Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222
After Olav Audunsson receives his wife Ingunn from her kin, he returns with her to Hestviken to claim his inheritance. Lime trees are in blossom, and their scent brings back to him childhood memories of the manor that had not been his home since he was seven years old. Hestviken, on a ridge above Oslo fjord, was a place of chieftains. One of the heirlooms of Viking days is a wood carving showing legendary Gunnar surrounded by vipers in the pit where Atle threw him.
While Olav was growing up as Steinfinn’s foster son at Frettastein and during his years of warring and outlawry, an aged kinsman lived at Hestviken. Old Olav, called Half-Priest because he studied for the Church before an accident crippled him, was more clerk than franklin. Under his stewardship the manor does not prosper, and young Olav has less wealth than he expects. Still, Hestviken is a rich homestead, and so he cheerfully sets about repairing the houses, increasing his herds, and outfitting boats to trade by sea. Besides, he likes Olav Half-Priest and spends many evenings listening to stories of his ancestors and their deeds in the old days.
Olav Half-Priest knew four generations of the Hestviken men, and his greatest wish, as he often tells Ingunn, is to see her son and Olav’s before his death. The child Ingunn has the summer the old man dies lives only a few seconds. In the next four years she has three more children, all stillborn. During part of that time Olav is away on raids against the Danes, but when he is at home there is little cheer between them. Ingunn is fretful and sick, resentful of Signe and Una, Olav’s distant cousins, impatient with her maids. Olav knows that she is thinking of the healthy son she had by Teit, the Icelander he killed to hide her shame, but there is no mention of the boy between them.
Olav’s crime weighs heavily upon his own spirit. If he proclaimed it at the time, men would have found justice in Teit’s slaying; his silence makes his deed secret murder. Unable to confess his guilt without bringing shame to Ingunn, whom he loves, he knows that he must live with the burdens of his sin. Perhaps, he thinks, the dead children are part of the chastisement he must suffer. He is always tender toward the useless wife whose misfortune he took, by violence, upon himself.
When Ingunn becomes really ill, Olav hires Torhild Bjönsdatter, whose mother was a serving woman at Hestviken, to keep his house for him. Afterward the manor is in better order, and for a time Ingunn’s health improves, so that one spring she travels to see Tora, her widowed sister, at Frettastein. While there, she goes to see little Eirik, her son, at his foster mother’s house. He is half-frightened of the richly dressed woman who gives him gifts and holds him so tightly. On her return to Hestviken, Olav asks her if she longs greatly for the boy. She says that Eirik is afraid of her.
Ingunn’s brother Jon dies, and Olav rides north to collect her share of his goods. When he returns, he brings Eirik with him. In the neighborhood he lets it be known that the boy is his child and Ingunn’s, born during his outlaw years and for that reason given to foster parents in the Upplands. Eirik likes Olav and follows him about; Ingunn sometimes grows fretful because the boy prefers her husband’s company to her own. Then Olav, for the sake of peace, treats the child coldly. Often it seems that he is never to have ease because of the Icelander’s brat.
After Ingunn gives birth to a son, Audun, Olav realizes how foolish his act was, for in claiming Eirik he defrauded his lawful son of his birthright. He becomes sharper in his manner toward Eirik, scolds him for childish lies, and to his own shame beats him for his boasting and loud ways. Sickly Audun dies the next winter.
One year Arnvid Finnsson, Ingunn’s cousin and their true friend in the days of Olav’s outlawry, comes to Hestviken. Arnvid says that he gave his manor to his oldest son; he himself is to enter the order of the Preaching Friars. Olav tells Arnvid the story of the guilt weighing so heavily upon him, saying it is as if God’s wrath pursues him and gives him no peace, night or day. Arnvid, kind and good man though he is, can say little to comfort his friend.
Ingunn gives birth to her last child, a fair daughter christened Cecilia. From that time on, the mother seldom leaves her bed. Years before she lost the power of her limbs during an illness, and now her old sickness takes her again. Sometimes Olav looks at her, pale and wasted, and wonders how the sick woman could have been the beautiful girl he knew years before. He is not completely unhappy, however, in their last years together. He looks after Ingunn with patience and pity for the sad life she lives. Thinking she might become better if he were to make atonement for the slaying of Teit, he speaks to her one day of the matter, but she begs him to keep silent for her sake. Word comes that Arnvid died at Hamar. Olav feels that the only friend left from his youth is Ingunn, once so fair that he killed two men for her sake.
The two live so much to themselves at Hestviken that they are never popular with their neighbors. Consequently, there is much gossip when it becomes known that Olav fathered a child by his housekeeper. Feeling that his new sin goes back to the old one from which he can never be free and anxious to make amends to Torhild for the wrong, he gives her the farm at Auken for her own. Ingunn, who was always jealous of Torhild’s strong, healthy body, says nothing. Eirik shows in every way his dislike for the stern, aloof man he calls father.
Torhild’s child is a boy, Bjorn. On the day Torhild goes to Auken, Ingunn sends for her and asks to see him, a lusty child as fair as her own Cecilia. Afterward Eirik spits after Torhild and curses her son. Ingunn begs him never to speak so of any woman’s child.
Olav is at the Oslo fair when a servant brings word that Ingunn is dying. Memories of the past, remorse, and the conviction that God will be merciful if he will only confess his guilt plague him as he rides homeward to be at her side. After her death, he intends to do as he planned on that night ride, confess and welcome his punishment, whether holy pilgrimage or headsman’s ax, but he cannot, he realizes at last, because of Eirik and of Cecilia. Never can he abandon them to a kinsman’s care or shame them by letting the world know their mother was wanton. Sometimes, in the slow, sleepless nights, he feels that he is Gunnar in the snake pit on the old carving—his hidden sin is the viper that pierces his heart.