and other religions are tolerated by an act of the Storthing, with the exception of Mormonism, which is prohibited by law. A considerable number of prosélytes to that sect have emigrated to Salt Lake. This prevailing spirit of piety is observable even in the wildest parts of the country, where every little hamlet has its church, and neither old nor young neglect their religious services. Most of these churches are built of wood, with a steeple of the same material, shingled over and painted black, so as to present the most striking contrast to the snows which cover the face of the country during the greater part of the year.

The parish schoolmaster is a most important personage in these rural districts. He it is who trains up the rising generation, teaches the young idea how to shoot, and

“Out of great things and small draweth the secrets of
the universe.”

He is greatly revered by the simple-minded old farmers, is cherished and respected by the mothers of families, enthusiastically admired and generally aspired to by the village belles, and held in profound awe by all the little urchins of the neighborhood. He speaketh unknown tongues; he diveth into the depths of abstruse sciences; he talketh with the air of one burdened with much learning; he “argueth the cycles of the stars from a pebble flung by a child;” he likewise teacheth reading, writing, and arithmetic, and applieth the rod to the juvenile seat of understanding, as shown on the preceding page.

Soon after leaving Storkterstad, a station about two days’ journey from Lillehammer, on the main road to Trondhjem, I passed through a very steep and rugged defile in the mountains, with jagged rocks on the right and the foaming waters of the Logen on the left, where my attention was called by the skydskaarl to a small monument by the roadside hearing an inscription commemorative of the death of Colonel Sinclair. If I remember correctly, a fine description is given of this celebrated passage by Mogge, whose graphic sketches of Norwegian scenery I had frequent occasion to admire, during my tour, for their beauty and accuracy. I fully agree with my friend Bayard Taylor, that the traveler can find no better guide to the Fjelds and Fjords of this wild country than “Afraja” and “Life and Love in Norway.” Laing has also given an interesting account of the massacre of Colonel Sinclair’s party. From his version of this famous incident in Norwegian history it appears that, during the war between Christian the Fourth of Denmark and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, while the Danes held the western coast of Norway, Colonel Sinclair, a Scotchman, desiring to render assistance to the Swedes, landed at Romsdalen, on the coast, with a party of nine hundred followers. Another detachment of his forces landed at Trondhjem. It was their intention to fight their way across the mountains and join the Swedish forces on the frontier. Sinclair’s party met with no resistance till they arrived at the pass of Kringelen, where three hundred peasants, hearing of their approach, had prepared an ambush. Every thing was arranged with the utmost secrecy. An abrupt mountain on the right, abounding in immense masses of loose rock, furnished the means of a terrible revenge for the ravages committed by the Scotch on their march from Romsdalen. The road winds around the foot of this mountain, making a narrow pass, hemmed in by the roaring torrents of the Logen on the one side and abrupt cliffs on the other. Across the river, which here dashes with frightful rapidity through the narrow gorge of the mountains, the country wears an exceedingly weird and desolate aspect; the ravines and summits of the mountains are darkened by gloomy forests of pine, relieved only by hoary and moss-covered cliffs overhanging the rushing waters of the Logen. On the precipitous slopes of the pass, hundreds of feet above the road, the peasants gathered enormous masses of rock, logs of wood, and even trunks of trees, which they fixed in such a way that, at a moment’s notice, they could precipitate the whole terrible avalanche upon the heads of the enemy.

Such was the secrecy with which the peasants managed the whole affair, that the Scotch, ignorant even of the existence of a foe, marched along in imaginary security till they reached the middle of the narrow pass, when they were suddenly overwhelmed and crushed beneath the masses of rocks and loose timbers launched upon them by the Norwegians. Rushing from their ambush, the infuriated peasants soon slaughtered the maimed and wounded, leaving, according to some authorities, only two of the enemy to tell the tale. Others, however, say that as many as sixty escaped, but were afterward caught and massacred. Attached to this fearful story of retribution, Laing mentions a romantic incident, which is still currently told in the neighborhood. A young peasant was prevented from joining in the attack by his sweet-heart, to whom he was to be married the next day. She, learning that the wife of Colonel Sinclair was among the party, sent her lover to offer his assistance; but the Scotch lady, mistaking his purpose, shot him dead. Such is the tragic history that casts over this wild region a mingled interest of horror and romance.

The road from Laurgaard beyond the pass of the Kringelen ascends a high mountain. On the right is a series of foaming cataracts, and nothing can surpass the rugged grandeur of the view as you reach the highest eminence before descending toward Braendhagen. Here the country is one vast wilderness of pine-clad mountains, green winding valleys, and raging torrents of water dashing down over the jagged rocks thousands of feet below. It was nearly night when I reached Dombaas, the last station before ascending the Dovre Fjeld.

A telegraphic station at Dombaas gives something of a civilized aspect to this stopping-place, otherwise rather a primitive-looking establishment. The people, however, are very kind and hospitable, and somewhat noted for their skill in carving bone and wooden knife-handles. I should have mentioned that, wild as this part of the country is, the traveler is constantly reminded by the telegraphic poles all along the route that he is never quite beyond the limits of civilization. Such is the force of habit that I was strongly tempted to send a message to somebody from Dombaas; but, upon turning the matter over in my mind, could think of nobody within the limits of Norway who felt sufficient interest in my explorations to be likely to derive much satisfaction from the announcement that I had reached the edge of the Dovre Fjeld in safety. The name of a waiter who was good enough to black my boots at the Victoria Hotel occurred to me, but it was hardly possible he would appreciate a telegraphic dispatch from one who had no more pressing claims to his attention. I thought of sending a few lines of remembrance to the Wild Girl who had come so near breaking my neck. This notion, however, I gave over upon reflecting that she might attach undue weight to my expressions of friendship, and possibly take it into her head that I was making love to her than which nothing could be farther from my intention. I had a social chat with the telegraph-man, however a very respectable and intelligent person who gave me the latest news; and with this, and good supper and bed, I was obliged to rest content.