Absalom's Hair

by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter 4

He came to Christiania like a tall ship gay with flags. His love was the music on board.

His numerous relations were ready to receive him. Of these many were engineers, who were a jour with all his writings, which they had taken care should be well known. Some of the largest mechanical undertakings in the country were in their hands, so that they had connections in every direction.

Once more the family had a genius in its midst; that is to say, one to make a show with. Rafael went from entertainment to entertainment, from presentation to presentation, and wherever he or his mother went court was paid to them.

In all this the ladies of the family were even more active than their lords; and they had not been in the town many days before every one knew that they were to be the rage.

There are some people who always will hold aloof. They are as irresponsive as a sooty kettle when you strike it. They are like peevish children who say "I won't," or surly old dogs who growl at every one. But HE was so exceedingly genial, a capital fellow with the highest spirits. He had looks as well; he was six feet high; and all those six feet were clothed in perfect taste. He had large flashing eyes and a broad forehead. He was practised in making clear to others all in which he was interested, and at such times how handsome he looked! He was a thorough man of the world, able to converse in several languages at the cosmopolitan dinners which were a speciality of the Ravns. He was the owner of one of the few extensive estates in Norway, and had the control, it was said, of a considerable fortune besides.

The half of this would have been enough to set all tongues wagging; therefore, first the family, then their friends, then the whole town feted him. He was a nine days' wonder! One must know the critical, unimaginative natives of Christiania, who daily pick each other to pieces to fill the void in their existences; one must have admired their endless worrying of threadbare topics to understand what it must be when they got hold of a fresh theme.

Nothing which flies before the storm is more dangerous than desert sand, nothing can surpass a Christiania FUROR.

When it became known that two of his relations who were conversant with the subject, together with a distinguished geologist and a superintendent of mines, had been down to Hellebergene with Rafael, and had found that his statements were well grounded, he was captured and borne off in triumph twenty times a day. It was trying work, but HE was always in the vein, and ready to take the rough with the smooth. In all respects the young madcap was up to the standard, so that day and night passed in a ceaseless whirl, which left every one but himself breathless. The glorious month at Hellebergene had done good. He was drawn into endless jovial adventures, so strange, so audacious, that one would have staked one's existence that such things were impossible in Christiania. But great dryness begets thirst. He was in the humour of a boy who has got possession of a jam-pot, whose mouth, nose, and hands are all besmirched. It is thus that ladies like children best; then they are the sweetest things in the world.

Like a tall, full-grown mountain-ash covered by a flock of starlings, he was the centre of a fluttering crowd. It only remained for him to be deified, and this too came to pass. One day he visited several factories, giving a hint here, another there (he had great practical knowledge and a quick eye) and every hint was of value.

At last in a factory of something the same description as the one in France where he had been the means of economising half the motive power, he suggested a similar plan; he saw on the spot how it could be effected. This became the subject of much conversation. It grew and grew, it rose like the sea after days of westerly gales. This new genius, but little over twenty, would surely some day be the wonder of the country. It soon became the fashion for every manufacturer to invite him to visit his factory, and it was only after they were convinced that they had a god among them that it became serious, for enthusiasm in a manufacturer strikes every one. The ladies only waited for this important moment to go at a bound from the lowest degree of sense to the fifth degree of madness. Their eyes danced on him like sunlight on polished metal. He himself paid little heed to degree or temperature; he was too happy in his genial contentment, and too indifferent as well. One thing which greatly helped to bring him to the right pitch was the family temperament, for it was so like his own. He was a Ravn through and through, with perhaps a little grain of Kaas added. He was what they called pure Ravn, quite unalloyed. He seemed to them to have come straight from the fountain-head of their race, endowed with its primitive strength. This strong physical attribute had perhaps made his abilities more fertile, but the family claimed the abilities, too, as their own.

Through Hans Ravn, Rafael had learned to value the companionship of his relations; now he had it in perfection. For every word that he said appreciative laughter was ready—it really sparkled round him. When he disagreed with prevailing tastes, prejudices, and morals, they disagreed too. When his precocious intelligence burst upon them, they were always ready to applaud. They even met him half-way—they could foresee the direction of his thoughts. As he was young in years and disposition, and at the same time knew more than most young people, he suited both old and young. Ah! how he prospered in Norway!

His mother went with him everywhere. Her life had at one time appeared to her relations to be most objectless, but how much she had made of it! They respected her persevering efforts to attain the goal, and she became aware of this. In the most elegant toilettes, with her discreet manner and distinguished deportment, she was hurried from party to party, from excursion to excursion, until it became too much for her.

It went too far, too; her taste was offended by it; she grew frightened. But the train of dissipation went on without her, like a string of carriages which bore him along with it while she was shaken off. Her eyes followed the cloud of dust far away, and the roll of the wheels echoed back to her.

Helene—how about Helene? Was she too out in the cold? Far from it. Rafael was as certain that she was with him as that his gold watch was next his heart. The very first day that he arrived he wrote a letter to her. It was not long, he had not time for that, but it was thoroughly characteristic. He received an answer at once; the hostess of the pension brought it to him herself. He was so immensely delighted that the lady, who was related to the Dean and who had noticed the post mark, divined the whole affair—a thing which amused him greatly.

But Helene's letter was evasive; she evidently knew him too little to dare to speak out.

He never found time to draw the hostess into conversation on the subject, however. He came home late, he got up late, and then there were always friends waiting for him; so that he was not seen in the pension again until he returned to dress for dinner, during which time the carriage waited at the door, for he never got home till the last moment.

When could he write? It would soon all be done with, and then home to Helene! The business respecting the cement detained him longer than he had anticipated. His mother made complications; not that she opposed the formation of a company, but she raised many difficulties: she should certainly prefer to have the whole affair postponed. He had no time to talk her round, besides, she irritated him. He told it to the hostess.

A curious being, this hostess, who directed the pension, the business of the inmates, and a number of children, without apparent effort. She was a widow; two of her children were nearly twenty, but she looked scarcely thirty. Tall, dark, clever, with eyes like glowing coals; decided, ready in conversation as in business, like an officer long used to command, always trusted, always obeyed; one yielded oneself involuntarily to her matter-of-course way of arranging everything, and she was obliging, even self-sacrificing, to those she liked—it was true that that was not everybody. This absence of reserve was especially characteristic of her, and was another reason why all relied on her. She had long ago taken up Fru Kaas—entertained her first and foremost. Angelika Nagel used in conversation modern Christiania slang which is the latest development of the language. In the choice of expressions, words such as hideous were applied to what was the very opposite of hideous, such as "hideously amusing," "hideously handsome." "Snapping" to anything that was liquid, as "snapping good punch." One did not say "PRETTY" but "quite too pretty" or "hugely pretty." On the other hand, one did not say "bad" for anything serious, but with comical moderation "baddish." Anything that there was much of went by miles; for instance, "miles of virtue." This slipshod style of talk, which the idlers of large towns affect, had just become the fashion in Christiania. All this seemed new and characteristic to the careless emancipated party which had arisen as a protest against the prudery which Fru Kaas, in her time, had combated. The type therefore amused her:—she studied it.

Angelika Nagel relieved her of all her business cares, which were only play to her. It was the same thing with the question of the cement undertaking. In an apparently careless manner she let drop what had been said and done about it, which had its effect on Fru Kaas. Soon things had progressed so far that it became necessary to consult Rafael about it, and as he was difficult to catch, she sat up for him at night. The first time that she opened the door for him he was absolutely shy, and when he heard what she wanted him for he was above measure grateful. The next time he kissed her! She laughed and ran away without speaking to him—that was all he got for his pains. But he had held her in his arms, and he glowed with a suddenly awakened passion.

She, in the meantime, kept out of his way, even during the day he never saw her unless he sought her. But when he least expected it she again met him at the door; there was something which she really MUST say to him. There was a struggle, but at last she twisted herself away from him and disappeared. He whispered after her as loud as he dared, "Then I shall go away!"

But while he was undressing she slipped into his room.

The next day, before he was quite awake, the postman brought him the warrant for a post-office order for fifteen thousand francs. He thought that there must be a mistake in the name, or else that it was a commission that had been entrusted to him. No! it was from the French manufacturer whose working expenses he had reduced so greatly. He permitted himself, he wrote, to send this as a modest honorarium. He had not been able to do so sooner, but now hoped that it would not end there. He awaited Rafael's acknowledgment with great anxiety, as he was not sure of his address.

Rafael was up and dressed in a trice. He told his news to every one, ran down to his mother and up again; but he had not been a moment alone before the superabundance of happiness and sense of victory frightened him. Now there must be an end of all this, now he would go home. He had not had the slightest prickings of conscience, the slightest longings, until now; all at once they were uncontrollable. SHE stood upon the hilltop, pure and noble. It became agonising. He must go at once, or it would drive him mad. This anxiety was made less acute by the sight of his mother's sincere pleasure. She came up to him when she heard that he had shut himself into his room. They had a really comfortable talk together—finally about the state of their finances. They lived in the pension because they could no longer afford to live in an hotel. The estate would bring nothing in until the timber once more became profitable, and her capital was no longer intact—notwithstanding the prohibition. Now she was ready to let him arrange about the cement company. On this he went out into the town, where his court soon gathered round him.

But the large sum of money which was required could not be raised in a day, so the affair dragged on. He grew impatient, he must and would go; and finally his mother induced her cousin, the Government Secretary, to form the company, and they prepared to leave. They paid farewell visits to some of their friends, and sent cards and messages of thanks to the rest. Everything was ready, the very day had come, when Rafael, before he was up, received a letter from the Dean.

An anonymous letter from Christiania, he wrote, had drawn his attention to Rafael's manner of life there, and he had in consequence obtained further information, the result being that he was, that day, sending his daughter abroad. There was nothing more in the letter. But Rafael could guess what had passed between father and daughter.

He dressed himself and rushed down to his mother. His indignation against the rascally creatures who had ruined his and Helene's future—"Who could it have been?"—was equalled by his despair. She was the only one he cared for; all the others might go to the deuce. He felt angry, too, that the Dean, or any one else, should have dared to treat him in this way, to dismiss him like a servant, not to speak to him, not to put him in a position to speak for himself.

His mother had read the letter calmly, and now she listened to him calmly, and when he became still more furious she burst out laughing. It was not their habit to settle their differences by words; but this time it flashed into his mind that she had not persuaded him to come here merely on account of the cement, but in order to separate him from Helene, and this he said to her.

"Yes," he added, "now it will be just the same with me as it was with my father, and it will be your fault this time as well." With this he went out.

Fru Kaas left Christiania shortly afterwards, and he left the same evening—for France.

From France he wrote the most pressing letter to the Dean, begging him to allow Helene to return home, so that they could be married at once. Whatever the Dean had heard about his life in Christiania had nothing to do with the feelings which he nourished for Helene. She, and she alone, had the power to bind him; he would remain hers for life.

The Dean did not answer him.

A month later he wrote again, acknowledging this time that he had behaved foolishly. He had been merely thoughtless. He had been led on by other things. The details were deceptive, but he swore that this should be the end of it all. He would show that he deserved to be trusted; nay, he HAD shown it ever since he left Christiania. He begged the Dean to be magnanimous. This was practically exile for him, for he could not return to Hellebergene without Helene. Everything which he loved there had become consecrated by her presence; every project which he had formed they had planned together; in fact, his whole future—He fretted and pined till he found it impossible to work as seriously as he wished to do.

This time he received an answer—a brief one.

The Dean wrote that only a lengthened probation could convince them of the sincerity of his purpose.

So it was not to be home, then, and not work; at all events, not work of any value. He knew his mother too well to doubt that now the cement business was shelved, whether the company were formed or not—he was only too sure of that.

He had written to his mother, begging earnestly to be forgiven for what he had said. She must know that it was only the heat of the moment. She must know how fond he was of her, and how unhappy he felt at being in discord with her on the subject which was, and always would be, most dear to him.

She answered him prettily and at some length, without a word about what had happened or about Helene. She gave him a great deal of news, among other things what the Dean intended to do about the estate.

From this he concluded that she was on the same terms with the Dean as before. Perhaps his latest reasons for deferring the affair was precisely this: that he saw that Fru Kaas did not interest herself for it.

It wore on towards the autumn. All this uncertainty made him feel lonely, and his thoughts turned towards his friends at Christiania. He wrote to tell them that he intended to make towards home. He meant, however, to remain a little time at Copenhagen.

At Copenhagen he met Angelika Nagel again. She was in company with two of his student friends. She was in the highest spirits, glowing with health and beauty, and with that jaunty assurance which turns the heads of young men.

He had, during all this time, banished the subject of his intrigue from his mind, and he came there without the least intention of renewing it; but now, for the first time in his life, he became jealous!

It was quite a novel feeling, and he was not prepared to resist it. He grew jealous if he so much as saw her in company with either of the young men. She had a hearty outspoken manner, which rekindled his former passion.

Now a new phase of his life began, divided between furious jealousy and passionate devotion. This led, after her departure, to an interchange of letters, which ended in his following her to Christiania.

On board the steamer he overheard a conversation between the steward and stewardess. "She sat up for him of nights till she got what she wanted, and now she has got hold of him."

It was possible that this conversation did not concern him, but it was equally possible that the woman might have been in the pension at Christiania. He did not know her.

It is strange that in all such intrigues as his with Angelika the persons concerned are always convinced that they are invisible. He believed that, up to this time, no human being had known anything about it. The merest suspicion that this was not the case made it altogether loathsome.

The pension—Angelika—the letters. He would be hanged if he would go on with it for any earthly inducement. Had Angelika angled for him and landed him like a stupid fat fish? He had been absolutely unsuspicious. The whole affair had been without importance, until they met again at Copenhagen. Perhaps THAT, too, had been a deep-laid plan.

Nothing can more wound a man's vanity than to find that, believing himself a victor, he is in truth a captive.

Rafael paced the deck half the night, and when he reached Christiania went to an hotel, intending to go home the next day to Hellebergene, come what would. This and everything of the kind must end for ever: it simply led straight to the devil. When once he was at home, and could find out where Helene was, the rest would soon be settled.

From the hotel he went up to Angelika Nagel's pension to say that some luggage which was there was to be sent down to the hotel at once—he was leaving that afternoon.

He had dined and gone up to his room to pack, when Angelika stood before him. She was at once so pretty and so sad-looking that he had never seen anything more pathetic.

Had he really kept away from her house? Was he going at once?

She wept so despairingly that he, who was prepared for anything rather than to see her so inconsolable, answered her evasively.

Their relations, he said, had had no more significance than a chance meeting. This they both understood; therefore she must realise that, sooner or later, it must end. And now the time was come.

Indeed, it had more significance, she said. There had never been any one to whom she had been so much attached; this she had proved to him. Now she had come here to tell him that she was enceinte. She was in as great despair about it as any one could be. It was ruin for herself and her children. She had never contemplated anything so frightful, but her mad love had carried her away; so now she was where she deserved to be.

Rafael did not answer, for he could not collect his thoughts. She sat at a table, her face buried in her hands, but his eye fell on her strong arms in the close-fitting sleeves, her little foot thrust from beneath her dress; he saw how her whole frame was shaken by sobs. Nevertheless, what first made him collect his thoughts was not sympathy with her who was here before him; it was the thought of Helene, of the Dean, of his mother: what would THEY say?

As though she were conscious whither his thoughts had flown, she raised her head. "Will you really go away from me?" What despair was in her face! The strong woman was weaker than a child.

He stood erect before her, beside his open trunk. He, too, was absolutely miserable.

"What good will it do for me to stay here?" he asked gently.

Her eyes fixed themselves on him, dilating, becoming clearer every moment. Her mouth grew scornful. She seemed to grow taller every moment.

"You will marry me if you are an honourable man!"

"Marry—you?" he exclaimed, first startled, then disdainful. An evil expression came into her eyes; she thrust her head forward; the whole woman collected herself for the attack like a tiger-cat, but it ended with a violent blow on the table.

"Yes you SHALL, devil take me!" she whispered.

She rushed past him to the window. What was she going to do?

She opened it, screamed out he could not clearly hear what, leant far out, and screamed again; then closed it, and turned towards him, threatening, triumphant. He was as white as a sheet, not because he was frightened or dreaded her threats, but because he recognised in her a mortal enemy. He braced himself for the struggle.

She saw this at once. She was conscious of his strength before he had made a movement. There was that in his eye, in his whole demeanour, which SHE would never be able to overcome: a look of determination which one would not willingly contest. If he had not understood her till now, he had equally revealed himself to her.

All the more wildly did she love him. He rejoiced that he had taken no notice of what she had done, but turned to put the last things into his trunk and fasten it. Then she came close up to him, in more complete contrition, penitence, and wretchedness than he had ever seen in life or art. Her face stiffened with terror, her eyes fixed, her whole frame rigid, only her tears flowed quietly, without a sob. She must and would have him. She seemed to draw him to herself as into a vortex: her love had become the necessity of her life, its utterances the wild cry of despair.

He understood it now. But he put the things into his trunk and fastened it, took a few steps about the room, as if he were alone, with such an expression of face that she herself saw that the thing was impossible.

"Do you not believe," she said quietly, "that I would relieve you of all cares, so that you could go on with your own work? Have you not seen that I can manage your mother?" She paused a moment, then added: "Hellebergene—I know the place. The Dean is a relation of mine. I have been there; that would be something that I could take charge of; do you not think so? And the cement quarries," she added; "I have a turn for business: it should be no trouble to you." She said this in an undertone. She had a slight lisp, which gave her an air of helplessness. "Don't go away, to-day, at any rate. Think it over," she added, weeping bitterly again.

He felt that he ought to comfort her.

She came towards him, and throwing her arms round him, she clung to him in her despair and eagerness. "Don't go, don't go!" She felt that he was yielding. "Never," she whispered, "since I have been a widow have I given myself to any one but you; and so judge for yourself." She laid her head on his shoulder and sobbed bitterly.

"It has come upon me so suddenly," he said; "I cannot—"

"Then take time," she interrupted in a whisper, and took a hasty kiss. "Oh, Rafael!" She twined her arms round him: her touch thrilled through him—

Some one knocked at the door: they started away from each other. It was the man who had come for the luggage. Rafael flushed crimson. "I shall not go till to-morrow," he said.

When the man had left the room Angelika sprang towards Rafael. She thanked and kissed him. Oh, how she beamed with delight and exultation! She was like a girl of twenty, or rather like a young man, for there was something masculine in her manner as she left him.

But the light and fire were no sooner withdrawn than his spirits fell. A little later he lay at full length on the sofa, as though in a grave. He felt as though he could never get up from it again. What was his life now? For there is a dream in every life which is its soul, and when the dream is gone the life appears a corpse.

This, then, was the fulfilment of his forebodings. Hither the ravens had followed the wild beast which dwelt in him. It would on longer play and amuse him, but strike its claws into him in earnest, overthrow him, and lap his fresh-spilt blood.

But it was none the less certain that if he left her she would be ruined, she and her child. Then no one would consider him as an honourable man, least of all himself.

During his last sojourn in France, when he could not settle down to a great work which was constantly dawning before him, he had thought to himself—You have taken life too lightly. Nothing great ever comes to him who does so.

Now, perhaps, when he did his duty here; took upon himself the burden of his fault towards her, himself, and others—and bore it like a man; then perhaps he would be able to utilise all his powers. That was what his mother had done, and she had succeeded.

But with the thought of his mother came the thought of Helene, of his dream. It was flying from him like a bird of passage from the autumn. He lay there and felt as though he could never get up again.

From amid the turmoil of the last summer there came to his recollection two individuals, in whom he reposed entire confidence: a young man and his wife. He went to see them the same evening and laid the facts honestly before them, for now, at all events, he was honest. The conclusive proof of being so is to be able to tell everything about oneself as he did now.

They heard him with dismay, but their advice was remarkable. He ought to wait and see if she were enceinte.

This aroused his spirit of contradiction. There was no doubt about it, for she was perfectly truthful. But she might be mistaken; she ought to make quite sure. This suggestion, too, shocked him; but he agreed that she should come and talk things over with them. They knew her.

She came the next day. They said to her, what they could not very well say to Rafael, that she would ruin him. The wife especially did not spare her. A highly gifted young man like Rafael Kaas, with such excellent prospects in every way, must not, when little more than twenty, burden himself with a middle-aged wife and a number of children. He was far from rich, he had told her so himself; his life would be that of a beast of burden, and that too, before he had learned to bear the yoke. If he had to work, to feed so many people, he might strain himself to the uttermost, he would still remain mediocre. They would both suffer under this, be disappointed and discontented. He must not pay so heavy a price for an indiscretion for which she was ten times more to blame than he. What did she imagine people would say? He who was so popular, so sought after. They would fall upon her like rooks at a rooks' parliament and pick her to pieces. They would, without exception, believe the worst.

The husband asked her if she were quite sure that she was enceinte: she ought to make quite certain.

Angelika Nazel reddened, and answered, half scornful, half laughing, that she ought to know.

"Yes," he retorted, "many people have said that—who were mistaken. If it is understood that you are to be married on account of your condition, and it should afterwards turn out that you were mistaken, what do you suppose that people will say? for of course it will get about."

She reddened again and sprang to her feet. "They can say what they please." After a pause she added: "But God knows I do not wish to make him unhappy."

To conceal her emotion she turned away from them, but the wife would not give up. She suggested that Angelika should write to Rafael without further delay, to set him free and let him return home to his mother; there they would be able to arrange matters. Angelika was so capable that she could earn a living anywhere. Rafael too ought to help her.

"I shall write to his mother," Angelika said. "She shall know all about it, so that she may understand for what he is responsible."

This they thought reasonable, and Angelika sat down and wrote. She frequently showed agitation, but she went on quickly, steadily, sheet after sheet. Just then came a ring—a messenger with a letter. The maid brought it in. Her mistress was about to take it, but it was not for her; it was for Angelika—they both recognised Rafael's careless handwriting.

Angelika opened it—grew crimson; for he wrote that the result of his most serious considerations was, that neither she nor her children should be injured by him. He was an honourable man who would bear his own responsibilities, not let others be burdened by them.

Angelika handed the letter to her friend, then tore up the one which she had been writing, and left the house.

Her friend stood thinking to herself—The good that is in us must go bail for the evil, so we must rest and be satisfied.

The discovery which she had made had often been made before, but it was none the less true.

Return to the Absalom's Hair Summary Return to the Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson