A Norwegian Honeymoon
by Henry van Dyke
“The best rose-bush, after all, is not that which has the
fewest thorns, but that which bears the finest roses.”
—SOLOMON SINGLEWITZ: The Life of Adam.
It was not all unadulterated sweetness, of course. There were enough difficulties in the way to make it seem desirable; and a few stings of annoyance, now and then, lent piquancy to the adventure. But a good memory, in dealing with the past, has the art of straining out all the beeswax of discomfort, and storing up little jars of pure hydromel. As we look back at our six weeks in Norway, we agree that no period of our partnership in experimental honeymooning has yielded more honey to the same amount of comb.
Several considerations led us to the resolve of taking our honeymoon experimentally rather than chronologically. We started from the self-evident proposition that it ought to be the happiest time in married life.
“It is perfectly ridiculous,” said my lady Graygown, “to suppose that a thing like that can be fixed by the calendar. It may possibly fall in the first month after the wedding, but it is not likely. Just think how slightly two people know each other when they get married. They are in love, of course, but that is not at all the same as being well acquainted. Sometimes the more love, the less acquaintance! And sometimes the more acquaintance, the less love! Besides, at first there are always the notes of thanks for the wedding-presents to be written, and the letters of congratulation to be answered, and it is awfully hard to make each one sound a little different from the others and perfectly natural. Then, you know, everybody seems to suspect you of the folly of being newly married. You run across your friends everywhere, and they grin when they see you. You can’t help feeling as if a lot of people were watching you through opera-glasses, or taking snap-shots at you with a kodak. It is absurd to imagine that the first month must be the real honeymoon. And just suppose it were,—what bad luck that would be! What would there be to look forward to?”
Every word that fell from her lips seemed to me like the wisdom of Diotima.
“You are right,” I cried; “Portia could not hold a candle to you for clear argument. Besides, suppose two people are imprudent enough to get married in the first week of December, as we did!—what becomes of the chronological honeymoon then? There is no fishing in December, and all the rivers of Paradise, at least in our latitude, are frozen up. No, my lady, we will discover our month of honey by the empirical method. Each year we will set out together to seek it in a solitude for two; and we will compare notes on moons, and strike the final balance when we are sure that our happiest experiment has been completed.”
We are not sure of that, even yet. We are still engaged, as a committee of two, in our philosophical investigation, and we decline to make anything but a report of progress. We know more now than we did when we first went honeymooning in the city of Washington. For one thing, we are certain that not even the far-famed rosemary-fields of Narbonne, or the fragrant hillsides of the Corbieres, yield a sweeter harvest to the busy-ness of the bees than the Norwegian meadows and mountain-slopes yielded to our idleness in the summer of 1888.
The rural landscape of Norway, on the long easterly slope that leads up to the watershed among the mountains of the western coast, is not unlike that of Vermont or New Hampshire. The railway from Christiania to the Randsfjord carried us through a hilly country of scattered farms and villages. Wood played a prominent part in the scenery. There were dark stretches of forest on the hilltops and in the valleys; rivers filled with floating logs; sawmills beside the waterfalls; wooden farmhouses painted white; and rail-fences around the fields. The people seemed sturdy, prosperous, independent. They had the familiar habit of coming down to the station to see the train arrive and depart. We might have fancied ourselves on a journey through the Connecticut valley, if it had not been for the soft sing-song of the Norwegian speech and the uniform politeness of the railway officials.
What a room that was in the inn at Randsfjord where we spent our first night out! Vast, bare, primitive, with eight windows to admit the persistent nocturnal twilight; a sea-like floor of blue-painted boards, unbroken by a single island of carpet; and a castellated stove in one corner: an apartment for giants, with two little beds for dwarfs on opposite shores of the ocean. There was no telephone; so we arranged a system of communication with a fishing-line, to make sure that the sleepy partner should be awake in time for the early boat in the morning.
The journey up the lake took seven hours, and reminded us of a voyage on Lake George; placid, picturesque, and pervaded by summer boarders. Somewhere on the way we had lunch, and were well fortified to take the road when the steamboat landed us at Odnaes, at the head of the lake, about two o’clock in the afternoon.
There are several methods in which you may drive through Norway. The government maintains posting-stations at the farms along the main travelled highways, where you can hire horses and carriages of various kinds. There are also English tourist agencies which make a business of providing travellers with complete transportation. You may try either of these methods alone, or you may make a judicious mixture.
Thus, by an application of the theory of permutations and combinations, you have your choice among four ways of accomplishing a driving-tour. First, you may engage a carriage and pair, with a driver, from one of the tourist agencies, and roll through your journey in sedentary case, provided your horses do not go lame or give out. Second, you may rely altogether upon the posting-stations to send you on your journey; and this is a very pleasant, lively way, provided there is not a crowd of travellers on the road before you, who take up all the comfortable conveyances and leave you nothing but a jolting cart or a ramshackle KARIOL of the time of St. Olaf. Third, you may rent an easy-riding vehicle (by choice a well-hung gig) for the entire trip, and change ponies at the stations as you drive along; this is the safest way. The fourth method is to hire your horseflesh at the beginning for the whole journey, and pick up your vehicles from place to place. This method is theoretically possible, but I do not know any one who has tried it.
Our gig was waiting for us at Odnaes. There was a brisk little mouse-coloured pony in the shafts; and it took but a moment to strap our leather portmanteau on the board at the back, perch the postboy on top of it, and set out for our first experience of a Norwegian driving-tour.
The road at first was level and easy; and we bowled along smoothly through the valley of the Etnaelv, among drooping birch-trees and green fields where the larks were singing. At Tomlevolden, ten miles farther on, we reached the first station, a comfortable old farmhouse, with a great array of wooden outbuildings. Here we had a chance to try our luck with the Norwegian language in demanding “en hest, saa straxt som muligt.” This was what the guide-book told us to say when we wanted a horse.
There is great fun in making a random cast on the surface of a strange language. You cannot tell what will come up. It is like an experiment in witchcraft. We should not have been at all surprised, I must confess, if our preliminary incantation had brought forth a cow or a basket of eggs.
But the good people seemed to divine our intentions; and while we were waiting for one of the stable-boys to catch and harness the new horse, a yellow-haired maiden inquired, in very fair English, if we would not be pleased to have a cup of tea and some butter-bread; which we did with great comfort.
The SKYDSGUT, or so-called postboy, for the next stage of the journey, was a full-grown man of considerable weight. As he climbed to his perch on our portmanteau, my lady Graygown congratulated me on the prudence which had provided that one side of that receptacle should be of an inflexible stiffness, quite incapable of being crushed; otherwise, asked she, what would have become of her Sunday frock under the pressure of this stern necessity of a postboy?
But I think we should not have cared very much if all our luggage had been smashed on this journey, for the road now began to ascend, and the views over the Etnadal, with its winding river, were of a breadth and sweetness most consoling. Up and up we went, curving in and out through the forest, crossing wild ravines and shadowy dells, looking back at every turn on the wide landscape bathed in golden light. At the station of Sveen, where we changed horse and postboy again, it was already evening. The sun was down, but the mystical radiance of the northern twilight illumined the sky. The dark fir-woods spread around us, and their odourous breath was diffused through the cool, still air. We were crossing the level summit of the plateau, twenty-three hundred feet above the sea. Two tiny woodland lakes gleamed out among the trees. Then the road began to slope gently towards the west, and emerged suddenly on the edge of the forest, looking out over the long, lovely vale of Valders, with snow-touched mountains on the horizon, and the river Baegna shimmering along its bed, a thousand feet below us.
What a heart-enlarging outlook! What a keen joy of motion, as the wheels rolled down the long incline, and the sure-footed pony swung between the shafts and rattled his hoofs merrily on the hard road! What long, deep breaths of silent pleasure in the crisp night air! What wondrous mingling of lights in the afterglow of sunset, and the primrose bloom of the first stars, and faint foregleamings of the rising moon creeping over the hill behind us! What perfection of companionship without words, as we rode together through a strange land, along the edge of the dark!
When we finished the thirty-fifth mile, and drew up in the courtyard of the station at Frydenlund, Graygown sprang out, with a little sigh of regret.
“Is it last night,” she cried, “or to-morrow morning? I have n’t the least idea what time it is; it seems as if we had been travelling in eternity.”
“It is just ten o’clock,” I answered, “and the landlord says there will be a hot supper of trout ready for us in five minutes.”
It would be vain to attempt to give a daily record of the whole journey in which we made this fair beginning. It was a most idle and unsystematic pilgrimage. We wandered up and down, and turned aside when fancy beckoned. Sometimes we hurried on as fast as the horses would carry us, driving sixty or seventy miles a day; sometimes we loitered and dawdled, as if we did not care whether we got anywhere or not. If a place pleased us, we stayed and tried the fishing. If we were tired of driving, we took to the water, and travelled by steamer along a fjord, or hired a rowboat to cross from point to point. One day we would be in a good little hotel, with polyglot guests, and serving-maids in stagey Norse costumes,—like the famous inn at Stalheim, which commands the amazing panorama of the Naerodal. Another day we would lodge in a plain farmhouse like the station at Nedre Vasenden, where eggs and fish were the staples of diet, and the farmer’s daughter wore the picturesque peasants’ dress, with its tall cap, without any dramatic airs. Lakes and rivers, precipices and gorges, waterfalls and glaciers and snowy mountains were our daily repast. We drove over five hundred miles in various kinds of open wagons, KARIOLS for one, and STOLKJAERRES for two, after we had left our comfortable gig behind us. We saw the ancient dragon-gabled church of Burgund; and the delightful, showery town of Bergen; and the gloomy cliffs of the Geiranger-Fjord laced with filmy cataracts; and the bewitched crags of the Romsdal; and the wide, desolate landscape of Jerkin; and a hundred other unforgotten scenes. Somehow or other we went, (around and about, and up and down, now on wheels, and now on foot, and now in a boat,) all the way from Christiania to Throndhjem. My lady Graygown could give you the exact itinerary, for she has been well brought up, and always keeps a diary. All I know is, that we set out from one city and arrived at the other, and we gathered by the way a collection of instantaneous photographs. I am going to turn them over now, and pick out a few of the clearest pictures.
Here is the bridge over the Naeselv at Fagernaes. Just below it is a good pool for trout, but the river is broad and deep and swift. It is difficult wading to get out within reach of the fish. I have taken half a dozen small ones and come to the end of my cast. There is a big one lying out in the middle of the river, I am sure. But the water already rises to my hips; another step will bring it over the top of my waders, and send me downstream feet uppermost.
“Take care!” cries Graygown from the grassy bank, where she sits placidly crocheting some mysterious fabric of white yarn.
She does not see the large rock lying at the bottom of the river just beyond me. If I can step on that, and stand there without being swept away, I can reach the mid-current with my flies. It is a long stride and a slippery foothold, but by good luck “the last step which costs” is accomplished. The tiny black and orange hackle goes curling out over the stream, lights softly, and swings around with the current, folding and expanding its feathers as if it were alive. The big trout takes it promptly the instant it passes over him; and I play him and net him without moving from my perilous perch.
Graygown waves her crochet-work like a flag, “Bravo!” she cries. “That’s a beauty, nearly two pounds! But do be careful about coming back; you are not good enough to take any risks yet.”
The station at Skogstad is a solitary farmhouse lying far up on the bare hillside, with its barns and out-buildings grouped around a central courtyard, like a rude fortress. The river travels along the valley below, now wrestling its way through a narrow passage among the rocks, now spreading out at leisure in a green meadow. As we cross the bridge, the crystal water is changed to opal by the sunset glow, and a gentle breeze ruffles the long pools, and the trout are rising freely. It is the perfect hour for fishing. Would Graygown dare to drive on alone to the gate of the fortress, and blow upon the long horn which doubtless hangs beside it, and demand admittance and a lodging, “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,”—while I angle down the river a mile or so?
Certainly she would. What door is there in Europe at which the American girl is afraid to knock? “But wait a moment. How do you ask for fried chicken and pancakes in Norwegian? KYLLING OG PANDEKAGE? How fierce it sounds! All right now. Run along and fish.”
The river welcomes me like an old friend. The tune that it sings is the same that the flowing water repeats all around the world. Not otherwise do the lively rapids carry the familiar air, and the larger falls drone out a burly bass, along the west branch of the Penobscot, or down the valley of the Bouquet. But here there are no forests to conceal the course of the stream. It lies as free to the view as a child’s thought. As I follow on from pool to pool, picking out a good trout here and there, now from a rocky corner edged with foam, now from a swift gravelly run, now from a snug hiding-place that the current has hollowed out beneath the bank, all the way I can see the fortress far above me on the hillside.
I am as sure that it has already surrendered to Graygown as if I could discern her white banner of crochet-work floating from the battlements.
Just before dark, I climb the hill with a heavy basket of fish. The castle gate is open. The scent of chicken and pancakes salutes the weary pilgrim. In a cosy little parlour, adorned with fluffy mats and pictures framed in pine-cones, lit by a hanging lamp with glass pendants, sits the mistress of the occasion, calmly triumphant and plying her crochet-needle.
There is something mysterious about a woman’s fancy-work. It seems to have all the soothing charm of the tobacco-plant, without its inconveniences. Just to see her tranquillity, while she relaxes her mind and busies her fingers with a bit of tatting or embroidery or crochet, gives me a sense of being domesticated, a “homey” feeling, anywhere in the wide world.
If you ever go to Norway, you must be sure to see the Loenvand. You can set out from the comfortable hotel at Faleide, go up the Indvik Fjord in a rowboat, cross over a two-mile hill on foot or by carriage, spend a happy day on the lake, and return to your inn in time for a late supper. The lake is perhaps the most beautiful in Norway. Long and narrow, it lies like a priceless emerald of palest green, hidden and guarded by jealous mountains. It is fed by huge glaciers, which hang over the shoulders of the hills like ragged cloaks of ice.
As we row along the shore, trolling in vain for the trout that live in the ice-cold water, fragments of the tattered cloth-of-silver far above us, on the opposite side, are loosened by the touch of the summer sun, and fall from the precipice. They drift downward, at first, as noiselessly as thistledowns; then they strike the rocks and come crashing towards the lake with the hollow roar of an avalanche.
At the head of the lake we find ourselves in an enormous amphitheatre of mountains. Glaciers are peering down upon us. Snow-fields glare at us with glistening eyes. Black crags seem to bend above us with an eternal frown. Streamers of foam float from the forehead of the hills and the lips of the dark ravines. But there is a little river of cold, pure water flowing from one of the rivers of ice, and a pleasant shelter of young trees and bushes growing among the debris of shattered rocks; and there we build our camp-fire and eat our lunch.
Hunger is a most impudent appetite. It makes a man forget all the proprieties. What place is there so lofty, so awful, that he will not dare to sit down in it and partake of food? Even on the side of Mount Sinai, the elders of Israel spread their out-of-door table, “and did eat and drink.”
I see the Tarn of the Elk at this moment, just as it looked in the clear sunlight of that August afternoon, ten years ago. Far down in a hollow of the desolate hills it nestles, four thousand feet above the sea. The moorland trail hangs high above it, and, though it is a mile away, every curve of the treeless shore, every shoal and reef in the light green water is clearly visible. With a powerful field-glass one can almost see the large trout for which the pond is famous.
The shelter-hut on the bank is built of rough gray stones, and the roof is leaky to the light as well as to the weather. But there are two beds in it, one for my guide and one for me; and a practicable fireplace, which is soon filled with a blaze of comfort. There is also a random library of novels, which former fishermen have thoughtfully left behind them. I like strong reading in the wilderness. Give me a story with plenty of danger and wholesome fighting in it,—”The Three Musketeers,” or “Treasure Island,” or “The Afghan’s Knife.” Intricate studies of social dilemmas and tales of mild philandering seem bloodless and insipid.
The trout in the Tarn of the Elk are large, undoubtedly, but they are also few in number and shy in disposition. Either some of the peasants have been fishing over them with the deadly “otter,” or else they belong to that variety of the trout family known as TRUTTA DAMNOSA,—the species which you can see but cannot take. We watched these aggravating fish playing on the surface at sunset; we saw them dart beneath our boat in the early morning; but not until a driving snowstorm set in, about noon of the second day, did we succeed in persuading any of them to take the fly. Then they rose, for a couple of hours, with amiable perversity. I caught five, weighing between two and four pounds each, and stopped because my hands were so numb that I could cast no longer.
Now for a long tramp over the hills and home. Yes, home; for yonder in the white house at Drivstuen, with fuchsias and geraniums blooming in the windows, and a pretty, friendly Norse girl to keep her company, my lady is waiting for me. See, she comes running out to the door, in the gathering dusk, with a red flower in her hair, and hails me with the fisherman’s greeting. WHAT LUCK?
Well, THIS luck, at all events! I can show you a few good fish, and sit down with you to a supper of reindeer-venison and a quiet evening of music and talk.
Shall I forget thee, hospitable Stuefloten, dearest to our memory of all the rustic stations in Norway? There are no stars beside thy name in the pages of Baedeker. But in the book of our hearts a whole constellation is thine.
The long, low, white farmhouse stands on a green hill at the head of the Romsdal. A flourishing crop of grass and flowers grows on the stable-roof, and there is a little belfry with a big bell to call the labourers home from the fields. In the corner of the living-room of the old house there is a broad fireplace built across the angle. Curious cupboards are tucked away everywhere. The long table in the dining-room groans thrice a day with generous fare. There are as many kinds of hot bread as in a Virginia country-house; the cream is thick enough to make a spoon stand up in amazement; once, at dinner, we sat embarrassed before six different varieties of pudding.
In the evening, when the saffron light is beginning to fade, we go out and walk in the road before the house, looking down the long mystical vale of the Rauma, or up to the purple western hills from which the clear streams of the Ulvaa flow to meet us.
Above Stuefloten the Rauma lingers and meanders through a smoother and more open valley, with broad beds of gravel and flowery meadows. Here the trout and grayling grow fat and lusty, and here we angle for them, day after day, in water so crystalline that when one steps into the stream one hardly knows whether to expect a depth of six inches or six feet.
Tiny English flies and leaders of gossamer are the tackle for such water in midsummer. With this delicate outfit, and with a light hand and a long line, one may easily outfish the native angler, and fill a twelve-pound basket every fair day. I remember an old Norwegian, an inveterate fisherman, whose footmarks we saw ahead of us on the stream all through an afternoon. Footmarks I call them; and so they were, literally, for there were only the prints of a single foot to be seen on the banks of sand, and between them, a series of small, round, deep holes.
“What kind of a bird made those marks, Frederik?” I asked my faithful guide.
“That is old Pedersen,” he said, “with his wooden leg. He makes a dot after every step. We shall catch him in a little while.”
Sure enough, about six o’clock we saw him standing on a grassy point, hurling his line, with a fat worm on the end of it, far across the stream, and letting it drift down with the current. But the water was too fine for that style of fishing, and the poor old fellow had but a half dozen little fish. My creel was already overflowing, so I emptied out all of the grayling into his bag, and went on up the river to complete my tale of trout before dark.
And when the fishing is over, there is Graygown with the wagon, waiting at the appointed place under the trees, beside the road. The sturdy white pony trots gayly homeward. The pale yellow stars blossom out above the hills again, as they did on that first night when we were driving down into the Valders. Frederik leans over the back of the seat, telling us marvellous tales, in his broken English, of the fishing in a certain lake among the mountains, and of the reindeer-shooting on the fjeld beyond it.
“It is sad that you go to-morrow,” says he “but you come back another year, I think, to fish in that lake, and to shoot those reindeer.”
Yes, Frederik, we are coming back to Norway some day, perhaps,—who can tell? It is one of the hundred places that we are vaguely planning to revisit. For, though we did not see the midnight sun there, we saw the honeymoon most distinctly. And it was bright enough to take pictures by its light.