A new saga of old Iceland— the story of Dabbi, the heroic, and the price he paid for peace
J. H. GISLASON
IT WAS the first murder case in Iceland in more than a decade. That, however, did not account as much for the intense interest and excitement it caused as the fact that David Gudbrandsson—“Dabbi,” as he was known by all who, in the least, were familiar with the fishing industry in Iceland—voluntarily surrendered himself to the police as the murderer.
His confession came like a thunderclap to those who were investigating the case, at a time when a warrant was about to be issued for the arrest of one Eyvind Grimson, on whom strong suspicion had fallen. As a matter of fact, all the clues the authorities had unearthed seemed to point definitely to him, particularly since the motive for the murder had evidently been robbery.
Another strange feature of this strange case was that Eyvind Grimson was the only man that Dabbi was known to hate.
This hatred dated back more than a generation. As young men, both had taken to the sea. They worked for the same man and were paired on a small two-man sailboat. It was in the days before the steam trawler or the motor boat. It was when iron muscles and keen minds braved the elements in open boats that would now be classed as “death traps.” Dabbi had already gained a reputation for being lucky at sea.
It was about the close of the season. All the fishermen had set out in bright weather one morning. Toward noon it began to cloud and blow from the northeast. By midafternoon a thundering whirlwind razed down from the mountains. The storm-lashed sea rose and fell in white, foaming, terrific billows ready to swallow, in a cold gust, the tiny fisherboats tossed about in the hurricane like some gruesome toys of angry gods.
No landlubber will ever know the meaning of such a storm.
Dabbi was lucky, as usual. Exhausted, drenched to the skin, their hardened hands blistered from superhuman effort in rowing their little boat against wind and wave, he and Eyvind were the first to moor their craft in the sandy inlet, sheltered by high ridges of giant cliffs extending about 200 feet out into the sea on two sides. This sandy beach was only about 400 feet wide, a haven of safety, once reached. But God help those who battered their boats against the cold, bleak, giant cliffs.
rT'HEY had no sooner made a safe landing and, with what seemed their last spark of energy, moored their craft, when Dabbi, peering out to sea, discovered in the semidarkness that was rapidly creeping over the weatherbattered coast another sailboat, unable to make the inlet, struggling against the rocky ridges of the disastrous cliffs.
Womenfolk and children were gathering on the seashore, crying in their helplessness, waving faint lanterns in the forlorn hope that the light might guide a loved one to safety.
“Come, Eyvind,” Dabbi called to his comrade. “We go to their rescue.”
“The devil take it!” Eyvind spat out. “I’ll not risk my life in this ungodly weather.” Saying that, he strode up the sandy beach.
“You rag of a coward,” Dabbi yelled. “You will live to rue a long, worthless, trying life. Mind, Eyvind. this is a seaman’s curse!” That said, Dabbi put his mighty shoulders to the prow of the boat, and with a powerful thrust jerked it out of its mooring and into the sea.
It was at that moment, when it was too late for anyone to interfere, that I jumped into the boat. I was two months short of fourteen years, and my father was one of the fishermen that had not yet landed.
“Lad,” Dabbi mumbled, visibly annoyed, and yet in his deep, kindly, blue eyes I thought I detected a flash of admiration. “Push on my hands as I row to give my strokes a greater force.”
Another word was not spoken.
With Dabbi’s miraculous luck, I don’t know how, we reached what was left of the battered boat and saved two out of four men. The other two had clung to the forepart, and while Dabbi pulled in the first two, the boat split in the centre and the storm and sea washed them in the flash of a second beyond Dabbi’s long, strong arms and into the gloom of a ghostly night.
Dabbi, from that day on, insisted that if Eyvind had come along all four would have been rescued. And his hatred knew no bounds. There was nothing of the coward in Dabbi’s make-up, and he despised cowardice more than all other human vices. Eyvind, to Dabbi’s mind, became a symbol of all that a man should not lx*.
My own love for, and undying gratitude to, Dabbi may be excused, since one of the two men he saved that grim, gruesome night was my father.
T^ABBI’S curse, it seemed, followed Eyvind Grimson throughout his life like a vengeful ghost. Everything Grimson touched ended in disaster. As a fisherman, he was an utter failure. Even though everybody around him brought home at night an abundant catch, Eyvind’s nets were empty.
He married early, and that a fine peasant girl, but all their eight children were deformed in some way. They lived in extreme poverty in a small turf-covered hut down by the seashore, in the west end of Reykjavik. Their dilapidated home was one of those rapidly vanishing reminders of the cowed spirit and national poverty, the bitter result of past commercial monopoly and foreign domination.
After twenty-two years of married drudgery, Eyvind’s wife fell ill and died.
But Eyvind boldly wooed and shortly afterward married a young widow—Gudda, the gossip, she was called—short and stout and strong of body, but shallow of mind and noted for her violence of temper. Gudda owned a small piece of land stretching down to the sea just east of the town. She owned two cows, a few sheep and a number of chickens.
This was a windfall for Eyvind. Like most mortal blessings, it was of short duration. He soon raised another crop of sickly, defective children. And Gudda, the gossip, nagged at him morning, noon and night. She was not shy with her demands; and there was no rest for Eyvind Grimson
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under the roof of his wife’s house if he failed to bring home all that she craved. It was about this time that he became noted for petty thievery.
What probably worried Eyvind the most in secret were his neighbors.
Through one of these little ironies of life. Dabbi, some year before, had chosen to build himself a small stone house, cemented on the outside with glittering sea shells and fine, small, shiny pebbles, out on a grasscovered ridge jutting into the harbor; where the view was grand, and the splash of the sea woke him up like sweet music in the early hours of the morning, and lulled him to sleep in the twilight.
Dabbi’s property bordered on that of the widow.
Eyvind’s other neighbor was Niels Hanson, a rich merchant who farmed on a small scale for the good of his health; a thin, neurotic man, but proud and haughty and particular about his surroundings. Niels Hanson looked upon Eyvind as one of those small, nasty creatures which the Creator in a wrathful mood inflicted ujx>n sinful humanity. Hisopen scorn pierced through Eyvind’s toughened hide.
Still, of the two, Eyvind disliked and feared Dabbi the more. And Dabbi’s animosity flared up like a volcanic eruption at the sight of Eyvind.
Dabbi had prospered. He had never married. His phenomenal luck at sea became a byword all over Iceland. As he aged he became a legendary figure; something like the saga heroes of old. No sea yam Was complete without injecting some of Dabbi’s miraculous escapes into it.
Dabbi had been through all the fatal storms of more than forty years. He had braved the elements in their most treacherous humor. His comrades lost their grip. Splash! and they were gone, but Dabbi somehow survived, washed ujxm a friendly shore. He lived, others perished, until he became known as the man who could not die.
OTILL Dabbi was not happy. There was ^ something weighing on his mind. Probably being superstitious, like most fishermen, he felt something uncanny about his luck.
This I noticed most clearly after his last spectacular escape out of the sea’s grim clutches.
I was practising law in Reykjavik.
One bright, clear March morning, with a fierce northeast wind whining and whistling in the air, I was attracted by crowds of excited |x*ople and wailing women flocking down to the sea.
I soon discovered the cause.
Out there, between Engey and the uninhabited j>art of Vithey, there was a sailing schooner trying to make the harbor. Something had evidently gone wrong with the rudder. One of these terrific dramas of the sea was being staged in broad daylight in the clear view of thousands of helpless, awed and sympathetic sjx?ctators.
With fatal suddenness the little schooner drifted mercilessly against the hidden ribs of rocks, buried in the water, which stretched out from the end of the island several hundred feet into the roaring sea.
For an hour the uneven battle raged. For an hour the fierce uncertainty—the nervewrecking suspense. One could see the men clinging to the masts. One even imagined he could hear their heartrending cries for help, pathetic pleadings, which the cyclonic storm, the hidden nx'ks and the raging surf made utterly impossible. It was an hour as long as eternity. Bit by bit the schooner was tom asunder, smashed, broken and crushed to a thousand pieces. One by one, the unfortunate fishermen lost their hold and disappeared. All about me women ran along the sea-splashed shore, tearing their hair, crying aloud. They were the mothers, wives and sisters of the poor sailors who were fighting their last, losing battle. But, like those of the men, their prayers and pleadings were hushed up by the hissing, moaning and gnashing gale.
Suddenly, by one of Nature’s freakish twists, the storm subsided, as if its work were well completed, and a dead calm settled on sea and land. Every available craft, from large steamers to small rowboats, was sent to attempt rescue. But, with equal suddenness, a thick, black fog descended on the harbor; and by night the only living survivor of the wrecked schooner was Dabbi.
THIS last experience seemed definitely to fix in his mind the idea that he was some peculiar prey of destiny; that it was preordained by fate that he should accomplish some unknown, exceptional deed before he could die like other mortal men.
This thought grew on him. He brooded over it day and night, and became moody and melancholy.
What to others appeared to be exceptionally gocxl luck, to Dabbi assumed the aspects of some strange curse; at least a divine token of a Gordian knot which it was his duty to untie.
His thoughts became disturbed, fantastic. Wind and wave developed into personification of the spirit power that enveloped him. I íe heard strange voices, saw strange visions.
Dabbi, true to a seaman’s tradition, was a drinking man. And the more he delved into the mystery of this occult significance of his being, the more he drank.
Once in a while I took a few glasses of brandy with him.
We were having one of these friendly drinks when lie grasjied my arm and, leaning over the table, said;
“Lad”—he always addressed me that way, although I had two sons already attending the university—“I would give you every farthing I own if you could tell me tonight what I must do to round out my days.”
“Dabbi,” I replied solemnly, “just remain your noble self, forget all about the mysteries of life, and be happy.”
"I-ad,” he whisjiered hoarsely and pulled his hands back, “don’t mock an old man. My wings are clipped. My seafaring days are over. What business has an old fogey, doubling up with rheumatism, out to sea? As a landlubber 1 cannot be happy.”
It was very true. Looking at Dabbi in the light of his words, the truth of what he said could not be doubted. 'The thinning crop of his day-colored hair, the wrinkled forehead, the melancholy despair in his deep, keen eyes, sunken in their hollows, the large, sinewy hands becoming shaky, the once strong, erect body bent and stooping -all bore witness to his tragedy. Dabbi could not go to sea much more.
“And this phantom thing,” he continued slowly, absently; “this whispering of the sea, the oracle of the storm this voice of mystery that speaks to my soul, that will not let me rest. That will not give me peace, that keeps a tortured body together for some fateful purpose, some fatal deed—” He seemed to be speaking mom to himself than to me.
Dabbi was growing introspective. In the distant look of his grey-blue eyes 1 could see that he was searching deep in the dusty chambers of his past life for something. Perhaps some terrible wrong, an unpardonable sin; some crime, some awful error committed in heat or passion, in drunken brawl or perhaps in childish ignorance, for which he would have to atone before he could die, at peace with man and God, like other mortals.
' i 'HAT was how matters stood when on a -*■ cold, dreary December night Niels Hanson was murdered.
Somebody, it seems, had been systematically stealing provisions from Niels Hanson, who lived as behooved a wealthy man. In the fall of the year he stocked up with smoked mutton, dried fish, pickled whale, pickled meat, smoked salmon and other delicacies. These things the thief stole with such regularity that almost every second morning something was missing. Finally Niels Hanson decided to stay on guard and
watch over his possessions. It was assumed that he had caught the thief; that probably he had intended to take the law into his own hands and punish the scoundrel as he saw fit. A fight must have ensued. In the struggle Niels Hanson had been badly beaten and finally, with a terrific blow, knocked down very forcibly. In the fall his head had crashed against a mighty rock near his outhouse, where he was found dead by his servants.
The police had not worked on the case for twenty-four hours when they decided that, out of Reykjavik’s population of 12,000, only one man was capable of having committed the crime. That man was Eyvind Grimson.
They claimed to have indisputable evidence.
Imagine, therefore, my own and everybody’s astonishment when, on the afternoon of the second day following the murder, Dabbi, sober as a juryman, walked into the jail warden’s office, his weatherbeaten face ghostly pale, his proud head hanging low, his strong lips quivering.
“Better lock me up. I killed Niels Hanson.” His voice was dim, hoarse and shaky.
“This is no joking matter, Dabbi,” Sigurthur, the old warden, said. “No joking matter,” repeating himself, as was his habit.
“Am I likely to trifle with such serious affair? Am I likely to play lightly with my honor, my reputation, the esteem of lifelong friends, or make death the subject of a joke?’ Dabbi had retorted fiercely. Then he had confessed. His story was terse, blunt and brief.
I Ie had been drinking like a fiend. On the night of the murder he had taken a short-cut home across Niels Hanson’s property. Niels had suddenly jumped on him, purjx>sely or mistakenly, with abuse, with accusations of theft, even physical violence. Dabbi had been in no humor to take such things from a neurotic landlubber. They had started to fight. The rest was known to all. And Dabbi bowed his aged head in shame.
Extra papers broadcast the story immediately.
It was grudgingly, and with more general sympathy for Dabbi than for Niels Hanson, that the public finally accepted his story.
It seemed so ridiculous that Dabbi, who oftener than any living man had risked his life to save others, should have killed this miserly merchant, that some refused to believe it. It seemed a cruel irony of life that he, a hero of more heroic deeds than any dozen other brave men of the sea could boast of, should in the very autumn of his life stand stripped of his glory, accused of a cowardly murder.
This sentiment I undoubtedly had to thank for being able to have the charge finally changed from deliberate murder to accidental manslaughter.
T VISITED Dabbi frequently in the peni-
tentiary. His spirit was broken, his pride severely hurt. He stuck to his story. But there was no evidence of a secret, lurking fear of guilt in his clear, old eyes; there were no signs of a troubled conscience, no shadows of a great crime in his brave but wearied countenance.
“Lad,” he would often say to me, “our life is like the crooked path of a mountain road. One bend leads but to another. A misstep and one is lost.”
“Still, Dabbi, we are all in large measure the makers of our own destiny,” I ventured.
“Not at all, not at all.” He smiled tolerantly as if the egotism of what I liad said could be excused in a man who was not older than I was. “Our color, our inclinations depend on the accident of birth. We choose our friends, occupation, religion, our very language, through accident of environment. From beginning to end we are nothing but the mystic pawns of the mystic power that makes the sun rise and the waves roll. Every act serves a mystic purpose. We suffer, we enjoy like actors in a play. The
oracle of the storm, the voice of the sea, the unreal phantoms we can’t understand are as real as the bones in our body.”
“Lad, forget an old man’s twaddle. I’m getting to be like a landlubber, soft and self-pitying. God forbid!”
But to me that laughter was even more pitiful than his tears. I understood clearly how he suffered; how the prison walls must have pricked his proud spirit. But there was nothing that could be done. His own confession condemned him.
SUMMER had come with song and flowers. The green pastures were littered with golden dandelions, bluebells and buttercups. In the deep valleys and upon the hillsides youth made love and picked blueberries. In the mellow twilight of the midnight sun, silver-throated swans sang on crystal clear waters. The sea, calm and smooth, reflected like a mirror the rockbound coast; and the dim, dark-blue mountains towered high against a heaven made alive with dancing, colorful Northern lights.
I was enjoying the grandeur of the North in all its glory when I was suddenly summoned to the hospital. Eyvind Grimson had met with an accident. He had been assisting in unloading a coal barge, been caught in the hoist some way and thrown down into the hold and fatally injured. He wanted urgently to see me.
When I got to his bedside he beckoned me to sit down.
“It is about the—the—murder.” His voice was weak, and he had some difficulty in speaking. “That winter I was hard up. Always hard up. The widow”—Eyvind invariably referred to his second wife as the widow—“clamored for smoked mutton and the things Niels Hanson stored away in his outhouse. I stole all I could for her and the children to eat. Until that night. It was a ghostly night.” A quiver seemed to run through Eyvind’s body at the recollection. “Niels caught me in the act. We—we
started to fight. I hit him. He—he tumbled.
I didn’t intend to kill. It was my luck— hellish luck always.”
For a moment Eyvind rested, his bloodshot eyes closed.
“The following day,” he added after a while, “I was crouching down by the sea, expecting every moment to be arrested. Dabbi unexpectedly caught up to me, grabbed me by the shoulder. ‘You coward,’ he blurted out, ‘you killed Niels Hanson, I know it.’ I didn’t dare to speak. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t help it,’ Dabbi added quickly. ‘I cursed you, and that curse has followed you like your very shadow. Maybe it has ruined you. And now, Eyvind, as much as I hate it, I must make my peace with you. Here.’ As he spoke he thrust a purse full of money into my hands. I was beginning to think Dabbi had gone crazy. Still, I did not dare to speak. He was in an ugly mood. ‘Take this and make something out of your wretched life. And if, by chance, my curse should be the cause of your sin, I shall take out the punishment! Saying that, Dabbi left me. Walked away like some ghost of a giant. In my own heart I felt positive he was raving mad, particularly when I heard about his subsequent action. But ever since that fatal night my life has been a scorching hell. Imagine the glare of a dead man’s eyes. I see it now—always. It is hideous! God, I am glad to die . . . ”
AS SOON as I had the confessional papers 2*completed, I rushed to the prison. I wanted to be the first to bring Dabbi, that extraordinary man, the news. I wanted to be the first to clasp his strong, sinewy hands. I wanted to rejoice, and even, if need be, weep with him. I loved him again as childishly, as sincerely as I had done on that grim, gruesome night when he had braved the storm and the sea to save my father’s life. With all my hurry, I was too late.
Dabbi had died suddenly, just an-hour before I reached the warden’s office.