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"Why, 'twas a swindle," answered Mr. Briggs. "So it was, pretty con-siderable, I reckon." "Padre!" said Mr. Briggs to me, — he called me Padre because I wore a warm Franciscan cloak and hood, which he himself had lent me, as I had not brought sufficient warm things with me, whilst he was overstocked. "Padre! you have promised us a story from some of the musty old Icelandic Sagas; you had better tell us one now, as there is nothing to see and nothing to do."
"I shall be glad to comply with your request," I answered, "as I wish much to introduce you to my hero Grettir, and it is necessary that you should know something about him before visiting the scenes of his great deeds."
"Tell us first where do you find any records of him?" "In the Gretla, a Saga composed, or rather, I should say, committed to writing, in the thirteenth century."
One morning after a night of storm on the coast of Norway, the servants ran into the hall of a wealthy bonder, named Thorfm, to inform him that, during the night, a ship had been wrecked off the coast, and that the crew and passengers were congregated on a neighbouring sandy holm, signalling for help. Up started the bonder, and hastened to the strand; he ran out a large punt from his boat-house, and jumping in with his thralls, rowed lustily to the rescue. The shipwrecked people belonged to a merchant vessel from Iceland, which had been driven among the breakers, during the darkness, and had gone to pieces; yet not before a portion of the lading had been brought ashore.
Among the shivering beings gathered on the sand strip was Grettir, the son of an Icelandic chief who lived at Bjarg in the middle-frith; he was then a young man, tall and muscular, with large blue eyes, bushy hair, and a freckled face.
Thorfin received the half-frozen wretches on board his boat and rowed them to the mainland, after which, he returned to the holm, and brought off the wares. In the meantime, the good housewife had been lighting fires, preparing beds, routing out dry suits, and making hot ale, ready for the sufferers; and, right kindly they were treated, you may be sure.
* Gretla, chaps. 17 — 20.
Well, the chapmen stayed a week at the farm, whilst their goods were being dried, and till the women of the party were sufficiently recovered from cold and exposure to continue their journey to Drontheim, whither the whole party were bound: after which they left Thorfin, with many thanks for his courtesy and kindness. Grettir, however, remained, not at the request of the bonder, who did not much like him, but to suit his own convenience. Indeed, he stayed somewhat longer than Thorfin cared to keep him, considering what a fellow Grettir was, never joining in conversation, unwilling to lend a helping hand in any work, a great stay-at-home, crouching over the fire all day, and withal eating voraciously. Thorfin was much out of doors, and, as he was a sociable man, he often requested Grettir to accompany him, either into the forest, or about his farm, but could get no further answer than an impatient shake of the head and a grunt. Now the bonder was a fellow with a right merry heart and a kind one, and one too that loved seeing all around cheerful. With such a disposition, it is no wonder that the morose and indolent Grettir found no favour.
Yule drew nigh, and Thorfin busked him to depart, with a number of his freedmen, to keep high festival at one of his farms, distant a good day's journey. His wife was unable to accompany him, as the eldest daughter was ill, and wanted careful nursing; and Grettir was not invited, as his sullenness would have acted as a damper to the joviality of the banquet.
The farmer started for his farm in Slysfjord some days before Yule, accompanied by his thirty freedmen, expecting to meet a goodly throng of guests, whom he had invited from all quarters.
Norway had for some time been in a disordered condition, from the mischief caused by numerous Berserkirs and Corsairs who roved over the country, challenging bonders to mortal combat, for their homes, their wives and families. If a bonder declined to fight, as the law stood, his all was forfeited to the challenger; and if he fought and was worsted, he lost his life as well. With the advice of Thorfin, Earl Erik Hakon's son put down these holm-bouts, and outlawed those whose custom it had been to make a business of them, going round the country and riding rough-shod over the peaceful bonders.
Among the worst of these, were two brothers, well known for their wickedness, Thorir wi' the Paunch, and Bad Ogmund. They were said to be stronger built than most, and to care for no man under the sun. They robbed wherever they went, burned farms over the heads of the sleeping inmates, and with the points of their spears drove the shrieking wretches back into the flames. When these pirates wrought themselves up into their Berserkir rages, they howled like wolves, foamed at the mouth, their strength was increased to that of Trolls," and they rushed about, demon-possessed, murdering and destroying every living being that came in their way. Thorfin had been the prime instigator of their outlawry through the length and breadth of Norway; and, as may well be conjectured, the brothers bore him no good-will, and only waited for an opportunity of wreaking their vengeance upon him.
The eve of Yule was bright and sunny, and the sick girl was so far recovered as to walk out and take the air, leaning on her mother's arm.
Grettir spent the whole day out of doors, in none of the sweetest of tempers, at being excluded from the festivities of the season, and left to keep house with the women and eight dunderheaded churls. He fed his discontent by sitting on a headland watching the boats glide past, as parties went to convivial gatherings at the houses of their friends. The deep blue sea was speckled with white sails, as though countless gulls were playing on the waters. Now a stately dragon-ship •
* Trolls are mountain gnomes or demons, generally of prodigious size and power.
rolled past, her fearful carved head glittering with gold and colour, her sails spread like wings before the breeze, and her banks of oars flashing in the sun, then dipping into the sea: now a wherry rowed by, laden with cakes and ale, and the boatmen's song rang merrily through the crisp air.
The day began to draw in, but still the red sparks from little vessels, fleeting by in the dusk, showed that all guests had not yet reached their destination.
Grettir was on the point of returning to the farm, when the strange proceedings of a craft, at no great distance, attracted his attention. He noticed that she stole along in the shadows of the islets, and darted with velocity across the open-water straits between them; she hugged the shore wherever she could, moved in a zigzag course, and suddenly came flying with quick oar-sweeps towards the bay which Grettir was overlooking. In the twilight, he could make out thus much of her, that she floated low in the water, that she was built for speed, and that her sides were hung with shields. As she stranded, the rowers jumped on the beach. Grettir counted them, and found that they were twelve, armed men, too! They broke into Thorfin's boat-house and dragged forth his great punt, in which thirty men were wont to sit, pushed it out into deep water, and drew their own boat under cover, and pulled her up on the rollers.
Mischief was a-brewing—that was plain as a pikestaff! So Grettir descended the hill, and sauntered up to the band, with his hands in his pockets, kicking the pebbles before him and humming a tune with the utmost nonchalance. "May I ask who is the leader of this party?" quoth he.
"Ah! ah! I'm the man," responded as ill-looking a fellow as nature could well turn out of her laboratory; "why, I am! Thorir wi' the Paunch, and here's my brother Ogmund with all his rascals. I reckon the Bonder Thorfin knows our names. Don't you think so, brother? And we have a little account to settle with him. Pray is he at home?"
"Upon my word, you are lucky fellows," spoke Grettir; "coming here in the very nick of time, if you are the men I take you for. The bonder is from home, with all his freedmen, and won't be back till after Yule; his wife and daughter, however, are at the farm. Now's your time, if you have old scores to wipe off; for there is everything you can possibly want at the house: silver, good clothes, ale, and provisions in the greatest profusion."
Thorir held his tongue whilst Grettir talked; afterwards he turned to his brother Ogmund and said: "This is just what I expected, is it not? Now we can serve Thorfin out in thorough earnest, for having made us outlaws. What a chatterbox this fellow is! There's no need of pumping to get anything one wants to know out of him."
"Every man is master of his own tongue," retorted Grettir. "Now come along with me, and I will do the best I can for you."
The rovers thanked him, and accepted the invitation; so Grettir, taking Thorir by the hand, led him towards the farm, talking the whole way as hard as his tongue could wag. The housewife happened at the moment to be in the hall, putting up the hangings, and preparing for the Yule banquet; and hearing Grettir speaking with such volubility, she stood still in astonishment, and asked whom he was greeting so cordially.
"It is quite the correct thing to receive guests well, is it not, mother ?" asked Grettir; " and here are Thorir o' the Paunch, Bad Ogmund, and ten others, who have kindly come to join us in our Yule carousal, which is delightful, for without them our party would have been wofully scanty."
"Oh, Grettir! what have you done!" cried the poor woman. "You have brought hither the greatest ruffians in Norway. I would have given anything that they had never come. This is the way in which you return the good Thorfin has done you, in rescuing you from shipwreck, in taking you into his house and caring for you through the winter, as though you were one of his freedmen; and when you had not a farthing in your pocket to bless yourself withal!"