Valdemar Atterdag, by Selma Lagerlof

Invisible Links

The spring that Hellqvist's great picture "Valdemar Atterdag levies a Contribution on Visby" was exhibited at the Art League, I went in there one quiet morning not knowing that that work of art was there. The big, richly colored canvas with its many figures made at the first glance an extraordinary impression. I could not look at any other picture, but went straight to that one, took a chair and sank into silent contemplation. For half an hour I lived in the Middle Ages.

Soon I was within the scene that was passing in the Visby market-place. I saw the beer vats which began to be filled with the golden brew that King Valdemar had ordered, and the groups which gathered around them. I saw the rich merchant with his page bending under his gold and silver dishes; the young burgher who shakes his fist at the king; the monk with the sharp face who closely watches His Majesty; the ragged beggar who offers his copper; the woman who has sunk down beside one of the vats; the king on his throne; the soldiers who some swarming out of the narrow streets; the high gables, and the scattered groups of insolent guards and refractory people.

But suddenly I noticed that the chief figure of the picture is not the king, nor any of the burghers, but one of the king's steel-clad shield-bearers, the one with the closed vizor.

Into that figure the artist has put a strange force. There is not a hair of him to be seen; he is steel and iron, the whole man, and yet he gives the impression of being the rightful master of the situation.

"I am Violence; I am Rapacity," he says. "It is I who am levying contribution on Visby. I am not a human being; I am merely steel and iron. My pleasure is in suffering and evil. Let them go on and torture one another. To-day it is I who am lord of Visby."

"Look," he says to the beholder, "can you see that it is I who am master? As far as your eye can reach, there is nothing here but people who are torturing one another. Groaning the conquered come and leave their gold. They hate and threaten, but they obey. And the desires of the victors grow wilder the more gold they can extort. What are Denmark's king and his soldiers but my servants, at least for this one day? To-morrow they will go to church, or sit in peaceful mirth in their inns, or also perhaps be good fathers in their own homes, but to-day they serve me; to-day they are evil-doers and ravishers."

The longer one listens to him, the better one understands what the picture is; nothing but an illustration of the old story of how people can torture one another. There is not one redeeming feature, only cruel violence and defiant hate and hopeless suffering.

Those three beer vats were to be filled that Visby should not be plundered and burned. Why do they not come, those Hanseaters, with glowing enthusiasm? Why do the women not hasten with their jewels; the revellers with their cups, the priest with his relics, eager, burning with enthusiasm for the sacrifice? "For thee, for thee, our beloved town! It is needless to send soldiers for us when it concerns thee! Oh, Visby, our mother, our honor! Take back what thou hast given us!"

But the painter has not wished to see them so, and it was not so either. No enthusiasm, only constraint, only suppressed defiance, only bewailings. Gold is everything to them, women and men sigh over that gold which they have to give.

"Look at them!" says the power that stands on the steps of the throne. "It goes to their very hearts to offer it. May he who will feel sympathy for them! They are mean, avaricious, arrogant. They are no better than the covetous brigand whom I have sent against them."

A woman has sunk down on the ground by the vats. Does it cost her so much pain to give her gold? Or is she perhaps the guilty one? Is she the cause of the laments? Is it she who has betrayed the town? Yes, it is she who has been King Valdemar's mistress. It is Ung-Hanse's daughter.

She knows well that she need give no gold. Her father's house will not be plundered, but she has collected what she possesses and brings it. In the market-place she has been overcome by all the misery she has seen and has sunk down in infinite despair.

He had been active and merry, the young goldsmith's apprentice who served the year before in her father's house. It had been glorious to stroll at his side through this same market-place, when the moon rose from behind the gables and illumined the beauties of Visby. She had been proud of him, proud of her father, proud of her town. And now she is lying there, broken with grief. Innocent and yet guilty! He who is sitting cold and cruel on the throne and who has brought all this devastation on the town, is he the same as the one who whispered sweet words to her? Was it to meet him that she crept, when the night before she stole her father's keys and opened the town-gate? And when she found her goldsmith's apprentice a knight with sword in hand and a steel clad host behind him, what did she think? Did she go mad at the sight of that stream of steel surging in through the gate which she had opened? Too late to bemoan, maiden! Why did you love the enemy of your town? Visby is fallen, its glory shall pass away. Why did you not throw yourself down before the gate and let the steel-shod heels trample you to death? Did you wish to live in order to see heaven's thunder-bolts strike the transgressor?

Oh maiden, at his side stands Violence and protects him. He has violated holier things than a trusting maiden. He does not even spare God's own temple. He breaks away the shining carbuncles from the church walls to fill the last vat.

The bearing of all the figures in the picture changes. Blind terror fills everything living. The wildest soldier grows pale; the burghers turn their eyes towards heaven; all await God's punishment; all tremble except Violence on the steps of the throne and the king who is his servant.

I wish that the artist had lived long enough to take me down to the harbor of Visby and let me see those same burghers, when they followed the departing fleet with their eyes. They cry curses out over the waves. "Destroy them!" they cry. "Destroy them! Oh sea, our friend, take back our treasures! Open thy choking depths under the ungodly, under the faithless!"

And the sea murmurs a faint assent, and Violence, who stands on the royal ship, nods approvingly. "That is right," he says. "To persecute and to be persecuted, that is my law. May storm and sea destroy the pirate fleet and take to itself the treasures of my royal servant! So much the sooner it will be our lot to set out on new devastating expeditions."

The burghers on the shore turn and look up at their town. Fire has raged there; plunder has passed through it; behind broken panes gape pillaged dwellings. They see emptied streets, desecrated churches; bloody corpses are lying in the narrow courts, and women crazed by fright flee through the town. Shall they stand impotent before such things? Is there no one whom their vengeance can reach, no one whom they in their turn can torture and destroy?

God in Heaven, see! The goldsmith's house is not plundered nor burned. What does it mean? Was he in league with the enemy? Had he not the key to one of the town gates in his keeping? Oh, you daughter of Ung-Hanse, answer, what does it mean?

Far away on the royal ship Violence stands and watches his royal servant, smiling behind his vizor. "Listen to the storm, Sire, listen to the storm! The gold that you have ravished will soon lie on the bottom of the sea, inaccessible to you. And look back at Visby, my noble lord! The woman whom you deceived is being led between the clergy and the soldiers to the town-wall. Can you hear the crowd following her, cursing, insulting? Look, the masons come with mortar and trowel! Look, the women come with stones! They are all bringing stones, all, all!

Oh king, if you cannot see what is passing in Visby, may you yet hear and know what is happening there. You are not of steel and iron, like Violence at your side. When the gloomy days of old age come, and you live under the shadow of death, the image of Ung-Hanse's daughter will rise in your memory.

You shall see her pale as death sink under the contempt and scorn of her people. You shall see her dragged along between the priests and the soldiers to the ringing of bells and the singing of hymns. She is already dead in the eyes of the people. She feels herself dead in her heart, killed by what she has loved. You shall see her mount in the tower, see how the stones are inserted, hear the scraping of the trowels and hear the people who hurry forward with their stones. "Oh mason, take mine, take mine! Use my stone for the work of vengeance! Let my stone help to shut Ung-Hanse's daughter in from light and air! Visby is fallen, the glorious Visby! God bless your hands, oh masons! Let me help to complete the vengeance!"

Hymns sound and bells ring as for a burial.

Oh Valdemar, King of Denmark, it will be your fate to meet death also. Then you will lie on your bed, hear and see much and suffer great pains. You shall hear that scraping of the trowels, those cries for vengeance. Where are the consecrated bells that drown the martyrdom of the soul? Where are they, with their wide, bronze throats, whose tongues cry out to God for grace for you? Where is that air trembling with harmony, which bears the soul up to God's space?

Oh help Esrom, help Sor? and you big bells of Lund!

***

What a .gloomy story that picture told! It seemed curious and strange to come out into the park, in glowing sunshine, among living human beings.