Johan Bojer.

The Great Hunger online

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Produced by Donald Lainson


By Johan Bojer

Translated from the Norwegian by

W. J. Alexander Worster and C. Archer


Book I

Chapter I

For sheer havoc, there is no gale like a good northwester, when it roars
in, through the long winter evenings, driving the spindrift before it
between the rocky walls of the fjord. It churns the water to a froth
of rushing wave crests, while the boats along the beach are flung in
somersaults up to the doors of the grey fisher huts, and solid old barn
gangways are lifted and sent flying like unwieldy birds over the fields.
"Mercy on us!" cry the maids, for it is milking-time, and they have
to fight their way on hands and knees across the yard to the cowshed,
dragging a lantern that WILL go out and a milk-pail that WON'T be held.
And "Lord preserve us!" mutter the old wives seated round the stove
within doors - and their thoughts are far away in the north with the
Lofoten fishermen, out at sea, maybe, this very night.

But on a calm spring day, the fjord just steals in smooth and shining
by ness and bay. And at low water there is a whole wonderland of strange
little islands, sand-banks, and weed-fringed rocks left high and dry,
with clear pools between, where bare-legged urchins splash about, and
tiny flat-fish as big as a halfpenny dart away to every side. The air is
filled with a smell of salt sea-water and warm, wet beach-waste, and
the sea-pie, see-sawing about on a big stone in the water, lifts his red
beak cheerily sunwards and pipes: "Kluip, kluip! the spring has come!"

On just such a day, two boys of fourteen or thereabouts came hurrying
out from one of the fishermen's huts down towards the beach. Boys
are never so busy as when they are up to some piece of mischief, and
evidently the pair had business of this sort in hand. Peer Troen,
fair-haired and sallow-faced, was pushing a wheelbarrow; his companion,
Martin Bruvold, a dark youth with freckles, carried a tub. And both
talked mysteriously in whispers, casting anxious glances out over the

Peer Troen was, of course, the ringleader. That he always was: the
forest fire of last year was laid at his door. And now he had made it
clear to some of his friends that boys had just as much right to lay
out deep-sea lines as men. All through the winter they had been kept at
grown-up work, cutting peat and carrying wood; why should they be left
now to fool about with the inshore fishing, and bring home nothing
better than flounders and coal-fish and silly codlings? The big deep-sea
line they were forbidden to touch - that was so - but the Lofoten fishery
was at its height, and none of the men would be back till it was over.
So the boys had baited up the line on the sly down at the boathouse the
day before, and laid it out across the deepest part of the fjord.

Now the thing about a deep-sea line is that it may bring to the surface
fish so big and so fearsome that the like has never been seen before.
Yesterday, however, there had been trouble of a different sort. To their
dismay, the boys had found that they had not sinkers enough to weight
the shore end of the line; and it looked as if they might have to give
up the whole thing. But Peer, ever ready, had hit on the novel idea of
making one end fast to the trunk of a small fir growing at the outermost
point of the ness, and carrying the line from there out over the open
fjord. Then a stone at the farther end, and with the magic words, "Fie,
fish!" it was paid out overboard, vanishing into the green depths. The
deed was done. True, there were a couple of hooks dangling in mid-air
at the shore end, between the tree and the water, and, while they might
serve to catch an eider duck, or a guillemot, if any one should chance
to come rowing past in the dark and get hung up - why, the boys might
find they had made a human catch. No wonder, then, that they whispered
eagerly and hurried down to the boat.

"Here comes Peter Ronningen," cried Martin suddenly.

This was the third member of the crew, a lanky youth with whitish
eyebrows and a foolish face. He stammered, and made a queer noise
when he laughed: "Chee-hee-hee." Twice he had been turned down in the
confirmation classes; after all, what was the use of learning lessons
out of a book when nobody ever had patience to wait while he said them?

Together they ran the boat down to the water's edge, got it afloat, and
scrambled in, with much waving of patched trouser legs. "Hi!" cried a
voice up on the beach, "let me come too!"

"There's Klaus," said Martin. "Shall we take him along?"

"No," said Peter Ronningen.

"Oh yes, let's," said Peer.

Klaus Brock, the son of the district doctor, was a blue-eyed youngster
in knickerbockers and a sailor blouse. He was playing truant, no
doubt - Klaus had his lessons at home with a private tutor - and would
certainly get a thrashing from his father when he got home.

"Hurry up," called Peer, getting out an oar. Klaus clambered in, and the
white-straked four-oar surged across the bay, rocking a little as the
boys pulled out of stroke. Martin was rowing at the bow, his eyes fixed
on Peer, who sat in the stern in command with his eyes dancing, full of
great things to be done. Martin, poor fellow, was half afraid already;
he never could understand why Peer, who was to be a parson when he grew
up, was always hitting upon things to do that were evidently sinful in
the sight of the Lord.

Peer was a town boy, who had been put out to board with a fisherman in
the village. His mother had been no better than she should be, so people
said, but she was dead now, and the father at any rate must be a rich
gentleman, for he sent the boy a present of ten whole crowns every
Christmas, so that Peer always had money in his pocket. Naturally, then,
he was looked up to by the other boys, and took the lead in all things
as a chieftain by right.

The boat moved on past the grey rocks, the beach and the huts above it
growing blue and faint in the distance. Up among the distant hills a red
wooden farm-house on its white foundation wall stood out clear.

Here was the ness at last, and there stood the fir. Peer climbed up
and loosed the end of the line, while the others leaned over the side,
watching the cord where it vanished in the depths. What would it bring
to light when it came up?

"Row!" ordered Peer, and began hauling in.

The boat was headed straight out across the fjord, and the long line
with its trailing hooks hauled in and coiled up neatly in the bottom
of a shallow tub. Peer's heart was beating. There came a tug - the
first - and the faint shimmer of a fish deep down in the water. Pooh!
only a big cod. Peer heaved it in with a careless swing over the
gunwale. Next came a ling - a deep water fish at any rate this time. Then
a tusk, and another, and another; these would please the women, being
good eating, and perhaps make them hold their tongues when the men came
home. Now the line jerks heavily; what is coming? A grey shadow comes in
sight. "Here with the gaff!" cries Peer, and Peter throws it across to
him. "What is it, what is it?" shriek the other three. "Steady! don't
upset the boat; a catfish." A stroke of the gaff over the side, and a
clumsy grey body is heaved into the boat, where it rolls about, hissing
and biting at the bottom-boards and baler, the splinters crackling under
its teeth. "Mind, mind!" cries Klaus - he was always nervous in a boat.

But Peer was hauling in again. They were nearly half-way across the
fjord by now, and the line came up from mysterious depths, which no
fisherman had ever sounded. The strain on Peer began to show in his
looks; the others sat watching his face. "Is the line heavy?" asked
Klaus. "Keep still, can't you?" put in Martin, glancing along the
slanting line to where it vanished far below. Peer was still hauling. A
sense of something uncanny seemed to be thrilling up into his hands
from the deep sea. The feel of the line was strange. There was no great
weight, not even the clean tug-tug of an ordinary fish; it was as if a
giant hand were pulling gently, very gently, to draw him overboard and
down into the depths. Then suddenly a violent jerk almost dragged him
over the side.

"Look out! What is it?" cried the three together.

"Sit down in the boat," shouted Peer. And with the true fisherman's
sense of discipline they obeyed.

Peer was gripping the line firmly with one hand, the other clutching one
of the thwarts. "Have we another gaff?" he jerked out breathlessly.

"Here's one." Peter Ronningen pulled out a second iron-hooked cudgel.

"You take it, Martin, and stand by."

"But what - what is it?"

"Don't know what it is. But it's something big."

"Cut the line, and row for your lives!" wailed the doctor's son. Strange
he should be such a coward at sea, a fellow who'd tackle a man twice his
size on dry land.

Once more Peer was jerked almost overboard. He thought of the forest
fire the year before - it would never do to have another such mishap
on his shoulders. Suppose the great monster did come up and capsize
them - they were ever so far from land. What a to do there would be
if they were all drowned, and it came out that it was his fault.
Involuntarily he felt for his knife to cut the line - then thrust it back
again, and went on hauling.

Here it comes - a great shadow heaving up through the water. The huge
beast flings itself round, sending a flurry of bubbles to the surface.
And there! - a gleam of white; a row of great white teeth on the
underside. Aha! now he knows what it is! The Greenland shark is the
fiercest monster of the northern seas, quite able to make short work of
a few boys or so.

"Steady now, Martin - ready with the gaff."

The brute was wallowing on the surface now, the water boiling around
him. His tail lashed the sea to foam, a big, pointed head showed up,
squirming under the hook. "Now!" cried Peer, and two gaffs struck at
the same moment, the boat heeled over, letting in a rush of water, and
Klaus, dropping his oars, sprang into the bow, with a cry of "Jesus,
save us!"

Next second a heavy body, big as a grown man, was heaved in over the
gunwale, and two boys were all but shot out the other way. And now the
fun began. The boys loosed their hold of the gaffs, and sprang apart to
give the creature room. There it lay raging, the great black beast of
prey, with its sharp threatening snout and wicked red eyes ablaze. The
strong tail lashed out, hurling oars and balers overboard, the long
teeth snapped at the bottom-boards and thwarts. Now and again it would
leap high up in the air, only to fall back again, writhing furiously,
hissing and spitting and frothing at the mouth, its red eyes glaring
from one to another of the terrified captors, as if saying: "Come
on - just a little nearer!"

Meanwhile, Martin Bruvold was in terror that the shark would smash the
boat to pieces. He drew his knife and took a step forward - a flash in
the air, and the steel went in deep between the back fins, sending up
a spurt of blood. "Look out!" cried the others, but Martin had already
sprung back out of reach of the black tail. And now the dance of death
began anew. The knife was fixed to the grip in the creature's back;
one gaff had buried its hook between the eyes, and another hung on the
flank - the wooden shafts were flung this way and that at every bound,
and the boat's frame shook and groaned under the blows.

"She'll smash the boat and we'll go to the bottom," cried Peer.

And now HIS knife flashed out and sent a stream of blood spouting from
between the shoulders, but the blow cost him his foothold - and in a
moment the two bodies were rolling over and over together in the bottom
of the boat.

"Oh, Lord Jesus!" shrieked Klaus, clinging to the stempost. "She'll kill
him! She'll kill him!"

Peer was half up now, on his knees, but as he reached out a hand to
grasp the side, the brute's jaws seized on his arm. The boy's face
was contorted with pain - another moment and the sharp teeth would have
bitten through, when, swift as thought, Peter Ronningen dropped his
oars and sent his knife straight in between the beast's eyes. The blade
pierced through to the brain, and the grip of the teeth relaxed.

"C-c-cursed d-d-devil!" stammered Peter, as he scrambled back to
his oars. Another moment, and Peer had dragged himself clear and was
kneeling by the forward thwart, holding the ragged sleeve of his wounded
arm, while the blood trickled through his fingers.

When at last they were pulling homeward, the little boat overloaded with
the weight of the great carcase, all at once they stopped rowing.

"Where is Klaus?" asked Peer - for the doctor's son was gone from where
he had sat, clinging to the stem.

"Why - there he is - in the bottom!"

There lay the big lout of fifteen, who already boasted of his
love-affairs, learned German, and was to be a gentleman like his
father - there he lay on the bottom-boards in the bow in a dead faint.

The others were frightened at first, but Peer, who was sitting washing
his wounded arm, took a dipper full of water and flung it in the
unconscious one's face. The next instant Klaus had started up sitting,
caught wildly at the gunwale, and shrieked out:

"Cut the line, and row for your lives!"

A roar of laughter went up from the rest; they dropped their oars and
sat doubled up and gasping. But on the beach, before going home,
they agreed to say nothing about Klaus's fainting fit. And for weeks
afterwards the four scamps' exploit was the talk of the village, so that
they felt there was not much fear of their getting the thrashing they
deserved when the men came home.

Chapter II

When Peer, as quite a little fellow, had been sent to live with the old
couple at Troen, he had already passed several times from one adopted
home to another, though this he did not remember. He was one of the
madcaps of the village now, but it was not long since he had been a
solitary child, moping apart from the rest. Why did people always say
"Poor child!" whenever they were speaking about his real mother? Why did
they do it? Why, even Peter Ronningen, when he was angry, would stammer
out: "You ba-ba-bastard!" But Peer called the pock-marked good-wife at
Troen "mother" and her bandy-legged husband "father," and lent the old
man a hand wherever he was wanted - in the smithy or in the boats at the

His childhood was passed among folk who counted it sinful to smile, and
whose minds were gloomy as the grey sea-fog with poverty, psalm-singing,
and the fear of hell.

One day, coming home from his work at the peat bog, he found the elders
snuffling and sighing over their afternoon meal. Peer wiped the sweat
from his forehead, and asked what was the matter.

The eldest son shoved a spoonful of porridge into his mouth, wiped his
eyes, swallowed, and said: "Poor Peer!"

"Aye, poor little chap," sighed the old man, thrusting his horn spoon
into a crack in the wall that served as a rack.

"Neither father nor mother now," whimpered the eldest daughter, looking
over to the window.

"Mother? Is she - "

"Ay, dearie, yes," sighed the old woman. "She's gone for sure - gone to
meet her Judge."

Later, as the day went on, Peer tried to cry too. The worst thing of all
was that every one in the house seemed so perfectly certain where his
mother had gone to. And to heaven it certainly was not. But how could
they be so sure about it?

Peer had seen her only once, one summer's day when she had come out
to see the place. She wore a light dress and a big straw hat, and he
thought he had never seen anything so beautiful before. She made no
secret of it among the neighbours that Peer was not her only child;
there was a little girl, too, named Louise, who was with some folks
away up in the inland parishes. She was in high spirits, and told risky
stories and sang songs by no means sacred. The old people shook their
heads over her - the younger ones watched her with sidelong glances. And
when she left, she kissed Peer, and turned round more than once to look
back at him, flushed under her big hat, and smiling; and it seemed to
Peer that she must surely be the loveliest creature in all the world.

But now - now she had gone to a place where the ungodly dwell in
such frightful torment, and no hope of salvation for her through all
eternity - and Peer all the while could only think of her in a light
dress and a big straw hat, all song and happy laughter.

Then came the question: Who was to pay for the boy now? True, his
baptismal certificate said that he had a father - his name was Holm,
and he lived in Christiania - but, from what the mother had said, it was
understood that he had disappeared long ago. What was to be done with
the boy?

Never till now had Peer rightly understood that he was a stranger here,
for all that he called the old couple father and mother.

He lay awake night after night up in the loft, listening to the talk
about him going on in the room below - the good-wife crying and saying:
"No, no!", the others saying how hard the times were, and that Peer
was quite old enough now to be put to service as a goat-herd on some
up-country farm.

Then Peer would draw the skin-rug up over his head. But often, when one
of the elders chanced to be awake at night, he could hear some one in
the loft sobbing in his sleep. In the daytime he took up as little room
as he could at the table, and ate as little as humanly possible; but
every morning he woke up in fear that to-day - to-day he would have to
bid the old foster-mother farewell and go out among strangers.

Then something new and unheard of plumped down into the little cottage
by the fjord.

There came a registered letter with great dabs of sealing-wax all over
it, and a handwriting so gentlemanly as to be almost unreadable. Every
one crowded round the eldest son to see it opened - and out fell five
ten-crown notes. "Mercy on us!" they cried in amazement, and "Can it
be for us?" The next thing was to puzzle out what was written in the
letter. And who should that turn out to be from but - no other than
Peer's father, though he did not say it in so many words. "Be good to
the boy," the letter said. "You will receive fifty crowns from me every
half-year. See that he gets plenty to eat and goes dry and well shod.
Faithfully your, P. Holm, Captain."

"Why, Peer - he's - he's - Your father's a captain, an officer," stammered
the eldest girl, and fell back a step to stare at the boy.

"And we're to get twice as much for him as before," said the son,
holding the notes fast and gazing up at the ceiling, as if he were
informing Heaven of the fact.

But the old wife was thinking of something else as she folded her hands
in thankfulness - now she needn't lose the boy.

"Properly fed!" No need to fear for that. Peer had treacle with his
porridge that very day, though it was only a week-day. And the eldest
son gave him a pair of stockings, and made him sit down and put them on
then and there; and the same night, when he went to bed, the eldest girl
came and tucked him up in a new skin-rug, not quite so hairless as the
old one. His father a captain! It seemed too wonderful to be true.

From that day times were changed for Peer. People looked at him with
very different eyes. No one said "Poor boy" of him now. The other boys
left off calling him bad names; the grown-ups said he had a future
before him. "You'll see," they would say, "that father of yours will get
you on; you'll be a parson yet, ay, maybe a bishop, too." At Christmas,
there came a ten-crown note all for himself, to do just as he liked
with. Peer changed it into silver, so that his purse was near bursting
with prosperity. No wonder he began to go about with his nose in the
air, and play the little prince and chieftain among the boys. Even Klaus
Brock, the doctor's son, made up to him, and taught him to play cards.
But - "You surely don't mean to go and be a parson," he would say.

For all this, no one could say that Peer was too proud to help with the
fishing, or make himself useful in the smithy. But when the sparks flew
showering from the glowing iron, he could not help seeing visions of his
own - visions that flew out into the future. Aye, he WOULD be a priest.
He might be a sinner now, and a wild young scamp; he certainly did curse
and swear like a trooper at times, if only to show the other boys that
it was all nonsense about the earth opening and swallowing you up. But
a priest he would be, all the same. None of your parsons with spectacles
and a pot belly: no, but a sort of heavenly messenger with snowy white
robes and a face of glory. Perhaps some day he might even come so far
that he could go down into that place of torment where his mother lay,
and bring her up again, up to salvation. And when, in autumn evenings,
he stood outside his palace, a white-haired bishop, he would lift up his
finger, and all the stars should break into song.

Clang, clang, sang the anvil under the hammer's beat.

In the still summer evenings a troop of boys go climbing up the naked
slopes towards the high wooded ranges to fetch home the cows for the
milking. The higher they climb, the farther and farther their sight can
travel out over the sea. And an hour or two later, as the sun goes down,
here comes a long string of red-flanked cattle trailing down, with a
faint jangle of bells, over the far-off ridges. The boys halloo them
on - "Ohoo-oo-oo!" - and swing their ringed rowan staves, and spit red
juice of the alder bark that they are chewing as men chew tobacco. Far
below them they see the farm lands, grey in shadow, and, beyond, the
waters of the fjord, yellow in the evening light, a mirror where red
clouds and white sails and hills of liquid blue are shining. And away
out on the farthest headland, the lonely star of the coast light over
the grey sea.

On such an evening Peer came down from the hills just in time to see a
gentleman in a carriole turn off from the highway and take the by-road
down towards Troen. The horse balked suddenly at a small bridge, and
when the driver reined him in and gave him a cut with his whip, the
beast reared, swung about, and sent the cart fairly dancing round on its
high wheels. "Oh, well, then, I'll have to walk," cried the gentleman
angrily, and, flinging the reins to the lad behind him, he jumped down.
Just at this moment Peer came up.

"Here, boy," began the traveller, "just take this bag, will you? And - "
He broke off suddenly, took a step backward, and looked hard at the boy.
"What - surely it can't be - Is it you, Peer?"

"Ye-es," said Peer, gaping a little, and took off his cap.

"Well, now, that's funny. My name is Holm. Well, well - well, well!"

The lad in the cart had driven off, and the gentleman from the city and
the pale country boy with the patched trousers stood looking at each

The newcomer was a man of fifty or so, but still straight and active,
though his hair and close-trimmed beard were sprinkled with grey. His
eyes twinkled gaily under the brim of his black felt hat; his long
overcoat was open, showing a gold chain across his waistcoat. With a
pair of gloves and an umbrella in one hand, a light travelling bag
in the other, and his beautifully polished shoes - a grand gentleman,
thought Peer, if ever there was one. And this was his father!

"So that's how you look, my boy? Not very big for your age - nearly
sixteen now, aren't you? Do they give you enough to eat?"

"Yes," said Peer, with conviction.

The pair walked down together, towards the grey cottage by the fjord.
Suddenly the man stopped, and looked at it through half-shut eyes.

"Is that where you've been living all these years?"


"In that little hut there?"

"Yes. That's the place - Troen they call it."

"Why, that wall there bulges so, I should think the whole affair would
collapse soon."

Peer tried to laugh at this, but felt something like a lump in his
throat. It hurt to hear fine folks talk like that of father and mother's
little house.

There was a great flurry when the strange gentleman appeared in the
doorway. The old wife was kneading away at the dough for a cake, the
front of her all white with flour; the old man sat with his spectacles
on, patching a shoe, and the two girls sprang up from their spinning
wheels. "Well, here I am. My name's Holm," said the traveller, looking
round and smiling. "Mercy on us! the Captain his own self," murmured the
old woman, wiping her hands on her skirt.

He was an affable gentleman, and soon set them all at their ease. He sat
down in the seat of honour, drumming with his fingers on the table, and

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