The Bell at Arvedal Again Sings the Praise of the Lord
Three hundred years older than the mine at Arvedal is its mine bell. This little bell, encrusted in verdigris, once had a higher rank and title than it has now, but that, too, was a long time ago. Those who heard it when it hung high in a church tower overlooking the sea on a little headland on the north coast of Zealand returned to the dust generations ago. Once upon a time it rang out not only over a populace of peasants and poor fishers but also over proud patricians and nobles in battle array, their trappings glittering—it chimed down over smiles and laughter and joy—and over sorrow and a thousand salt tears. And then one night the Lord let fire rain down from heaven over the church. Perhaps it had become an exhibition gallery for pride and human arrogance, a place of false doctrine and profane words and thoughts? Only the bell, which fell into the fire with the tower, was [p. 118] saved destruction; perhaps it was the thing which had been least abused?
When a new and mighty church was raised on the site of the old one, it also had to have a new and mighty bell. Then the old church bell came into the market. Until the rich, most noble Lady Cornelia Bickers bought it for a song and gave it to her husband, Jochum Jürgens, lord of the manor of Gjordslev and Westervig. He had it sent up to his mines in Norway; it ended up at Arvedal. Here it was hung up on the bare, weather-beaten mountain, between two rain-washed posts under a tarred canopy on the grassy turf-roof of the foreman's hut. Now it had to sing for grimy stokers, minehands, and other employees, every morning at cockcrow and every evening at sundown. It hung there tarnished and poverty stricken; in vain it tried to tell the grimy miners of its former greatness, of all the glory and splendor it had seen and been witness to—but its complaints and its dissatisfactions fell on deaf ears. During the storms and the dark nights, when the strong and invisible hand of the north wind grasped its clapper, its song competed with the howl of wolves and the cries of owls out on the moors, an eerie and terrible song. And when the shaking and confused hands of the foremen reached for its worn leather strap to give warning of danger from fire, flood, or war, the ancient bell clanged with a sobbing voice, out over the misery of this world. Would it never more sing the praise of the Lord? Yes, this evening, St. John's Eve! Now, once again, it would ring out to the glory of God. Not in the hearing of the rich and powerful, those dressed in silk and scarlet, who are to be compared with the grass "which is today, and tomorrow is thrown in the fiery furnace," but for the common laboring man over whose door it was writ: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." This evening, when the spring and the mountain were celebrating their nuptials, with green grass straws covering the grey bogs, newly budded leaf over the forest of crooked birch trees, yellow flowers along the trickling brooks, shining white moss on the hard rock, and the sun dancing over the snowdrifts.[p. 119]
This evening when God in his mercy had willed that all should be set free—when the unblessed and miserly spirits, brooding over their buried earthly treasures, would once again for a short while be able to clothe themselves in their earthly bodies and hold their treasures in their frozen hands—when the subterranean dwellers, the descendants of Adam's first wife, were allowed to reveal themselves to the eyes of Christian folk[1*] —yes, this evening the bell of Arvedal would once again sing a hymn of praise to the All High.
All the miners at Arvedal were gathered together outside the mine. There sat the smith, old Jamt-Ola, with blond hair and beard, dark-complexioned, brown-eyed, and with hands seared by the fire and almost without fingernails. Beside him sat a man from Løbø, a powder man by trade, with a red scar over his right cheekbone from the cut of a Swedish sabre. These two had been messmates in the mining camp ever since they were boys. And now they went everywhere together. Now they were sitting on the runners of an upturned sledge outside the smithy with hands folded, and as immobile as if they were cast in clay. Per the wheelmaker also sat there, a giant in a leather apron reaching right down to his clogs. Yes, it was as big as a whole heifer hide and always freshly oiled with cod-liver oil. Per had never made anything in his life but wagon wheels. Thus he saw and thought of everything as round. This plagued him sorely and compelled him, even when he was sitting still, incessantly to draw circles on the floor or on the ground with a stick. It was his form of madness. He knew it himself, but could do nothing about it. He had sought advice and cures for it, but in vain. He had drunk the most remarkable brews. [p. 120] And he had slept on the night of St. Halyard's Day, three times in succession, with thirteen sheepstails under his pillow; that did just as much good as all the other things! As he sat here on a piece of metallic rock, he had drawn four wagon wheels in the sand—and they were also wheels going at a tremendous speed, he had drawn, they ran into each other and around him; a grand drawing! But it was, as we have said, madness.
In the gateway to the mine, Iver, nicknamed the Sheriff-shy, was standing; he was a Selbu man who was quite convinced that he had caused another person's death. In his youth he had been thoughtless enough to fire a blank at a Lapp girl. What followed is not difficult to understand. She put a spell of fear on him. And ever since he had lived in perpetual fear that the sheriff would come and clap him in irons. And if he saw a man on horseback, it was the sheriff, and in a trice Iver was invisible!
Everywhere, on stones, sledges, and wagons, the miners sat, serious men with good, thoughtful faces—but with eyes too weak to stand the strong light. The long winter with its unending darkness, and the deep mine galleries with a flickering torchlight between the walls, had weakened their eyes. And the continual thundering of explosive charges, day in and day out, year after year, had damaged their eardrums. Like all people who are hard of hearing, they talked in loud voices.
It was a beautiful evening. The Aarv Lake to the north formed, together with Storklætten and the neighboring slopes, a multicolored, sunlit picture; and further north still two mountain lakes appeared as blue dots on the horizon. Mount Hummel loomed up to the south with its shining white snow drifts. From the mine tips over at the Christianus Sextus mine it gleamed as from millions of diamonds.
And then the bell began to ring. The miners took off their caps slowly and put them on one knee. And they bowed their heads. God was, in truth, abundantly good who had let them live to see a new St. John's Eve once again. There were no words on their lips; words were empty, they couldn't say [p. 121] enough at a moment like this. No, they gave thanks, silently, with their hearts. High over their heads the bell continued to ring; the old church bell from Zealand, from a sunlit coast along a gentle smiling blue sound.
Benjamin Sigismund sat out in front of the steps on a chair from the chief foreman's room—it was the same gilt, leather armchair which Henning Jürgens had sat in on so many an evening and gazed with his steel-grey eyes out towards the Aarv Lake and dreamt of his youthful love, Miss Tine Irgens of Westervig.
Benjamin Sigismund sat so that he had a view over all the mountains and moors. It was a hard, terrible landscape he saw; a landscape of snow and ice and rock. Only the song of the little church bell was beautiful. All the rest was ugly. He looked at the men who sat around him here—they were men in prison. And he, himself, was a poor priest in exile.
And then the bell stopped. Ol-Kanelesa and the choirmaster, Peder Nilsen Koch, mounted the steps holding each side of a big hymnal, the one with the key and the two crossed hammers imprinted over the cross on the cover. Their singing, their strong manly singing, broke like sunlight through the grey-cold mist which enveloped Benjamin Sigismund's mind. The mountains, the hard grey terrain, now emerged as a neighborhood, not exactly soft, but beautiful in its way. And the lifeless faces around him awoke and came alive—and they became men with a birthright as they heard the beautiful singing, in which they all now joined.
He was seeing both the landscape and them for the first time. Their faces had the same strong, chiselled features which Gunhild Bonde had. And then he himself began to sing with a loud voice—hadn't they all sat down here by the rivers of Babylon, by the Euphrates and the Tigris? He would now rise up and preach the glad tidings to this people in exile, that they today could, once again, take down their harps and set out on the way back to the valley of Lebanon and the land of Gilead.
The singing was abruptly interrupted by a loud noise from [p. 122] the entrances to the mine. A young, lithe foreman came running up with a lighted torch. He was swinging it quickly in the air, so the flame went out. And a rain of sparks fell like stars around him. His face was white and his eyes wild.
He called out breathlessly:
"There's been a fall down at Cornelien!"
The foreman went on to say that two wheelminders, who were putting in the new water wheel, had ignited a charge with an old iron ramrod. And one of them, a man from Kvaksvolden, had had one of his eyes torn out. Now he lay prostrate over the axle of the wheel, groaning.
The pastor had jumped up out of his gilt chair, the chair from which the long-dead director Henning Jürgens had so often jumped in rage. Sigismund had understood little or nothing of what the young foreman had said in his dialect—but he had recognized the man immediately; he was, of course, the man he had married on the third Sunday after Trinity, David Finne, Gunhild Bonde's husband.
Benjamin Sigismund felt embarrassed at seeing this man. But why did he? He tried to understand. Finne had never done him any wrong or harm.
Now David Finne caught a glimpse of the pastor. It was understandable that a hateful expression passed over his face at the sight of this clerical gentleman. Sigismund's shaming bridal address had, without a doubt, given him many a sleepless night.
The most courageous of the miners hurried to make fire and light their torches. And then they hurried silently to the entrances to the mine. The corporal lit his torch again and disappeared with the others inside the mountain. He was shaken and far too impetuous. He shouted and gave orders. He went on ahead quickly swinging his torch all the way down the gallery.
Those who remained up above huddled together in groups and discussed the condition of the two injured men—probably they would both be blind for life; the surgeon, Jens Mathisen, couldn't manage much more than patch up broken shinbones. [p. 123] No, he was no eye doctor, that was certain. But Hans Koldberger was supposed to have been a different sort of vet. He had even, old and trembling as he was, taken people's eyes out and washed them—no surgeon could do that now. In his day there were very few blind miners. Now almost every other man was blind. That is, amongst the pensioners.
"What. Has there been an accident?" the pastor asked Ol-Kanelesa. He then explained how it had all happened, but the pastor became no wiser. Stranger as he was to everything, he couldn't get much idea of what had happened.
Now they brought up the two injured wheelminders. They were carried carefully into the head foreman's hut and laid on separate benches.
The pastor tore off his cassock at once and threw it over the back of the leather chair. Then he rolled up his shirt sleeves and ran in after them.
"Fetch some cold water," he shouted. "Quickly!"
Some water was brought in in a blackened pot; it was David Finne himself who brought it.
"Have you got a clean cloth?" the pastor asked. What a question to ask! A clean cloth in a mine?
The others who stood around also thought it was an idiotic question. A clean cloth, the fool!
"Well!" Sigismund said. "We'll use what we have."
He caught hold of his shirt up by the collar, ripped it up on the chest and right down. And then he began to wash the faces of the injured. He washed the eye of the man from Kvaksvolden; that gave them all a start. It looked as if he was going to do even better than old Koldberger—anyway, Sigismund was supposed to be a trained sawbones too; that was what people said anyway. A mad fellow, to think of tearing his shirt to pieces. A linen shirt too! Parsons, they didn't have to wear hairshirts; nor the other bigwigs either.
"Shall I be blind?" the man asked.
He lay there biting his beard.
"Don't fear going through life with one eye," Sigismund answered. "Worse things could have happened to you, lad."[p. 124]
When the two men had been washed and bandaged, and Sigismund stood once again out on the steps, it was night. He stood for a while looking out over the moor. And he breathed deeply as if after a great exertion. Then he turned to Ol-Kanelesa and said:
"We will continue from where we stopped, Ole."
He put on his cassock again. And then he spoke with great fervor on the text:
"Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine [sic] it. Iron is taken out of the earth, and brass is molten out of the stone."
His eloquent interpretation fell on deaf ears. Those who sat there on sledges, on stones, on steps and listened, did not hear him. For them the night was no longer filled with midsummer sun and beauty—what had happened to the two wheelminders could, at any time, happen to the others too. And those who sat here now, fit and well, could, before the sun went down again, be lying prostrate on a bench in there, in the head foreman's hut. "Today me, tomorrow you!" If only the pastor had talked of that. And of all the other things they had to struggle and toil with.
Benjamin Sigismund didn't notice that he was talking to deaf ears tonight. He saw visions. Glorious visions.
Yes, there was one who listened: Ol-Kanelesa. What the pastor was saying he had once experienced in a dream. Well! A dream was nothing to live off; but it could sometimes be a comfort for the soul.
And then—then just before a new sunrise, the bell in Arvedal rang out once more to the glory of the Lord.
[1*] According to Norwegian popular belief both the dead and evil spirits were abroad on Midsummer Eve. The same belief also applied to December 13, which was associated with St. Lucia, or Lussi, or Løssi as she is called in Norwegian dialect. According to the legends of Adam in the Talmud, Adam's first wife before Eve was created was Lilith, who thus became the mother of demons.
Copyright © 1923 by H. Aschehoug & Co. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1968 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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