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Our Vanguard: A Pioneer Play in Three Acts,
With Prologue and Epilogue
By Aileen Berger Buetow (Volume XV: Page 20)

PROLOGUE: A steamship line office, at the present time.
ACT 1: The Fox River Settlement, November, 1837.
ACT 2: Beaver Creek, April, 1838.
ACT 3: The same, September, 1838.
EPILOGUE: The steamship line office, at the present time.

ACT 3

The Meland log house, September, 1838. The place is crowded with bales and bundles. It is obvious that the settlers are leaving. Even some of the pots and pans are packed, their handles protruding from the wrappings. The stove and washtub stand as before, the table and benches, and the big cowhide-covered chair. The other movable furniture, including spinning wheel and rustic chairs, is gone.

As the curtain rises, ELISIF stands by the window, and SINA are packing, and MRS. ELLINGSEN sits by the table, knitting.

ELISIF. Ole Rynning is lost! He is lost!

METTA. Nonsense, Elisif! Ole Rynning knows this tract. Nothing has happened to him!

ELISIF. (Restlessly) But he's been gone for three days!

METTA. Just a foraging trip. Though I hope he'll be back before Father Ellingsen comes to take us home to Fox River Valley.

ELISIF. But the frost! The water is freezing! It's dangerous weather to be out alone.

SINA. And Ole Rynning was lightly dressed.

ELISIF. (Sadly) He waved to me when he left the place. Why didn't I try to stop him? I felt that something was going to happen.

METTA. The men are out looking for him. They'll bring him back before Father Ellingsen comes to take us all away.

ELISIF. But why haven't they found him by now?

MRS. ELLINGSEN. (To ELISIF) Dost thou think he was seeking death?

ELISIF. (Incredulous) Seeking death? Ole Rynning? Why should he?

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Everything has failed him. He has been in great despair.

METTA. Indeed, there is an idea. Suicide might well be in his mind.

ELISIF. (Angry) How can you speak like that! Ole Rynning, with his boundless courage -- seeking death? No!

SINA. Life is finished for Ole Rynning.

ELISIF. (Pacing to and fro) Don't say it; don't say it!

METTA. Indeed it's foolish of you, Elisif, to take his troubles so to heart. Maybe Rynning has a girl in the old country.

ELISIF. He hasn't, or he would have told me.

METTA. His father is a minister, you know, and very proud. I have heard some talk that Rynning loved a poor crofter's daughter . . .

ELISIF. It isn't true!

METTA. If I were you, I'd take an interest in Dr. Brandt. He's a marrying man, if he can get the right girl.

ELISIF. Oh, why doesn't Dr. Brandt find Rynning! Lost for three days! Three long days and nights!

METTA. You know, the poor man may have wanted to put an end to his troubles. Rynning feels guilty. The land no good, and so many settlers dead from malarial fever. Lars's eight sons, dead!

ELISIF. (Coldly) If your Haddon Crum doesn't want to take his life after selling us this tract, I don't see why Rynning should, who only believed what Crum told him!

METTA. (Piqued) Indeed, there is a difference!

ELISIF. (Sitting down on a bench) You're right. A big difference! Ole Rynning had a dream, a glittering hope. He had a purpose in life -- a mission!

SINA. But now it is all gone!

ELISIF. Yes, gone.

METTA. (Crossing to the window) There, you see!

Indeed, I'm beginning to fear for Rynning's safety myself!

ELISIF. (Starting up) Why did I let him go?

METTA. I half thought he was in hiding because he didn't want to face Father Ellingsen. But maybe he is dead.

ELISIF. Don't say it!

METTA. (Comforting her) No, I didn't mean it. He is hiding because he doesn't want to meet Father Ellingsen. You know there are only the two children and us few grown-ups left, of the fifty settlers.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Those who didn't die, have fled.

SINA. Yes, everything gone. Houses, farms, people.

ELISIF. And today, the rest of you will leave.

SINA. Do come too, Elisif.

ELISIF. No; I'll stay.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Elisif, thou canst not remain here -- with Ole Rynning.

ELISIF. Nattestad will be here, and I'll make Lars stay. I'll keep house for them. (She resumes her pacing.) If only Ole Rynning comes back! If he doesn't, life is not worth living.

SINA. Is life worth living?

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Sadly) Sina, child . . .

METTA. (To SINA) Indeed, I'm surprised at you! Aren't you happy now, when your father has forgiven you and is coming here to take us all home?

SINA. Home? My home was here. I was happy here.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. (Horrified) Sina, my child . . .

METTA. Happy here! With angry waters lapping around you, and your friends dying like flies! Happy, indeed!

SINA. It was life! It was freedom! There were no shackles here.

ELISIF. I understand you, Sina.

SINA. The house was mine. Even when it was gone, the land was mine. The dam broke and illness came, but I was needed. I have been needed ever since. (Her voice breaks.) The children have needed me . . .

She goes toward the bedroom door, right. ELISIF checks her.

ELISIF. Don't waken them. Father Ellingsen may come soon; the children need their sleep.

SINA. I won't waken them. I love them. Who will need me in Fox River Valley?

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Father and I will need thee, my child. Thou art all we have.

SINA. Mother, that is not enough for me.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. When Father comes, let him not find thee rebellious . . .

METTA. (Pleading) Sina, none of us have anything left. We all depend on your-father's help.

SINA. (With bent head) Yes, I know.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Show him gratitude for all he is doing for us.

Distant voices are heard, outdoors. ELISIF rushes to the door.

METTA. (To SINA) Indeed, when your father comes, you must show him that you appreciate his kindness to us all.

SINA. I will.

ELISIF. (At the door) Only Haddon Crum and Dr. Brandt are coming. No one else! No one else!

METTA shakes her head sadly. Enter DR. BRANDT and HADDON CRUM, left.

ELISIF. (Wildly) Where is Ole Rynning? You didn't find him?

DR. BRANDT. Whoa, whoa, Elisif! Nattestad and Lars went the other way, and I am sure they have found him.

CRUM. (Shaking his head; to METTA) Deep water everywhere. An army of men might get lost without a trace.

ELISIF. Oh!

DR. BRANDT. And Ellingsen hasn't come?

CRUM. He'd better come before the weather changes, or he won't get through the swamp with loaded wagons. I certainly long to get away from this ghastly place!

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Will Beaver Creek be sold to someone else after we have left?

CRUM. Oh, yes; my partner Gelden is selling the tract. ELISIF. Will he sell it, now that he knows what it is like?

CRUM. (Laughing and taking off his cap) He and I knew that all the time!

DR. BRANDT. (Bitterly; hanging up his coat) Oh, I suppose there will always be another batch of greenhorns . . .

METTA. (Hands on hips) Tell them what you promised me, Haddon!

CRUM. (Surprised) Promised? Oh, yes, yes; I remember.

METTA. That you will never sell land again as long as you live.

CRUM. (To DR. BRANDT) No; I won't be working with Ivan Gelden any longer. I'll make an honest living, by trading horses.

DR. BRANDT. (Slapping him on the back) Beaver Creek has made a man out of you!

METTA. Give me the credit, Dr. Brandt. I've had three men before, you know, and I can handle the critters!

A noise is heard outdoors.

SINA. Someone's coming.

ELISIF. (Running to the door) It must be he; it's Rynning!

DR. BRANDT. (Listening) No -- wagons! (He goes to the window) Ellingsen! Ellingsen is coming!

CRUM. (Dancing around with Metta) To take us all away!

METTA. (Happily) At last, he's here!

MRS. ELLINGSEN. (Weeping joyfully) Father has come, to deliver us from destruction!

SINA. (Standing apart from the rest) Back to Fox River Valley! To being not needed any more . . .

The creak of wagon wheels is now very clear.

ELISIF. (Putting her arms around Sina) It won't be as bad as you think, Sina. You can't stay here, you know.

SINA. I know.

Enter ELLINGSEN, left, dressed as one who has come a long and wearying journey. MRS. ELLINGSEN steps forward to him.

MRS. ELLINGSEN. Father! Thou art here!

ELLINGSEN. (Kissing her forehead) Mother, thou art well?

MRS. ELLINGSEN. I am.

ELLINGSEN. (With a long glance at Sina) Sina, my child!

SINA steps forward, kisses him dutifully.

SINA. Father!

ELLINGSEN holds her, looks at her keenly.

ELLINGSEN. Thou hast been well?

SINA. (With a wan smile) Hale and hearty.

ELLINGSEN. The Lord has heard my prayers. He has held his hands over my household.

DR. BRANDT. (Shaking hands with him) You might have prayed for some of us others!

ELLINGSEN. (Sharply) I warned them all, friend! I warned them!

DR. BRANDT. (Taken aback) Yes -- I remember you did!

DR. BRANDT goes to put on his cap and coat.
ELLINGSEN greets ELISIF.

ELLINGSEN. Elisif, thou lookst pale and worried.

ELISIF. (Taking his hand) Ole Rynning has been lost for three days.

ELLINGSEN. (Surprised) Lost? For three days?

METTA. (Already in bonnet and cape) Indeed, I'm happy that you came for us, Father Ellingsen. This is Mr. Crum. (Coyly) We're going to be married when we reach Ottawa.

ELLINGSEN. (Regarding CRUM intently) Thou mightst have made a better choice, Metta.

CRUM. (Also dressed to leave) Don't say that; don't say that!

He laughs and offers his hand. ELLINGSEN, however, turns away from the outstretched hand.

ELLINGSEN. Are ye all ready to leave at once?

SINA. I want to say good-by to Ole Rynning!

ELLINGSEN. There is no time to lose; the weather is changing. It's getting warm and looks like rain. If we wait until tomorrow, we may stick in the swamp.

DR. BRANDT. Rynning may not want to say good-by to us, Sina.

SINA. (Uncomprehending) Not want to . . .

ELISIF. (Angry) You mean he is in hiding, not daring to face you all for the last time?

DR. BRANDT nods a reluctant assent.

ELISIF. (Proudly) Then you don't know Ole Rynning!

ELLINGSEN. (Taking a bundle) Load everything into the wagons. But hurry!

METTA. (Picking up a bundle) There's a lot of things out in the barn.

CRUM and MRS. ELLINGSEN also take up bundles. Following ELLINGSEN and METTA, they go out, left.

SINA. I'll get the children ready.

Exit, right.

DR. BRANDT. (Making ready to leave) Elisif! Do you persist in the madness of staying here?

ELISIF. (Smiling) Nattestad and Ole Rynning will be here. Lars too, if he doesn't return before the wagons leave.

DR. BRANDT. How you love Ole Rynning!

ELISIF. I do.

DR. BRANDT. (With emotion) I see. And no hope for me -- ever.

ELISIF. (Stretching her hand toward him) Good-by, my dear.

DR. BRANDT. (Taking her hand) Here, there is nothing. Hardship, perhaps starvation, await you -- and yet you want to stay.

ELISIF. As long as he needs me, I'll be here.

Enter ELLINGSEN, left.

ELLINGSEN. Where is Sina? We must hurry. It's beginning to drizzle.

Enter SINA, right, with the two children.

SINA. Here I am, Father. This is Inger and this is Karen.

ELLINGSEN. (With one hand on each child's head) How they have grown! I remember them well. Ansten Olsen's children.

ELISIF. Their father and mother have died.

ELLINGSEN. Where are they to stay, poor things?

ELISIF. With relatives in New York.

DR. BRANDT. I shall see that they get there.

FIRST CHILD. (Holding SINA's skirts) Want to stay with Sina!

SECOND CHILD. (Also clinging to SINA) I want to stay with Sina, too!

SINA drops down to her knees before them, and weeps.

SINA. My darlings, my darlings.

ELLINGSEN. Why shouldn't they stay with Sina?

SINA. (Looking up, unbelieving) Stay... with... me?

ELLINGSEN. No better place for them. There's the big farm, and the sawmill. (To the children.) Would ye like stay with Sina and Mother and me?

FIRST CHILD. Oh, I would like to!

SECOND CHILD. (Jumping up and down) Stay with Sina! I shall stay with Sina!

SINA. (Gathering them into her arms) My darlings!

ELLINGSEN. Now we must hurry. The weather . . .

SINA. (Happily) Yes, yes, we must hurry home. To the wonderful Fox River Valley. (She embraces ELLINGSEN.) I love thee, Father.

ELLINGSEN puts his arm around her.

ELLINGSEN. Thou hast not used the speech of the Friends since thou wert a small girl.

SINA. Thou hast made me happy. The little girls and I shall always speak like thee, Father, and do as thou tellest us.

ELLINGSEN. (Happily, with his arms around SINA and the children) To the wagons! We must be off.

DR. BRANDT. I'm coming.

Enter METTA, left.

METTA. (Excited) He's here, Elisif! He's here.

ELISIF. (Running to the door) Ole Rynning?

METTA. Indeed! They are bringing him in. An accident!

ELISIF. He's hurt?

METTA. They are carrying him.

Enter, left, NATTESTAD, LARS, and CRUM, carrying RYNNING. LARS has aged greatly since spring. RYNNING is in obvious pain. ELISIF runs toward them.

ELISIF. Oh, what has happened?

DR. BRANDT helps the men to get RYNNING into the big chair, with his legs and feet away from the audience.

DR. BRANDT. Take it easy. Easy now, easy!

RYNNING. (To ELISIF) Broke my leg. Water froze around me. I had to drag myself along the ground, till Lars and Nattestad came.

LARS. A sorry sight he was.

DR. BRANDT. (Working over RYNNING) Hot water, Elisif!

ELISIF. (Taking a bucket) I'll run to the stream.

Exit, left.

ELLINGSEN. (To RYNNING) A sorry plight, friend!

RYNNING. (Weakly, shaking his head) Thank you, thank you, Ellingsen. You are easing my mind by taking with you those who have survived this horror.

ELLINGSEN. (Visibly affected) Nay, nay, friend! Thou shouldst not blame thyself! And thou art always welcome in my home.

RYNNING. Thank you, Ellingsen. (Looking at DR. BRANDT.) Oh, my leg!

He winces in pain as the doctor works.

DR. BRANDT. Easy, now!

SINA. (Joyously, to RYNNING) Father allows me to keep the children!

RYNNING. (Faintly) I'm happy to hear it. They love you. Good-by, Sina. Good-by, Inger. You won't forget me, Karen?

SINA. (With emotion) Good-by, Ole Rynning. None of us will ever forget thee.

FIRST CHILD. (Kissing him) Good-by, Uncle Rynning!

SECOND CHILD. (Pressing his hand) I'll never forget you, Uncle Rynning!

RYNNING. (Weakly) Good-by; good-by!

ELLINGSEN goes toward the door.

ELLINGSEN. May God bless thee, friend Rynning, and give thee happiness some day!

ELLINGSEN, SINA, and the children go out, left.

RYNNING. (Feebly but earnestly) Brandt! Elisif -- you must take Elisif with you, away from Beaver Creek.

DR. BRANDT. (Working on his leg) Be quiet. You're ill, man!

LARS. (Fetching bandages) I'd like to stay and help you out, Ole Rynning, but I can't abide this place. Guri and the boys gone -- only those nine graves! If Elisif stays, it'll kill me.

RYNNING. (Faintly, but with heat) She must not stay!

Elisif must leave, I tell you!

LARS. She won't listen to reason.

DR. BRANDT. Elisif will never leave you, Rynning.

RYNNING. (Weakly, in pain) She must. She must!

DR. BRANDT. She loves you too much.

RYNNING. (As if to himself) And I love her. But she shall not sacrifice herself for me. (He cries out in pain.) What are you doing to my leg?

DR. BRANDT. I'm trying to set it -- if it can be done.

NATTESTAD. (Coming to help) How is he?

DR. BRANDT. Well . . .

RYNNING. Tell me the worst.

DR. BRANDT. I'll stay here at Beaver Creek and nurse you, Rynning. I'll see that you pull through.

RYNNING. You must leave, Brandt. Your opportunity is in Chicago. You'd starve here.

DR. BRANDT. Perhaps. But without help, you're lost, my boy.

RYNNING. It is as bad as that?

DR. BRANDT. Yes. We'll have to amputate your leg. Gangrene has set in already.

RYNNING. (In horror) Never! No amputation!

DR. BRANDT. It's your only chance.

RYNNING. Then I gladly give up my only chance.

DR. BRANDT. For Elisif's sake . . .

RYNNING. Elisif must leave, I tell you. Do you think I want her to sacrifice herself for me -- for a man who is finished with life? All of you must leave before the rain starts, or you won't get through the swamp. Hurry! Get ready to go.

DR. BRANDT. No doctor would leave a patient in your condition.

RYNNING. (With new strength) I forbid you to stay!

DR. BRANDT. You need my help, man.

RYNNING. (To LARS) Why are you standing like that? Hurry, get ready, Lars! Pack. Pack Elisif's things and be ready when the wagons pull out.

LARS goes toward the door, right.

LARS. It'll be a happy moment for me when I leave Beaver Creek!

Exit, right.

RYNNING. Leave immediately, Brandt. Nattestad can take care of me.

NATTESTAD. I can't operate.

RYNNING. There'll be no amputation. I can't see myself dragging around, on one leg. Rather die! (Pleadingly) Brandt, promise me to take care of Elisif. It's the greatest service you can do me. She needs you. I'm done for. I have lost the will to live. Leave, Brandt.

DR. BRANDT. But . . .

RYNNING. (With new strength) No buts! Do as I say. She's coming. Not a word to her of my condition, do you hear? The last favor I'm asking of you . . .

Enter ELISIF, right, carrying the bucket.

RYNNING. (With simulated cheerfulness) Nattestad and Brandt, run out to help Ellingsen. It sounds as if they're having trouble with the teams.

DR. BRANDT hesitates, then turns toward the door.

DR. BRANDT. Have it your way. But I'll always blame myself for what I'm doing now.

The doctor and NATTESTAD go out, left.

ELISIF. (Crossing to RYNNING) Your poor leg! Does it pain much?

RYNNING. (With simulated strength) Hardly at all. It's nothing. Just frostbitten and lacerated.

ELISIF. (Adjusting a pillow behind him) Isn't the leg broken?

RYNNING. Ankle sprained, that's all. Elisif, I want you to do me a favor.

ELISIF. (Eagerly) I'd do anything in the world for you.

RYNNING. (Smiling) In the lower bunk, under my pillow -- there is a locket. Will you get it for me?

ELISIF, surprised, fetches the locket and gives it to him.

RYNNING. (Opening the locket) That is the picture of the girl I love, Elisif.

ELISIF. (Grief-stricken) The girl you love? It's true, then?

RYNNING. (As if unhearing) The girl I love better than anyone else in the world.

ELISIF. (Heartbroken) Oh!

RYNNING. You have been like a sister to me, Elisif.

ELISIF. A sister?

RYNNING. I have always fancied that Inga and you and I would live together.

ELISIF. Live together?

RYNNING. (With an effort) Yes, the three of us. She is like an angel from heaven.

ELISIF. She is?

RYNNING. No man who knew her could ever love anyone else.

ELISIF. (Whispering) I understand. I understand.

RYNNING. (Bringing out a letter) Elisif, leave with the others -- for my sake. Here is a letter to my father. You know the fate of most letters nowadays; few of them reach their destination. This letter is important. I'm entrusting it to you. Put it into the post office with your own hands. Then it may get to my father. Inga's parents are poor. I am asking my father to send her over to me.

ELISIF. (Taking the letter) I'll send it. Since you care so much for her.

RYNNING. (His strength ebbing) I... love her... so . . . much.

Enter LARS, right, dressed to leave, and carrying bundles, and ELISIF's cape and bonnet.

LARS. With my lumbago, I ain't staying at Beaver Creek a minute more than I have to. And I'll get you out of here, Elisif, if I have to drag you away by the hair . . .

ELISIF. (Taking bonnet and cape) I, too, am leaving.

LARS. (With a sigh of satisfaction) First sensible words I've heard out of you for a long spell. But hurry!

ELISIF. (As if burned out) Most of our things are in the barn. What's in this house, we'll leave.

RYNNING. (Mustering his strength) Thank you, Elisif! We'll be comfortable here. I'll see you all in the spring.

Enter DR. BRANDT and NATTESTAD, left.

NATTESTAD. It's drizzling already. Ellingsen is leaving at once.

DR. BRANDT. (Joyfully) You're coming with us, Elisif?

ELISIF. Yes.

She bends down and kisses RYNNING'S hand, and sobs as she walks toward the door, left. When she departs, RYNNING lies weakly back in his chair.

LARS. Next spring, we'll meet again in the Fox River Valley, Rynning!

RYNNING. Good-by, good-by, Lars! Watch over Elisif.

Exit LARS, left.

DR. BRANDT. Rynning, do you realize there will be no next spring for you, if you don't let me take care of your leg?

The crack of a whip and the sound of wagon wheels are heard.

RYNNING. I'm giving you the most precious thing in the world---Elisif. Take care of her! She will learn to love you. Marry her, and make her happy!

The locket slips to the floor.

DR. BRANDT. But, man, you are . . .

RYNNING. (With an effort) Go! Don't you hear the wagons pulling out? Don't delay them!

DR. BRANDT. (Clasping his hand) Good-by, Rynning, You are a brave man. Take care of him, Nattestad!

Exit, left, with a silent farewell. The wagons creak and groan as they leave.

NATTESTAD. (At the window) Now we are alone. The place seems empty. (He sings.)

Yes, now they are fleeing from Beaver Creek,
  Those few with life yet remaining,

The graves of the others you'll find, if you seek
  For a cross under skies always raining!

RYNNING. (Weakly) A sad song, but true. Horribly true!

NATTESTAD. (Crossing to him) My, but you're in a fix! Someone should have stayed with us!

RYNNING. We'll manage. Heat water and I'll tell you what to do.

NATTESTAD. (Pouring water from the bucket into a kettle on the stove) This is bad, bad!

RYNNING. (Faintly) I'm a failure, Nattestad. A rank failure. Yet my dream was so real to me; it seems impossible that it won't come true.

NATTESTAD. You mean getting all the poor people from Europe over to America?

RYNNING. If they knew the real America, they would come.

NATTESTAD. Sure, they would. This is a fine country, if people would only look before they bought. I'll run traplines this winter, to get a stake. Next spring I'll go up to the new country, there in Wisconsin, and I'll be rich before you know it!

RYNNING. If I could describe to the toiling masses in Europe how this country really is -- shout it to them -- write it. Write it. (An idea dawns on him; he straightens)

Write it! Nattestad, I can write it down! Bring me pen and paper, Nattestad, pen and paper!

NATTESTAD. But your leg?

RYNNING. Never mind the leg. I'll write night and day until the very end. I shall live long enough to write down all the truth about America. Pen and paper!

NATTESTAD. (Bringing quill and paper) Here! You'll write a book?

RYNNING takes the quill and paper and begins to write.

RYNNING. Yes, a book . . .. A true account of America . . . for the information and help of peasant and common man . . . written by a Norwegian . . . who arrived there in June, 1837 (He pauses) But how can I get it to the old country?

NATTESTAD. My brother Ansten is going back home next spring. Get your book ready. He'll take it along.

NATTESTAD bends down and picks up the locket, which has fallen open.

NATTESTAD. Who is this girl? Is she the sweetheart people think you have in the old country?

RYNNING. (Taking the locket) I have no sweetheart anywhere. This is a picture of my cousin Inga. The girl I love left Beaver Creek just now. But she will never know I love her. Elisif!

CURTAIN

After the curtain falls, the theater remains dark while the orchestra plays softly and the scene of the steamship office is set up in front of the curtain.

EPILOGUE

DIDRIKSEN has ended his story, in the steamship once. NONA, BILL, and the narrator are in the same position as at the end of the Prologue.

DIDRIKSEN. And so, a dying man, he wrote this book.

NONA. (Softly) The poor man! . . . Was the book taken back to the old country?

DIDRIKSEN. Yes. Ansten Nattestad took it back. It was published there. Because Ole Rynning had suffered and died, his words carried weight. Here was a man who, even in personal misfortune, saw the promise of America. Here was reality, written by a man who knew! The wave of immigration, which Ole Rynning hoped for, was the direct result of this book. The poor of Norway did find a refuge in America!

BILL. So Rynning won out, even though he died.

NONA. (Taking his hand) Oh, Bill, now I realize better what your work means. I won't sneer at it again. Immigration is America's history. Sail across, and find out all about this vanguard that preceded us!

DIDRIKSEN. (Slyly) Shall I make out two tickets, ma'am?

The lights go out, indicating the end of the play.

----End of Part 3----

The End

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