A Painful Memory From Childhood-Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
I must have been somewhere about seven years old, when one Sunday afternoon a rumour reached the parsonage that, on that same day, two men, rowing past the Buggestrand in Eidsfjord, had discovered a woman who had fallen over a cliff, and had remained half lying,half hanging, close to the water's edge.
It was thirty-five miles by water to the doctor's, and then an order for admission to the hospital had also to be procured. She had lain twenty-four hours before help reached her, and shortly afterwards she died. Before she breathed her last, she said it was Peer Hagbo who had done it. "But," she added, "they mustn't do him any harm."
Everybody knew that there had been an attachment between the girl, who was in service at Hagbo's, and the son of the house, and the shrewd ones instantly guessed why he wanted to get her out of the way.
It was in the very middle of summer, when the whole place was flooded with sunshine and gladness. I remember how the light faded, faces turned to stone, the fjord grew dim, and village and forest shrank away into shadow. I remember that even the next day I felt as though a blow had been dealt to ordinary existence. I knew that I need not go to school. Men knocked off work, leaving everything just as it was, and sat down with idle hands. The women especially were paralysed: it was evident they felt themselves threatened, they even said as much. When strangers came to the parsonage their bearing and expression showed that the murder lay heavy on their minds, and they read the same story in us. We took each other's hands with a sense of remoteness. The murder was the only thing that was present with us. Whatever we talked of we seemed to hear of the murder in voice and word. The last consciousness at night and the first in the morning was that everything was unsettled, and that the joy of life was suddenly arrested, like the hands on a dial at a certain hour.
But by degrees the murder fell into its proper place among other interests; curiosity and gossip had made it commonplace. It was taken up, turned over, considered, picked at and pulled about, till it became simply "the last new thing." Soon we knew every detail of the relation between the murdered and the murderer. We knew who it was that Peer's mother had wanted him to marry; we knew the Hagbo family in and out, and their history for generations past.
When the magistrate came to the parsonage to institute the preliminary inquiry, the murder was merely an inexhaustible theme of conversation. But the next day when the bailiff and some other men appeared with the murderer, a new feeling took possession of me, a feeling of which I could not have imagined myself capable— an overpowering compassion. A young good-looking lad, well grown, slightly built, rather small than otherwise, with dark not very thick hair, with appealing eyes which were now downcast, with a clear voice, and about his whole personality a certain charm, almost refinement; a creature to associate with life, not death, with gladness, with gaiety. I was more sorry for him than I can say. The bailiff and the other people spoke kindly to him too, so they must have felt the same. Only the peppery little clerk came out with some hard words, but the accused stood cap in hand and made no answer.
He paced up and down the yard in his shirt sleeves—the day was very warm—with a flat cloth cap over his close-cut hair, and his hands in his trousers pockets, or toying restlessly with a piece of straw. The parsonage dog had found companions, and the youth followed the dog's frolic with his eyes, and gazed at the chickens and at us children as though he longed to be one of us. The girl's words, "But don't do him any harm," rang in my ears unceasingly— whether he walked about or stood still or sat down. I knew that he would certainly be beheaded, and, believing that it must be soon, I was filled with horror at the thought of his saying to himself, In a month I shall die—and then in a week—in a day—an hour… it must be utterly unendurable. I slipped behind him to see his neck, and just at that moment he lifted his hand up to it, a little brown hand; and I could not get rid of the thought that perhaps his fingers would come in the way when the axe was falling.
He and the warders were asked to come in and dine. I felt I must see if it were really possible for him to eat. Yes, he ate and chatted just like the rest, and for a time I forgot my terror. But no sooner was I outside again and alone than I fell to thinking of it with might and main, and it seemed to me very hard that her words, "But you mustn't do him any harm," should be so utterly disregarded. I felt I must go in and say as much to father. But he, slow and serious, and the clerk, little and dapper, were walking up and down the room deep in conversation, far, far above all my misery. I slipped out again, and stroked the coat which Peer had taken off.
The inquiry was held in my schoolroom. My master acted as secretary to the court, and I got leave to sit there and listen. For the matter of that, the clerk spoke in so loud a voice that it could be heard through the open window by every one in the place. The unfortunate youth was called upon to account for the entire day on which the murder had been committed—for every hour of that Sunday. He denied that he had killed her—denied it with the utmost emphasis: "It was not he who had done it." The magistrate's examination was both acutely and kindly conducted; Peer was moved to tears, but no confession could be drawn from him.
"This will be a long business, madam," said the magistrate to my mother when the first day's inquiry was over. But later in the evening Peer's sister came to the parsonage and remained with him all through the night. They were heard whispering and crying unceasingly. In the morning Peer was pale and silent; before the court he took all the blame upon himself.
The way it had happened, he explained, was that he had been her lover, and that his mother had strongly disapproved of the connection. So one Sunday as the girl, prayer-book in hand, was going to church, he met her in the wood. They sat down, and he asked if she intended to declare him the father of the child she was about to bear; for it was in this time of sore necessity that she was going to seek consolation in the church. She replied that she could accuse no one else. He spoke of the shame it would bring on him, and how annoyed his mother already was. Yes, yes, she knew that too well. His mother was very angry with her; and she thought it strange of Peer that he didn't stand up for her; he knew best whose fault it was that all this had happened. But Peer hinted that she had been compliant to others as well as to himself, and therefore he would not submit to being given out as the child's father. He tried to make her angry, but did not succeed, she was so gentle. He had an axe lying concealed in the heather near where he sat. He took it and struck her on the head from behind. She did not lose consciousness at once, but tried to defend herself while she begged for her life. He could give no clear account of what happened afterwards. It seemed almost as though he himself had lost consciousness. As to the other events, he accepted the account of them which had been given in the evidence against him.
His sister waited at the parsonage until he came from the examination, worn out and with eyes red with weeping. Once more they went aside and whispered. I remember nothing more of her than that she held her head down and wept a great deal.
It was in the winter that he was to be executed. The announcement was made at such short notice that every one in the house had to bestir himself—father was to deliver an exhortation at the place of execution, and the Dean, whose parishioner the condemned man was, together with the bailiff, had arranged to come to us the day before.
Peer and his warders and a friend, his instructor during the time of his imprisonment, schoolmaster Jakobsen, were to sleep down in the schoolhouse, which was part of the farm property belonging to the old parsonage. Meals were to be carried from our house to the prisoner and Jakobsen.
I remember that they came in the morning in two boat-loads from Molde: the Dean, the bailiff, the military escort, and the condemned man. But I had to sit in the old schoolhouse, and not even later in the day was I allowed to go down to where they were.
This prohibition made the whole proceeding the more mysterious. It grew dark early. The sea ran black against a whitish and in some places bare-swept beach. The ragged clouds chased each other across the sky. We were afraid a storm was coming on. Then one of the parsonage chimneys caught on fire, and most of the soldiers came rushing up to offer help. The great fire-ladder was brought from under the storehouse. It was unusually heavy and clumsy, so it was difficult to get it raised, till father broke into the midst of the crowd, ordered them all to stand back, and set it up by himself. This is still remembered in the parish; and also that the bailiff, an active little fellow, took a bucket in each hand and went up the ladder till he reached the turf roof. The black fjord, the hurrying clouds, the menace of the coming day, the blaze of the fire, the bustle and din…and then the silence afterwards! People whispered as they moved about the rooms and out in the yard, whence they looked down upon the schoolhouse-prison where the steady light burned.
Schoolmaster Jacobsen was sitting there now with his friend. They were singing and praying together, I heard from those who had been down in that direction. Peer's family came in the evening in a boat, went up to see him, and took leave of him. I heard how dauntless he was in his confidence that the next day he would be with God, and how beautifully he talked to his people, and especially how he begged them to take an affectionate greeting to his mother, and be good to her as long as she lived. Some said she had come in the boat with the rest, but would not go up to see him. That was not true, any more than that some of them were at the execution the next day, which was also reported.
I wakened the next morning under a weight of apprehension. The weather had changed and was fair now, but it felt oppressive nevertheless. No one spoke loud, and people said as little as possible. I was to be allowed to go with the rest and look on; so I made haste to find my tutor, whom I had been told not to leave. The two clergymen came out in their cassocks. We went down to the landing-place and rowed the first part of the way. The condemned man and his escort had gone on before, and waited at the place where we disembarked, in order to walk the latter part of the way to the place of execution, a kilometer or so distant. The execution had to take place at a cross-roads, and there was only one in the neighbourhood—namely, at Ejdsvaag, nearly seven miles away from where the murder was committed. The bailiff headed the procession, then came the soldiers, then the condemned man, with the Dean on one side and my father on the other, then Jacobsen and my tutor, with me between them, then some more people, followed by more soldiers. We walked cautiously along the slippery road. The clergyman talked constantly to the condemned man, who was now very pale. His eyes had grown gentle and weary and he said very little. My mother, who had been very kind to him, and whom he had thanked for all she had done, had sent him a bottle of wine to keep up his strength. The first time that my tutor offered him some, he looked at the clergyman as though asking if there were anything sinful in accepting it. My father quoted St. Paul's advice to Timothy, and instantly he drank off a long draught.
By the wayside stood people curious to see him, and they joined the procession as it passed along. Among them were some of his comrades, to whom he sorrowfully nodded. Once or twice he lifted his cap, the same flat one I had seen him in the first time. It was evident that his comrades had a regard for him; and I saw, too, some young women who were crying, and made no attempt to conceal it. He walked along with his hands clasped at his breast, probably praying.
We were all startled by the captain's loud and commonplace word of command, "Attention!" as we reached the appointed place. A body of soldiers stood drawn up in a hollow square, which closed in after admitting the bailiff, the clergyman, the condemned man, and a few besides, among whom was myself. A great silent crowd stood round, and over their heads one saw the mounted figure of the sheriff in his cocked hat. When the soldiers who came with us, having carried out various sharp words of command, had taken their places in the square, the further proceedings began by the sheriff's reading aloud the death sentence and the royal order for the execution.
The sheriff stationed himself directly in front of the place where some planed boards were laid over the grave. At one end of it stood the block. On the other side of the grave a platform had been erected, from which the Dean was to speak. Peer Hagbo knelt below on the step, with his face buried in his hands, close to the feet of his spiritual adviser. The Dean was of Danish birth, one of the many who, at the time of the separation, had chosen to make their home in Norway. His addresses were beautiful to read, but one couldn't always hear him, and least of all when he was moved, as was frequently the case. He shouted the first words very loud; then his head sank down between his shoulders, and he shook it without a pause while he closed his eyes and uttered some smothered sounds, catching his breath between them. The points of his tall shirt-collar, which reached to the middle of his ears (I have never since seen the like), stuck up on each side of the bare cropped head with the two double chins underneath, and the whole was framed between his shoulders, which, by long practice, he could raise much higher than other men. Those who did not know him—for to know him was to love him—could hardly keep from laughing. His speech was neither heard nor understood, but it was short. His emotion forced him to break it off suddenly. One thing alone we all understood: that he loved the pale young man whom he had prepared for death, and that he wished that all of us might go to our God as happy and confident as he who was to die to-day. When he stepped down they embraced each other for the last time. Peer gave his hand to my father and to a number besides, and then placed himself by his friend Jakobsen. The latter knew what this meant. He took off a kerchief and bound Peer's eyes, while we saw him whisper something to him and receive a whispered answer. Then a man came forward to bind Peer's hands behind his back, but he begged to be left free, and his prayer was granted. Then Jakobsen took him by the hand and led him forward. At the place where Peer was to kneel Jakobsen stopped short, and Peer slowly bent his knees. Jakobsen bent Peer's head down until it rested on the block; then he drew back and folded his hands. All this I saw, and also that a tall man came and took hold of Peer's neck, while a smaller man drew forth from a couple of folded towels a shining axe with a remarkably broad thin blade. It was then I turned away. I heard the captain's horrible "Present arms"; I heard some one praying "Our Father"—perhaps it was Peer himself—then a blow that sounded exactly as if it went into a great cabbage. At once I looked round again, and saw one leg kicking out, and a yard or two beyond the body lay the head, the mouth gasping and gasping as if for air.
The executioner's assistant sprang forward and took hold of it by the ends of the handkerchief that had bandaged the eyes, and threw it into the coffin beside the body, where it fell with a dull sound. The boards were laid over the coffined remains, and the whole hastily lifted up and lowered into the grave.
Then my father got up on the platform. Every one could understand what HE said, and his powerful voice was heard to such a distance that even now it is remembered in the district. Following up the thunderous admonition of the execution itself, he warned the young against the vices which prevailed in the parish—against drunkenness, fighting, unchastity, and other misconduct. They must have liked the discourse very much, for it was stolen out of the pocket of his gown on the way home.
As for me, I left the place as sick at heart, as overwhelmed with horror, as if it were my turn to be executed next. Afterwards I compared notes with many others, who owned to exactly the same feeling. Father and the Dean dined at the captain's with the other officials; but they separated and went home directly after dinner.