Hall the Wise
When I arrived, the others, very much concened about the worsening weather, were waiting at the lock gate. I now realize that I was in a peculiar state. Underneath it there was exaltation. Despite Willy's training and my own experimentation, it's no simple thing to row a swamped boat a mile through a near gale on a coast like the Icelandic one. The cold is intense, and it takes a certain amount of strength and endurance to drive the boat straight through the seas. I must have wondered at first if I could make it. Having done it, I was in a quite joyful state. But, when one has just made a supreme physical effort, one's outward appearance may bear very little resemblence to one's inner state.
Willy reached down and lifted me bodily out of the boat before I could even attempt to climb out. Vignis started talking about pneumonia, and a dry coat was bundled around me as, a little unsteady on my feet, I was helped toward the town. I think that Willy must have guessed what had happened. The others, as I later discovered, assumed that I had missed connections with the steamer. It was finally Mac who asked if I had missed the steamer. I replied,
"No. I picked Sam up, but the boat swamped and he decided to swim."
I must have made it sound as if anyone might, under the circumstances, have elected to take a refreshing swim. But it must also have been obvious that no one could have survived under those circumstances. Sidonie fainted on the spot and hit the ground with a loud thud. It was as if she had been a character in a Victorian novel. While Vignis and I bent to tend to her, it was Mac who seemed alarmed and kept asking questions. Finally, he asked,
"Why didn't you stop him?"
"I tried to, but he took one look at the cliffs above us and went overboard. I tried to follow him, but I couldn't."
Willy nodded as if it were the sort of thing that always happened, and Mac looked exasperated. He had evidently liked Sam, or at least found him useful.
Sidonie had come to by this time, and we resumed our walk back to the house. She didn't cry, but also didn't talk. The minute we got home, she drew a tub of warm water for me, and I needed no urging to get into it. The others were still there when I came out, a long time later.
By this time, I was able to give a more coherent account of what had happened. Willy agreed that it would have been better to have placed Sam in the forward rowing seat, but made no other comments. Sidonie sat there, looking much as usual, but continued to say nothing.
The next day, Sidonie was speaking normally, if somewhat abstractly, at breakfast. As usual, she then went off to work with Vignis on some projects that they had underway. I went down to the inlet to help Willy pump out his boat.
It was a bright warm day, the conditions of the night having entirely disappeared, and we worked leisurely. Taking turns, one held the stem of the pump, a tin drain pipe, while the other worked the plunger. I have always liked pumps, and I liked the sound of the thin stream burbling into the ocean. The boat rose only slowly, and it was an hour or more before we could stand on the seats without getting our feet wet.
During this time, Willy was expansive, much more than he ever had been before. He talked mainly of the time when the sixteen-year old Vignis had come to visit him at Harvard. Laughing, he said,
"My friends were all mad about her. I took her along to play football with us, and they could hardly keep their minds on the game."
"Did she show any interest in them?"
"Just in a friendly way. She and I are a little different, you know. We don't really join with other people, but we aren't lonely."
I was amused by Willy's casual assumption that he and Vignis, first cousins though they might be, were essentially alike. I couldn't easily imagine her with her bare posterior thrust out of an upstairs window. I also noted his use of the word, "join." Did he have in mind sexual union, or something more general? Did he even suppose that Vignis was still a virgin? But, then, it must have been obvious that Mac would have insisted on his conjugal rights. As if reading my thoughts, Willy added,
"Of course, Vignis married and I never did. But that sort of thing can be largely accidental. I remember her as a wild horse, the kind you see, just for a moment, on the side of a mountain. She still is, really."
I was impressed by his feeling for Vignis, but I wanted to know more. I replied,
"Wild horses are shy, aren't they? I wouldn't say that Vignis is shy."
Willy laughed as he intensified his pumping and said,
"Wild horses are shy, but also daring. They'll leap great chasms."
We spoke no more until the bilge was almost dry and the pump made obscene sucking noises. We continued to pump, each enjoying the noises in our own way. Finally, when we sat down to sponge out the remainder, Willy said,
"Too bad about that man, Hanks. Vignis and I were going to take him into the mountains."
I didn't then understand the significance of that remark, but we got the boat all cleaned and shined up before returning to the town.
When I got back to the house, Sidonie, Mac, and Vignis were there. Sidonie had perked up a bit, and I asked her if she would like to go rowing. It was, perhaps, not the most tactful suggestion. On the other hand, she had sometimes gone out with me on fine days, and had seemed to enjoy it. Even on this occasion, she got up willingly enough when Mac said,
"God no, Sidonie. Jimmy's already drowned one person. That's enough."
Sidonie sat down meekly, but Vignis flared up,
"That wasn't James' fault, Mac. It was Sam who panicked. I'll go out with you, James."
It was then early afternoon, and we set out, both rowing. Vignis was in the forward seat and I talked with her, looking back over my shoulder. At one point, she said,
"I was worried about you last night, but Willy said it'd be all right."
"He's taught me enough to manage under most conditions. But it wasn't all right, was it? Sidonie and Mac don't seem to think so."
"Well, they both liked Sam. At least, Sidonie did. Mac relied on him in some ways and found him convenient in others."
"You must not have liked him."
"Well, I did before we left America. At any rate, I would have been upset to see him drowned. But it was very bad to have dealings with Sam. He couldn't help it, I suppose, but people felt soiled afterwards."
It was such a funny word to use. Why would anyone feel soiled after dealings with someone else. And then, suddenly, I understood. I actually lost one oar overboard as I twisted and blurted out,
"Did Sam have dealings with Sidonie?"
Vignis looked surprised at my surprise. She said,
"But you must have known! They ran away together. I hardly tried to conceal it. I wrote you that I thought I could get her back to you."
It was, of course, the old story. Like thousands before me, I had denied something that would have been obvious to anyone. However, Vignis seemed puzzled anew. She said,
"But then, last night ........"
"No, I didn't kill him. At least, I didn't think I was killing him."
"You did very well, James."
As we went back to pick up the drifting oar, I said,
"Now I understand. Willy said that you and he were going to take Sam into the mountains. You'd eventually have gotten him stranded on some ledge where he'd have had to jump a chasm to save himself."
"I don't think Sam would have jumped successfully."
"By God, you can be diabilical! The old gray widow-maker may have been kind in comparison."
"Well, it's one thing to have an affair with another person's spouse. The affair ends, and the lover goes away. But Sam had no right to come back, particularly after you were here. He knew I didn't want him to, and he knew that Sidonie didn't, either. He sealed his own fate."
"I bet he didn't realize what measures you were prepared to take."
"Sam was a shallow man. He didn't realize that others had deeper feelings than his own."
As I fished the oar out of the water, I asked,
"What was it about all those Starvation games?"
Vignis looked quite uncomfortable and said only,
"It was silly and stupid."
Then, when I said nothing, she continued,
"It started on the ship. We played and enjoyed ourselves. I was trying to figure out how to deal with Sidonie and Sam, and I welcomed the games because they gave me a chance to watch them and think. When we got to Cherbourg, Sam stole the game as a lark, and we continued to play."
I nodded encouragingly over my shoulder, and Vignis went on,
"I think Sidonie and Sam got rather bored with each other after about a month, and they did all sorts of things to create excitement. Once, we were playing in one of those little public rooms at the Paris Ritz, only the four of us, and Sidonie auctioned off her blouse to pay a debt. I was amused, and I later took her skirt when she owed me money. Even when other people came into the room, she continued to play in her slip. She looked quite elegant even so, and I remember thinking it rather glamorous to be so free and uninhibited. I did nothing to stop her."
I had an odd mixture of feelings at this point, and they may have shown in my rowing. Vignis said,
"I wasn't going to tell you all this. I'm afraid it makes it worse for you."
"Not really. It sounds as if she was being childish and showing off. Did she ever end up naked in a public place?"
Just then, a whale blow a mile or so away, and we stopped rowing to watch its flukes as they rose out of the water. We never did pick up our previous conversation.
The next day, I took a row offshore alone in order to consider matters. I still hadn't read Kierkegaard, but, if Vignis' version of his philosophy was anywhere near right, he was right about me. I hardly understood what I did, much less why I did it, and least of all did I understand what sort of person I was. On the other hand, I hadn't done badly. Vignis and Willy obviously thought that I had done well.
I would probably not have done nearly so well if I had had any idea what I was doing. In fact, I had unreflectively taken everything Willy had taught me about rowboats and put it to good use. I decided, as I rested on my oars on top of a swell, that Kierkegaard, so right in one way, was just as wrong in another.
There is simply no need to understand oneself. Indeed, to even attempt such a ridiculous thing is a fundamental mistake. I pulled strongly at the oars, and, as the boat shot ahead, I felt entirely confirmed in my new position.
I rowed back with the zeal of the new convert. I would think about myself only to the extent of deciding what I wanted. I wouldn't agonize over those decisions, but would follow my inclinations. For the rest, I would put my talents to the prediction of future events in my environment and to the devising of schemes to get what I wanted.
What needed to be done was so obvious and simple that I was amazed that I hadn't hit on it sooner. There might be room for philosophy, but it must be a hard-headed and practical sort of philsophy.
As I passed the cliffs, I nodded pleasantly to them and thought about Sidonie. She had probably ended her affair with Sam Hanks under pressure from Vignis, and it was anyone's guess how she would have reacted if he had returned. She probably had no idea herself. She now assumed that I had killed Sam, and, even if she thought that I was justified, she was still very upset. On the other hand, she might take me more seriously in the future.
That much was fairly straight-forward. All I had to do was give Sidonie a chance to settle down, and it would probably never be necessary to mention Hanks at all. In my new mood, I was happy to sweep under the rug anything that looked as if it would stay there.
The tide was high, and I rowed straight in. To my surprise, Sidonie had been watching for me, and was waiting for me at the shore. She asked,
"Did you have a nice row?"
I assured her that it had been entirely satisfactory and kissed her vigorously when I alighted on the little float.
In the next few months, the signs of war in Europe overcame the very temporary relief of the Munich agreement and Mr. Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time" speech. Particularly disturbing was the occurrence of Kristallnacht on the night of November 9-10. So called because of all the broken glass on the pavement from the smashing of Jewish shop windows, it also involved the burning of almost every synagogue in Germany and Austria.
While no one was really trying very hard to protect the German Jews from Hitler, and there were many, even in Iceland, who didn't particularly want to protect them, that night of state-sponsored violence testified to the innate violence of Hitler himself. It was already hard to imagine that he would abide by the agreement he had just made at Munich.
The Icelandic papers and the ordinary people naturally began to wonder how they might fare if it did come to war. Europe was a long way away, but, still, everyone recognized the vast strategic importance of Iceland's geographical position, sitting, as she did, right on top of the supply route between Europe and America. Since Denmark was in no position to protect the country, it could quickly be occupied by whoever got there first. There was one piece in the Morgenbladid with the lead sentence,
"What if one power occupies us, and then a second, hostile, power invades us?"
With these issues flying around, Sidonie's political passions, dormant for some months, became newly inflamed. I recognized that it was, in part, her way of recovering from the matter of Sam Hanks. I therefore encouraged her.
For the independence minded, the cloud of war in Europe had a silver lining. Once it began, it would hardly be noticed if Iceland declared her independence, and, by the time the war ended, it would be too late to do anything about it. On the other hand, even the most ardent of Icelandic patriots recognized that larger issues were involved.
The policy that had the most appeal for the most people was one of traditional Scandinavian neutrality. It had worked very well in the last war, but one crucial circumstance had changed. Iceland had previously been outside the operational radius of German submarines, and thus lay in a "zone of peace." This time, it would be well within that radius. It was all very well to deplore war with high moral indignation, but that wouldn't be enough to stop the torpedoes.
Sidonie's lot, the local communists, were left at sea by the ambiguous position that the Soviet Union was taking, and thus took up all sorts of positions, sometimes changing them day by day. In any case, it made for impassioned debate in the little cafe (not one of Vignis') where they met. These lasted late, and Sidonie often didn't return until after midnight.
I recognized by this time that at least one of the young communists would become Sidonie's lover, and I managed to convey to her, without directly mentioning it, that she need not keep it secret. She, in turn, let it be known, again without direct mention, that her choice was a blonde young hulk known as "Big Olaf." When she later referred to him as "Big Oaf," I was pleased. I knew that she meant me to understand that he was to be used for sexual purposes only. Since the boy was a friend of Willy's, he probably wasn't actually stupid, but I knew that Sidonie would never speak slightingly of the intelligence of anyone she took seriously.
This arrangement was entirely satisfactory to me. Big Oaf would help Sidonie get over Sam Hanks, and she had far more sexual desire than I could satisfy on my own. In addition, I knew by this time that, whenever Sidonie had a lover, it sensitized her sexually. As a result, she made things particularly nice for me.
Olaf was himself a good choice from my point of view. He wasn't the sort of boy who snickered at cuckholding the old man. On the contrary, he was pleasant and open with me, even treating me with a measure of manly respect. His assumption seemed to be that, given the disparity between my age and Sidonie's, some sort of triad was in the nature of things. I agreed. It was.
I went so far as to say to Sidonie,
"You may call him 'Big Oaf', but I think he's probably rather intelligent."
"Yes. He's far from stupid, but he doesn't know much and he's not at all sophisticated."
Oddly enough, it was Mac who exploded when he found out about Olaf. He first attacked me verbally for not keeping track of my wife. He then attacked Olaf physically when he came up the street. Mac, over forty by this time, was still strong. However, Olaf was at least as strong, and was quicker and more agile. He simply ducked the blows Mac aimed at him, and then bear-hugged him until Mac desisted. Finally, having released Mac, Olaf asked courteously in his sing-song mixture of English and Icelandic whether anything was wrong. It was really rather funny to see Mac shake his head and stomp off huffily muttering aspersions on the intelligence of young men who didn't know enough to keep their dongs in their knickers.
It was the first time I had ever seen Mac discomfited. On the other hand, Vignis told me later that Mac had felt defeated even before leaving America.
"His development of the GER, followed by a very gallant gesture to the men, would have seemed a great success to anyone else. But it was a failure in his terms. Nothing that could happen here would even things up in his mind. He works hard and enthusiastically because it's in his nature to do so, but that doesn't imply that it has any meaning for him."
"Are you sure this isn't part of some other big plan?"
"Not so far as I know."
"I wondered because he seems to be as philosophical as ever. In the past, philosophy always seemed to set the goals for his other efforts."
"Well, of course, we don't communicate as much as we once did. He could have a grand design without my knowing about it. If it's connected with philosophy, Sidonie might know about it."
I was surprised to learn from Vignis that their marital relations had gone downhill since they had left America. She elaborated,
"Among other things, I was angry at him for accepting Sam and Sidonie as a couple. I did too, to a certain extent, but she knew, all along, that I wanted her to go back to you."
"If he didn't mind about Sam then, why is he so upset about Olaf now?"
Vignis has never lied to me, but, by the same token, she has often not told me all that she knows. Particularly now, in my rather shaky medical state, she won't go so far as to tell me that she's holding something back, but she doesn't pretend to be telling me everything. There is generally an awkward change of subject, and perhaps some obscure muttering. On this occasion, she said something about the "damned Starvation games." Her answer made no sense to me, but, knowing that she didn't want to inform me further, I let it drop.
In the meantime, we played more Starvation. I watched for signs of strain between Mac and Vignis, thinking that some underlying tensions might, at some point, have erupted in a row over a broken alliance in the game. There was, as far as I could see, nothing of the sort.
As the fall wore on, I concluded only that Vignis was disappointed that the honeymoon hadn't lasted forever. With Sidonie, whatever problems there might be, one could look forward to a long series of honeymoons.
At Christmas-time, when there was hardly any daylight at all, I caught a chest cold which didn't entirely immobilize me, but which caused me to cough in a rather alarming way. Vignis insisted that I consult with the vetenarian who served as the doctor, and who was popularly known as Hall the Wise.
In the old sagas people did have sobriquets such as "the wise," "the strong," or "the daring" attached to them in such a way that they virtually became part of their names. However, by this time, such designations often had an ironic twist.
Hall was certainly Buthir's most versatile citizen by a wide margin. Having trained as a vetenarian in Copenhagen, he then become an insurance agent, and travelled widely. Not content with either of those vocations, he finally returned to Iceland and become a blacksmith. Having settled in Buthir, he practiced all his trades, and, in his spare time, was the secretary of the local Communist Party cell.
It was second nature to Hall to claim to know everything about anything, and it was that tendency that had led to his sobriguet. While his fellow citizens recognized that Hall did know a lot, they also had a sliding scale for discounting his various pretensions. The popular feeling was that he was very good in treating animals, fairly good in treating people, an adequate blacksmith, and utterly unreliable in all other areas, particularly politics and insurance.
I was used to seeing Hall around town, and knew him slightly by that time. He had always reminded me of A. C. Glencannon, and not only because of his red hair. Like Glencannon, he was clever both with his brain and his hands, and, also like Glencannon, he had a certain roughness, perhaps even boorishness, of manner. I had originally supposed him to be drunk most of the time, but, when I asked Vignis, she replied,
"I know what you mean, but he's actually a militant teetotaler. He's probably a reformed alcoholic, and he may still have alcoholic mannerisms."
It was Hall's speech that was most disconcerting, whether he spoke Icelandic, English, or any of his other languages. Words exploded suddenly out of him as if he were cursing the persons around him. It was quite disconcerting, and it was only when he spoke English that I realized that he was only wishing me a good morning.
Hall lived and worked down by the harbor in a combination of shed and cabin. The wide door of the shed was always open, the forge providing more than enough heat, and one simply led a horse or other animal in to be shod, or to be treated for a disease. Since much of the blacksmithing involved horseshoes, that occupation did fit rather well with the veterinary business.
If one wished to consult Hall on a matter concerning insurance, one rang the bell on the door of the cabin. He would then put on a celluloid collar with a necktie attached and rush from the shed to answer the cabin door with a truly bizarre smile on his face.
Vignis led me in the door to Hall's emporium much as if I had been a reluctant pony, fearful of getting my shots. Hall moved away from his forge, wiped his hands on his leather apron, and came out to have a look at me in the light of the oil lantern hanging at the corner of the doorway.
After thumping me hard in various places, he took an old rusty stethoscope down from a nail on the wall. I opened my shirt and coughed appropriately. Hall gave me some more thumps and muttered. Then, without saying anything, he took up a large needle and syringe from a work bench. Fearing that I was about to be innoculated for hoof and mouth disease, I objected quietly to Vignis. She whispered back,
"He has his own remedies involving vitamins which work pretty well on both people and animals. He adjusts the dosages, and, after all, we're not that different."
As she spoke, Hall poured a little water on the forge and put the tip of the needle in it as it boiled up. I was thankful that he kept water for that purpose, and didn't spit or urinate on the forge.
When Hall came up behind me, I lowered my trousers and he yanked down my drawers. I was standing in the light, in full view of the darkened street, where there happened to be no passers-by. Vignis giggled as she whispered,
"I'd apologize for this, but I bet you like it."
It was quite a jolt when Hall plunged the needle into me with a technique that had surely been perfected with cows. However, as I slowly pulled myself together and paid Hall, he assured me that I would be feeling better in no time.