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- Absalom's Hair - 22/22 -


Schoolmaster Jacobsen was sitting there now with his friend. They were singing and praying together, I heard from those who had been down in that direction. Peer's family came in the evening in a boat, went up to see him, and took leave of him. I heard how dauntless he was in his confidence that the next day he would be with God, and how beautifully he talked to his people, and especially how he begged them to take an affectionate greeting to his mother, and be good to her as long as she lived. Some said she had come in the boat with the rest, but would not go up to see him. That was not true, any more than that some of them were at the execution the next day, which was also reported.

I wakened the next morning under a weight of apprehension. The weather had changed and was fair now, but it felt oppressive nevertheless. No one spoke loud, and people said as little as possible. I was to be allowed to go with the rest and look on; so I made haste to find my tutor, whom I had been told not to leave. The two clergymen came out in their cassocks. We went down to the landing-place and rowed the first part of the way. The condemned man and his escort had gone on before, and waited at the place where we disembarked, in order to walk the latter part of the way to the place of execution, a kilometer or so distant. The execution had to take place at a cross-roads, and there was only one in the neighbourhood--namely, at Ejdsvaag, nearly seven miles away from where the murder was committed. The bailiff headed the procession, then came the soldiers, then the condemned man, with the Dean on one side and my father on the other, then Jacobsen and my tutor, with me between them, then some more people, followed by more soldiers. We walked cautiously along the slippery road. The clergyman talked constantly to the condemned man, who was now very pale. His eyes had grown gentle and weary and he said very little. My mother, who had been very kind to him, and whom he had thanked for all she had done, had sent him a bottle of wine to keep up his strength. The first time that my tutor offered him some, he looked at the clergyman as though asking if there were anything sinful in accepting it. My father quoted St. Paul's advice to Timothy, and instantly he drank off a long draught.

By the wayside stood people curious to see him, and they joined the procession as it passed along. Among them were some of his comrades, to whom he sorrowfully nodded. Once or twice he lifted his cap, the same flat one I had seen him in the first time. It was evident that his comrades had a regard for him; and I saw, too, some young women who were crying, and made no attempt to conceal it. He walked along with his hands clasped at his breast, probably praying.

We were all startled by the captain's loud and commonplace word of command, "Attention!" as we reached the appointed place. A body of soldiers stood drawn up in a hollow square, which closed in after admitting the bailiff, the clergyman, the condemned man, and a few besides, among whom was myself. A great silent crowd stood round, and over their heads one saw the mounted figure of the sheriff in his cocked hat. When the soldiers who came with us, having carried out various sharp words of command, had taken their places in the square, the further proceedings began by the sheriff's reading aloud the death sentence and the royal order for the execution.

The sheriff stationed himself directly in front of the place where some planed boards were laid over the grave. At one end of it stood the block. On the other side of the grave a platform had been erected, from which the Dean was to speak. Peer Hagbo knelt below on the step, with his face buried in his hands, close to the feet of his spiritual adviser. The Dean was of Danish birth, one of the many who, at the time of the separation, had chosen to make their home in Norway. His addresses were beautiful to read, but one couldn't always hear him, and least of all when he was moved, as was frequently the case. He shouted the first words very loud; then his head sank down between his shoulders, and he shook it without a pause while he closed his eyes and uttered some smothered sounds, catching his breath between them. The points of his tall shirt-collar, which reached to the middle of his ears (I have never since seen the like), stuck up on each side of the bare cropped head with the two double chins underneath, and the whole was framed between his shoulders, which, by long practice, he could raise much higher than other men. Those who did not know him--for to know him was to love him--could hardly keep from laughing. His speech was neither heard nor understood, but it was short. His emotion forced him to break it off suddenly. One thing alone we all understood: that he loved the pale young man whom he had prepared for death, and that he wished that all of us might go to our God as happy and confident as he who was to die to-day. When he stepped down they embraced each other for the last time. Peer gave his hand to my father and to a number besides, and then placed himself by his friend Jakobsen. The latter knew what this meant. He took off a kerchief and bound Peer's eyes, while we saw him whisper something to him and receive a whispered answer. Then a man came forward to bind Peer's hands behind his back, but he begged to be left free, and his prayer was granted. Then Jakobsen took him by the hand and led him forward. At the place where Peer was to kneel Jakobsen stopped short, and Peer slowly bent his knees. Jakobsen bent Peer's head down until it rested on the block; then he drew back and folded his hands. All this I saw, and also that a tall man came and took hold of Peer's neck, while a smaller man drew forth from a couple of folded towels a shining axe with a remarkably broad thin blade. It was then I turned away. I heard the captain's horrible "Present arms"; I heard some one praying "Our Father"--perhaps it was Peer himself--then a blow that sounded exactly as if it went into a great cabbage. At once I looked round again, and saw one leg kicking out, and a yard or two beyond the body lay the head, the mouth gasping and gasping as if for air.

The executioner's assistant sprang forward and took hold of it by the ends of the handkerchief that had bandaged the eyes, and threw it into the coffin beside the body, where it fell with a dull sound. The boards were laid over the coffined remains, and the whole hastily lifted up and lowered into the grave.

Then my father got up on the platform. Every one could understand what HE said, and his powerful voice was heard to such a distance that even now it is remembered in the district. Following up the thunderous admonition of the execution itself, he warned the young against the vices which prevailed in the parish--against drunkenness, fighting, unchastity, and other misconduct. They must have liked the discourse very much, for it was stolen out of the pocket of his gown on the way home.

As for me, I left the place as sick at heart, as overwhelmed with horror, as if it were my turn to be executed next. Afterwards I compared notes with many others, who owned to exactly the same feeling. Father and the Dean dined at the captain's with the other officials; but they separated and went home directly after dinner.


Absalom's Hair - 22/22

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