One Spring near the Close of the Century - The Reykjavik Grapevine

One Spring near the Close of the Century

One Spring near the Close of the Century

Published August 26, 2006

It was spring when the baron arrived in Iceland. Spring in the air and spring on the way for the nation. And we welcomed him. Although we never knew, in fact, who he was. Nor do we know even now. One day he was just there, all of a sudden, like the migrating birds. No one expected he would stay any longer than the birds did, at the most until autumn came. In that respect he was not so very different from those foreign travellers who made their way to Iceland ever more frequently. Most of them queer ducks, with unusual avocations. Perhaps he was one of those who were apparently tired of always heading south. But the difference between this fellow and most of the others was obvious in his much more aristocratic and clearly noble bearing, a rare enough sight in the colourless local scene. It was evident right from that day in late April 1898, when he and his kinsman set out to pick their way gingerly along the morass of Reykjavík’s streets. The man in fact was scarcely of this world. At least not of the world as manifest at that time in the reality of Reykjavík, capital of Iceland. His kinsman was somehow much closer to what could be called a mortal being. So the otherworldly quality was probably not a family trait.
But who was he and what did he want? There were some people who claimed at first that the man had something to do with the merchant Björn Kristjánsson. He had been rowed ashore from the Laura with Björn, in the merchant’s boat, and landed at the iron jetty down by his store, at the near end of the street Vesturgata. But it was apparently only a coincidence that they had travelled aboard the same vessel to Iceland, and made the acquaintance of one another en route. With the result that Björn helped him out with a few things to start with, and later on as well, in fact. He had not known him previously.
Only three days after they came ashore, for example, Björn advertised in the weekly Þjóðólfur for two good riding horses, available for purchase “at a fair price”. When horse-owners began to put in an appearance, eager to sell their mounts, word soon got around that they were intended for this fellow. This increased the supply even more. It seemed clear to everyone that the foreigner intended to stay longer than just a month, since he was not satisfied with merely renting the horses. They found it rather unusual that he should inspect the horses and try them out himself. With Björn’s assistance as interpreter, he asked about the animals’ flaws and good points, apparently with a fair degree of knowledge, although some of the questions referred to things people had never heard mentioned before where horses were concerned. He spoke German to Björn. The foreigner also knew how to ride, and had soon chosen the two best horses, a white and a light dun. He paid for both mounts in cash, without dickering over the price asked, and the horse mongers sorely regretted afterwards that they had not ventured even higher. They said they were certain that the man would have agreed to whatever sum was asked.
-And where is he going to find pasture for them? He hasn’t given a thought to that, of course. Does he think maybe that horses can live on air, or can go snatching a few bites here and there around town?
Nobody could answer this and it gave rise to long discussions.
– Who does this man think he is, anyway?
– Well, it seems he’s no more or less than a baron.
The word spread at astonishing speed and caused no small stir, although it naturally did not settle the question of pasture. He had apparently signed under this title in Hotel Reykjavík’s guest book. No one saw any reason to challenge this, as the man himself bore all the signs of being some sort of nobleman. And it was also written on his steamer trunks, said those who had seen it. No one denied that. If anything, there was suspicion that he was of even higher rank; on the trunks there was actually a coat of arms with a crown.
This only created even more astonishment when it became common knowledge in Reykjavík that he claimed he was determined to settle here. And when people also learned, not least as a result of his horse dealings, that he was someone used to an expensive lifestyle and clearly very wealthy, their interest was stirred even more. What could there be in Iceland that had caught his attention? Had the time actually come for the country’s luck to turn, and for something to happen? Well-off citizens and aspiring businessmen were quick to show an interest, and seek to get to know him better, but this was no easy task. He did not reply to greetings made in passing and when addressed, he acted as if he could not understand a word of whatever language they attempted to use.
What drove a man like this up here, with his pockets full of money? Couldn’t he just as easily be a hardened criminal? Why didn’t he say a word to anyone? Wasn’t that a sure sign that he had something to hide?
But if this caused tongues to wag and became the subject of speculation, it was nothing compared to the astonishment which gripped the town only a short while later. Most people could not believe their ears when news spread like wildfire about the capital, and all of the western districts around Borgarfjörður, late in May 1898, that this regal nobleman intended to become a farmer in the Icelandic countryside. He had purchased one of the farms in the wide-reaching uplands of the Borgarfjörður region, Hvítárvellir, in the district Andakíll, for a princely sum. It would be the Baron’s seat. In the inland valleys and coastal flats the response was the same: even when the news had been repeated more than once, people hardly dared to tell the story to the next person they met.
The price paid was reportedly no more and no less than thirty-six thousand crowns. It was unheard of, naturally, even allowing for the two other farms Heggstaðir and Fossatún, which were included in the price.
People simply could not believe the news, although it had long been common knowledge that the owner of the farm Hvítárvellir, Andrés Fjeldsted, wanted to sell the property, since it was clear none of his sons wished to take over the farm. And everyone knew, too, that such a fine piece of land would hardly sell for a song. But a good price was one thing and thirty-six thousand krónur another. It was six times the annual salary of the country’s governor or bishop.
Fjeldsted must have known how to bargain, to push the price up to those heights? A hard bargainer he’d always been. But no, that had not been the case at all. Just like the horse dealers, he had mentioned this price sort of as a starting point for discussion. Had thought it likely enough that he’d have to come down a good bit, if he did manage to get a deal at all. It was hard to know how serious a fellow like this could be. Just have to see whether he shies off or wants to get down to serious business. But the baron had extended his pale and refined hand, without hesitating or uttering a word of protest, and sealed the deal.
Those present were taken aback by it, and began exchanging glances with one another, but the baron appeared not to notice. Neither did he show any emotion when he spoke up to say that he was accustomed to letting a handshake suffice where gentlemen of honour were involved. They would naturally complete the necessary formalities and make a note of the conditions on paper, just like any other memorandum, but to his mind that made little difference to their real agreement which was naturally the oral one.
The next news of him came not quite a week later, on May 27, in the newly built Craftsmen’s Hall by the lake in Reykjavík. Here this high-ranking man of wealth and business, soon to be master of his estate in Borgarfjörður and the most influential man of his district, turned out to be a musician, who held a concert. He had taken his seat on stage with a gigantic violin between his legs, playing away on this fantastic instrument with such skill that people, whether they had seen a thing or two or not, declared they had never heard the like of it. The story went that when the baron began playing, Steini the ironworker had put down his homemade fiddle and had to grip the edge of the stage to keep from fainting.
Who was he, actually, this baron? Where did he come from, and what was his family background? More and more versions of the story began circulating, as is usually the case when no one knows anything. At the Gossip Corner on Skólavörðustígur, a veritable seminar was held on the subject. Each morning the situation was assessed, and in the afternoon an attempt made to fill in the missing details. As it turned out, the outlines grew ever hazier, instead of the details gradually being filled in and the picture becoming clearer.
Some people called him Baron Bollow, others Baron Bojlo. A drunken Danish mason declared he was named Baron Bullion, and the locals in Borgarfjörður soon adapted this to Bull John. Some claimed he was a Frenchman, judging from his name and appearance, while others were convinced that he must be German, as until recently he had lived in Munich in Bavaria. This had been printed in Ísafold, when the concert was advertised and there were plenty of witnesses who could confirm that he spoke German fluently. But it didn’t stop there. Still others maintained that there was no doubt that the man must be English.
– He arrived here aboard the Laura last month, and I’m told he boarded in Scotland, in other words he didn’t come all the way from the continent.
– Well, if that’s the case, then isn’t he a Scotsman? Maybe goes around in a skirt?
– No, according to the father and sons at Hvítárvellir he speaks perfect English. And with an accent like a real nobleman, they say, just like the queen herself and royalty. They say the Scots speak completely differently, more like Icelanders.
– Hardly have the Hvítárvellir farmer and his sons had much to do with the queen or any other royalty for that matter?
– Well, no, maybe not. But they do often have English lords come to go salmon fishing up there in the summer and they can chat like natives. Strange fellows they are, who would rather hook a fish or two with a rod and reel than do the sensible thing and lay nets for them. More than one man among them has put in an appearance at the palace now and again. And the boys and their father were involved with that Ritchie a couple of years ago, canning salmon. He was a Scotsman through and through, even though he naturally didn’t go about in a skirt, at least not in the wind and rain here. So they should be able to recognise him from his accent, the Fjeldsteds should.
– Do you mean to say that English is not just English?
French, German, Scottish, English … as if that were not enough, a reputable man in Reykjavík was also reported to have said this Baron was an American. This statement was also brought up for discussion at the Corner, where men expressed serious doubts.
– An American? An American Baron? A likely story. Out west they did their best to get rid of all such titles and ranks long ago when they declared their independence from the English. There simply are no barons there, but on the other hand, any man can easily become as wealthy as a baron if he has the drive in him to do so. Isn’t that just what the emigration agents are always telling us?
– Yes, that’s true enough, or at least it’s supposed to be like that in the States of America. Do you remember the poem Jón Ólafsson wrote, when he was agitating for people to desert the country and make the trip westward:
Any man who would be wealthy
to America should go,
where his wallet can grow healthy;
work and God can make it so.
– Strange isn’t it, how few of them who emigrated from Iceland seemed to have taken advantage of this. Wonder if it was the work or the Lord’s help that was lacking?
– Or maybe both. I’ve heard, though, that it’s actually the custom in America to call people barons who are wealthy or influential in one way or another. I’m told they talk of oil barons and beef barons.
– Well, he’ll at least have enough pasture for his horses up there at Hvítárvellir. He’s maybe a horse baron?
And what did he want with a baron’s estate in Iceland? How in the world did the man think he could be a baron, far north of all civilisation where no one knows the front of a noblemen from the back, or could tell who ranked higher than who?
– To start up like that here, as if being a baron is a job like any other? What do barons do, anyway?
But even those who were the most vocal in expressing their doubts had to admit that if anywhere in Iceland there was a prime spot for a baron’s estate, it was at Hvítárvellir, a fine farm with expansive, flat hayfields and meadows, rights to coastline resources and salmon fishing.
It might sound like a fairy tale but they had no choice but to accept it. Nor did the visitor let it suffice to purchase the farm itself. He took possession of it immediately, along with all the livestock. Big plans were said to be in the offing. The hayfields were to be levelled and the usable land increased. All sorts of innovations were planned. There was talk of mechanical mowers and rakes and no end of other modern inventions. Whoever he was and wherever he came from, this baron, he was at least a progressive thinker.
It was Flitting Days in the country, the time of year when people could change their residence, and everything was a bustle of disorganisation. Andrés Fjeldsted and his household moved across the river to the farm Ferjukot, with the exception of his son Sigurður, who had been engaged as the baron’s overseer. In addition, an agricultural college graduate from Reykjavík, Gísli Þorbjarnarson, known as Gísli agri, was expected to direct operations that summer. He placed an announcement in Þjóðólfur early in July, informing anyone who needed to write to him that he would be spending the next three months at Hvítárvellir.
The locals in Borgarfjörður watched all the goings on with astonishment. At Hvítárvellir there was action everywhere. The baron immediately had the construction of a new building begun, to house all his newly hired employees. It was an impressive wooden structure. He also had the existing farm house extensively renovated. It had been built some time ago, of stone, with a later wood frame addition, by the former Andrés Fjeldsted. There the baron himself intended to reside with his kinsman. The old turf farmhouse was also touched up. It was to house the domestic servants and farm workers of long standing.
A fresh new breeze seemed to be sweeping through the rural districts of Borgarfjörður. Some people even said that these were the first signs of a new age dawning. More than one person found a pretext to pay a visit to Hvítárvellir, to see the splendours with their own eyes and place a finger on the pulse of progress. Reports spread quickly all over the region, which could almost be said to have become one great Gossip Corner.
Many a young maiden’s heart beat quicker at the sight of the two kinsmen, on their estate or at public gatherings. The baron, however, appeared to take scant notice of them. Could they perhaps expect the arrival of a baroness from abroad one day, when the farm and facilities had become more fitting? On this and so many other questions there was no end of discussion and speculation. Soon the news got round, however, that there was no hope of a baroness in the near future. Baron Bollow was a bachelor, at least for the time being, whatever his situation would be in the future. Which made it not at all impossible for one of the country’s daughters to end up in the role of baroness. Whatever the future held in store in this regard, it was clear that no flighty ninny would fit the bill. The baron was said to be highly respectful and disciplined in his treatment of his hired help. He requested that they doff their caps for him on the farm and treat him with the utmost respect at all times. Although he was neither arrogant nor haughty, his reticence bordered on obliviousness.
The younger man, his kinsman, appeared to be a different story altogether. He was cheerful and talkative, always had his eye on the girls and enjoyed teasing them, especially if the baron was absent or out of sight. He soon made an effort to get along in Icelandic, asked plenty of questions about the language and in a short time could speak passably. The baron could as well, some people claimed, he just did so much less talking and with much fewer people. No, the kinsmen were not much alike. It was not quite clear how they were actually related. The lad, whose name was Richard Lechner, never replied to questions in this regard except to say that they were kin. If he was asked for more details of the family, he did not seem to think it could matter. He was generally referred to by the Icelandic name Leiknir, but some people called him the count, to distinguish him from the baron.
On one occasion that first summer, a few carpenters and farm workers were joking out in the homefield when one of the farm girls, who made up for what she lacked in wits by being especially impudent, came by. As was so often the case, the baron was the subject of their conversation. At about the same time, they noticed the baron come out of the house and walk about the yard.
The lads dared this servant girl, Gunna was her name, to walk up to the baron and ask him straight out about his family background. And she took up the challenge, walked straight over to him. This scared the lads to no end, so they all busied themselves at some task to make it less obvious that they were the ones to send her on this errand and were waiting expectantly for the result.
Once Gunna reached the baron, she wasted no time in asking him straight to his face:
– Who are you anyway, and why did you come here?
He gazed at her for some time with a stern look, then replied in perfectly correct Icelandic:
– Don’t you know that it’s rude to ask questions?
He then went back into the house, and that was the end of it, there were no repercussions or anything.
Old Ingimundur of the farm Fossatún was the baron’s tenant and pleased as punch with his new landlord. People would tease him about whether he did not resent being sold off all of a sudden, like any other part of the farm. To be practically a serf in bondage to some nobleman. How much had Fjeldsted been paid for him?
But Ingimundur did not let their taunts irk him this time any more than usual. He answered that there was noble and there was ignoble and in his case, he felt honoured by the nobility. Instead of regarding himself as having been made a serf, he maintained that as things now stood, he was just like any other landholder who held a fief from an earl or monarch. The baron was a new settler of a family just as noble as Iceland’s original settlers, heroes descended from kings and princes. It was high time that leaders worthy of the name took over the reins in the region. They had hardly seen the likes of him since the days of Snorri Sturluson.
He himself wanted to honour the baron with a poem:
Hail to you, Baron of Borgarfjörd
who settles here to reign as lord.
We welcome you from worlds scarce known
to wake our folk so long alone,
to challenge the North with hero’s heart
inspiring friends to make a start
and settle the shores of Arctic seas
with friendship and faith the land to free.
Thus Frank and Viking, hand in hand,
shall drive the Danish from our land.
May we long enjoy your kin
and shape our future from within
as dawns a brighter day this morn
for Iceland’s sons, so used to scorn.
We ask you, then, to lend a hand,
against the foe to take a stand
and wrestle with our common fate,
united strength can make us great.
The preceding is an excerpt from the novel The Baron. Translated by Keneva Kunz.

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