Theodor Storm (18171888). The Rider on the White Horse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
At last, when sun and spring winds had broken the ice everywhere, the last work in preparation had been done. The petition to the dikemaster general, to be seconded by a higher official, contained the proposal that the foreland should be diked for the promoting of the general weal, particularly of the diked-in district, as well as the rulers treasury, as this would receive in a few years the taxes from about a thousand acres. This was neatly copied and put into a firm envelope together with the corresponding drafts and plans of all the positions, present and future, of the locks and sluices and everything else that belonged to the project; and this was sealed with the official seal of the dikemaster.
I must call your attention to the fact, dear sir, the school-master interrupted his account, fixing his eyes pleasantly upon me, that what I have told you up to this point I have gathered during my activity of almost forty years in this district from the traditions of intelligent people or from the tales of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What I am about to tell you now, so that you may find the right connection between what has gone before and the final outcome of my story, used to be and is still the talk of the whole marsh village, as soon as the spinning-wheels begin to whir round All Saints Day.
If one stood on the dike, about five or six hundred feet to the north of the dikemasters farm, one could, at that time, look a few thousand feet out over the sea, and somewhat farther from the opposite shore one could see a little island, which they called Jeverssand, or Jevers Island. Our forefathers of that generation had used it as a pasture for sheep, for at that time grass was still growing on it; but even that had stopped, because the low island had several times been flooded by the sea, and in midsummer too, so that the growth of grass was stunted and made useless as a sheep pasture. So it happened that the island had no more visitors except gulls and other birds and occasionally a sea eagle; and on moonlight nights from the dike one could only see the light or heavy mists pass over it. And people believed that, when the moon shone upon the island from the east, they could recognise a few bleached skeletons of drowned sheep and that of a horse, although, to be sure, no one could understand how it had come there.
It was at the end of March that the day laborer from the house of Tede Haien and Iven Johns, the hired man of the young dikemaster, stood beside each other at that place and without stirring stared at the island which could scarcely be recognised in the dim moonshine; but something out of the ordinary seemed to hold them there. The laborer put his hands into his pockets and shuddered: Come, Iven, he said; theres nothing good in that; let us go home.
The other laughed, even though horror sounded through his laughter: Oh, bosh, its a live creature, a big one! Who the devil has chased it on to the clay out there? Look, now its stretching its neck our way! No, its drooping its head; it is feeding. Id have thought, there was nothing to feed on there! What can it be?
Good night, then, the laborer called back, as he marched home on the dike. The hired man looked round a few times after his fleeing companion; but the desire to see something gruesome held him fast. Then a dark, stocky figure came toward him on the dike from the village; it was the servant boy of the dikemaster. What do you want, Carsten? the hired man called to him.
Yes, yes, Iven; look, now its feeding just like a horse! But who has brought it therewe have no boats in the village big enough! Perhaps its only a sheep; Peter Ohm says by moonlight ten circles of peat look like a whole village. No, look! Now its jumping aroundit must be a horse after all!
Both stood silent for a while, their eyes fixed on what they saw indistinctly going on upon yonder island. The moon stood high in the heavens and shone upon the wide sea what was just beginning, as the tide rose, to wash with its waters over the glistening flats of clay. Only the low murmur of the water, not the sound of a single animal was heard here in the vast open; on the marshes behind the dike, too, all was deserted, and cows and oxen were still in their stalls. Nothing stirred; only the thing that they took for a horsea white horseseemed to be moving on Jevers Island. It is growing lighter, the hired man broke into the silence; I can see the white sheeps skeletons shimmer distinctly!
I too, said the boy and stretched his neck; but then, as if it came over him suddenly, he pulled the man by the sleeve. Iven, he gasped, the horse skeleton, that used to lie there toowhere is that? I cant see it!
The man could not get the boy away until he had turned him round by force and pushed him on to the way. Listen, Carsten, said the former, when the ghostly island lay a good way behind him, you are supposed to be a good sport; I believe you would like to inspect these doings yourself.
Do you really mean that? Then, said the man after he had given his hand to the boy emphatically, well take our boat to-morrow evening; you row to Jeverssand; Ill stay on the dike in the meantime.
As on the night before, the moon stood in the eastern sky and looked down with a clear light. Soon both were not on the dike again and looked over to Jevers Island, that looked like a strip of mist in the water. There it goes again, said the man; I was here in the afternoon, and then it wasnt there; but I saw the white horse skeleton lying there distinctly!
But over yonder it seemed as if the creature moving there were stretching its neck and raising its head toward the mainland. They were not seeing it any more; they were already walking down the dike to the place where the boat was moored. Now get in, said the man, after he had slipped the mooring. Ill wait till you are back. Youll have to land on the eastern side; thats where one always could land. And the boy nodded silently and rowed away into the moonlit night with his whip; the man wandered back to the foot of the dike and climbed on to it again at the place where they had stood before. Soon he saw how the boat was moored at a steep, dark place, where a broad creek flowed out, and how a stocky figure leaped ashore. Didnt it seem as if the boy were snapping his whip? But then, too, it might be the sound of the rising flood. Several hundred feet to the north he saw what they had taken for a white horse; and howyes, the figure of the boy came marching straight up to it. Now it raised its head as if it were startled; and the boynow one could hear it plainlysnapped his whip. Butwhat was he doing? He was turning round, he was going back the same way he had come. The creature over there seemed to graze on unceasingly; no sound of neighing could be heard; sometimes it seemed as if strips of water were drawn across the apparition. The man gazed as if spellbound.
The boy shook his head. It was nothing! he said. From the boat I saw it a short way off; but then, when I was on the islandthe devil knows where that animal has hid himself! The moonlight was bright enough; but when I came to that place there was nothing there but the pale bones of a half dozen sheep, and a little farther away lay the horse skeleton, too, with its white, long skull and let the moon shine into its empty sockets.
The boy stared at him; all at once horror was in his usually so pert face, and this did not escape the man. Come, said the latter lets go home: from here it looks alive and over there is nothing but bonesthats more than you and I can grasp. But keep quiet about it, one mustnt talk of these things.
At the time when the horse market was going on Hauke Haien had ridden into the city, although he had had nothing to do with the market. Nevertheless, when the came home toward evening, he brought home a second horse. It had rough hair, however, and was lean, so that one could count every rib and its eyes looked tired and sunken deep into the sockets. Elke had stepped out in front of the house door to meet her husband: Heaven help us! she cried, what shall we do with that old white horse? For when Hauke had ridden up to the house with it and stopped under the ash tree, she had seen that the poor creature was lame, too.
But not always, Elke; this animal is at most four years old; look at it more carefully. It is starved and has been abused; our oats shall do it good. Ill take care of it myself, so that they wont overfeed it.
Meanwhile the animal stood with bowed head; its long mane hung down its neck. Elke, while her husband was calling the hired men, walked round it with curious eyes; but she shook her head: A horse like this has never yet been in our stable.
The boy took hold of the halter of the white horse carefully and then hastily, as if for protection, seized the bridle of the brown horse also put into his trust. Hauke then went into the room with his wife. She had warm beer ready for him, and bread and butter were there, too.
He had soon finished; then he got up and walked up and down the room with his wife. Let me tell you, Elke, he said, while the evening glow played on the tiles of the wall, how I came to get the animal. I spent about an hour at the dikemaster generals; he has good news for methere will be some departures, here and there, from my drawings; but the main thing, my outline, has been accepted, and the next days may bring the command to begin the new dike.
Yes, wife, returned Hauke; it will be hard work; but for that, I think, the Lord has brought us together! Our farm is in such good order now, you can take a good part of it on your own shoulders. Think ahead ten yearsthen well own quite a different property.
During his first words she had pressed her husbands hand into hers as a sign of assurance; but his last words could give her no pleasure. For whom all the property? she said. You would have to take another wife then; I shall bring you no children.
Tears shot into her eyes; but he drew her close into his arms. Well leave that to the Lord, he said; but now and at that time too, we are young enough to have joy for ourselves in the fruits of our labors.
Then she clasped her arms tightly round his neck: You are right, Hauke, and what comes, will come for us both. Then she freed him, blushing. You wanted to tell me about the white horse, she said in a low voice.
So I did, Elke, I told you, my head and heart were full of joy over the good news that the dikemaster general had given me. So I was riding back again out of the city, when on the dam, behind the harbor, I met a shabby fellowI couldnt tell if he was a vagabond, a tinker, or what. This fellow was pulling the white horse after him by the halter; but the animal raised his head and looked at me with dull eyes. It seemed to me as if he wanted to beg me for somethingand, indeed, at that moment I was rich enough. Hallo, good sir, I hailed him, where do you want to go with your jade?
Then I jumped down from my brown horse and looked into the white horses mouth and saw that it was still a young animal. How much do you want for it? I cried, for again the horse seemed to look at me beseechingly.
And then, wife, I took the fellows stretched-out brown hand, which looked almost like a claw. And so we have the white horse, and I think a good enough bargain. The only strange thing was that, when I rode away with the horses, I soon heard laughter behind me, and when I turned round my head, saw the Slovak standing with his legs apart, his arms on his back, and laughing after me like a devil.
But not only on the first night did he feed the white horsefrom that time on he always did it himself and did not leave the animal out of sight. He wanted to show that he had mad a first-rate bargain; anyway, he did not want to allow any mistake. And already after a few weeks the animals condition improved: gradually the rough hair vanished; a smooth, blue-spotted skin appeared, and one day when he led it round on the place, it walked nimbly on its steady legs. Hauke thought of the adventurous seller. That fellow was a fool, or a knave who had stolen it, he murmured to himself. Then soon, when the horse merely heard his footsteps, it threw back its head and neighed to greet him; and now he saw too that it had, what the Arabs demand of a good horse, a spare face, out of which two fiery brown eyes were gleaming. He would lead it into its stable and put a light saddle on it; and scarcely did he sit on the saddle, when the animal uttered a neigh like a shout of delight. It sped away with him, down the hill to the road and then to the dike; but the rider sat securely, and when they had reached the top, it went more quietly, easily, as if dancing, and thrust its head to the side of the sea. He patted and stroked its smooth neck, but it no longer needed these endearments, the horse seemed altogether to be one with the rider, and after he had ridden a distance northwards out on the dike, he turned it easily and reached the farm again.
The men stood at the foot of the hill and waited for the return of their master. Now, John, he cried, as he leaped down from his horse. you ride it to the fens where the others are; itll carry you like a cradle.
The white horse shook its head and neighed aloud over the sunny marshes, while the hired man was taking off the saddle and the boy ran with it to the harness-room; then it laid its head on its masters shoulder and suffered him to caress it. But when the hired man wanted to swing himself on its back, it leaped to the side with a sudden bound and then stood motionless, turning its beautiful eyes on its master. Hallo, Iven, cried Hauke, has he hurt you? and he tried to help his man up from the ground.
A few evenings later the man and the boy stood together in front of the stable door. The sunset gleam had vanished behind the dike, the land it enclosed was already wrapped in twilight; only at rare intervals from far off one could hear the lowing of a startled bull or the scream of a lark whose life was ending through the assault of a weasel or a water rat. The man was leaning against the doorpost and smoking his short pipe, from which he could no longer see the smoke; he and the boy had not yet talked together. Something weighed on the boys soul, however, but he did not know how to begin with the silent man. Iven, he said finally, you know that horse skeleton on Jeverssand.
Where? repeated the boy emphatically. It is standing in our stable; there it has been standing, ever since it was no more on the island. It isnt for nothing that our master always feeds it himself; I know about it, Iven.
For a while the man puffed away violently into the night. Youre not right in your mind, Carsten, he said then; our white horse? If ever a horse was alive, that one is. How can a wide-awake youngster like you get mixed up with such an old wives belief!
But the boy could not be converted: if the devil was inside the white horse, why shouldnt it be alive? On the contrary, it was all the worse. He started, frightened, every time that he stepped into the stable toward night, where the creature was sometimes kept in summer and it turned its fiery head toward him so violently. The devil take you! he would mutter; we wont stay together much longer!
So he secretly looked round for a new place, gave notice and, about All Saints Day, went to Ole Peters as hired man. Here he found attentive listeners for his story of the dikemasters devils horse. Fat Mrs. Vollina and her dull-witted father, the former dike overseer, Jess Harders, listened in smug horror and afterwards told it to all who had a grudge against the dikemaster in their hearts or who took pleasure in that kind of thing.
In the mean time already at the end of March the order to begin on the new dike had arrived from the dikemaster general. Hauke first called the dike overseers together, and in the inn up by the church they had all appeared one day and listened while he read to them the main points from the documents that had been drawn up so far: points from his petition from the report of the dikemaster general, and lastly the final order in which, above all, the outline which he had proposed was accepted, so that the new dike should not be steep like the old ones, but slant gradually toward the sea. But they did not listen with cheerful or even satisfied faces.