This was the cause of the great final hunt that they fixed for Christmas Day just two years after the scene at the grave of Little Jim. It seemed as though all the Dogs in the country were brought together. The three Huskies were there—the Factor considered them essential—there were Danes and trailers and a rabble of farm Dogs and nondescripts. They spent the morning beating all the woods east of St. Boniface and had no success. But a telephone message came that the trail they sought had been seen near the Assiniboine woods west of the city, and an hour later the hunt was yelling on the hot scent of the Winnipeg Wolf.
Away they went, a rabble of Dogs, a motley rout of horsemen, a mob of men and boys on foot. Garou had no fear of the Dogs, but men he knew had guns and were dangerous. He led off for the dark timber line of the Assiniboine, but the horsemen had open country and they headed him back. He coursed along the Colony Creek hollow and so eluded the bullets already flying. He made for a barb-wire fence, and passing that he got rid of the horsemen for a time, but still must keep the hollow that baffled the bullets. The Dogs were now closing on him. All he might have asked would probably have been to be left alone with them—forty or fifty to one as they were—he would have taken the odds. The Dogs were all around him now, but none dared to close in, A lanky Hound, trusting to his speed, ran alongside at length and got a side chop from Garou that laid him low. The horsemen were forced to take a distant way around, but now the chase was toward the town, and more men and Dogs came running out to join the fray.
The Wolf turned toward the slaughter-house, a familiar resort, and the shooting ceased on account of the houses, as well as the Dogs, being so near. These were indeed now close enough to encircle him and hinder all further flight. He looked for a place to guard his rear for a final stand, and seeing a wooden foot-bridge over a gutter he sprang in, there faced about and held the pack at bay. The men got bars and demolished the bridge. He leaped out, knowing now that he had to die, but ready, wishing only to make a worthy fight, and then for the first time in broad day view of all his foes he stood—the shadowy Dog-killer, the disembodied voice of St. Boniface woods, the wonderful Winnipeg Wolf.
At last after three long years of fight he stood before them alone, confronting twoscore Dogs, and men with guns to back them—but facing them just as resolutely as I saw him that day in the wintry woods. The same old curl was on his lips—the hard-knit flanks heaved just a little, but his green and yellow eye glowed steadily. The Dogs closed in, led not by the huge Huskies from the woods—they evidently knew too much for that—but by a Bulldog from the town; there was scuffling of many feet; a low rumbling for a time replaced the yapping of the pack; a flashing of those red and grizzled jaws, a momentary hurl back of the onset, and again he stood alone and braced, the grim and grand old bandit that he was. Three times they tried and suffered. Their boldest were lying about him. The first to go down was the Bulldog. Learning wisdom now, the Dogs held back, less sure; but his square-built chest showed never a sign of weakness yet, and after waiting impatiently he advanced a few steps, and thus, alas! gave to the gunners their long-expected chance. Three rifles rang, and in the snow Garou went down at last, his life of combat done.
He had made his choice. His days were short and crammed with quick events. His tale of many peaceful years was spent in three of daily brunt. He picked his trail, a new trail, high and short. He chose to drink his cup at a single gulp, and break the glass-but he left a deathless name.
Who can look into the mind of the Wolf? Who can show us his wellspring of motive? Why should he still cling to a place of endless tribulation? It could not be because he knew no other country, for the region is limitless, food is everywhere, and he was known at least as far as Selkirk. Nor could his motive be revenge. No animal will give up its whole life to seeking revenge; that evil kind of mind is found in man alone. The brute creation seeks for peace.
There is then but one remaining bond to chain him, and that the strongest claim that anything can own—the mightiest force on earth.
The Wolf is gone. The last relic of him was lost in the burning Grammar School, but to this day the sexton of St. Boniface Church avers that the tolling bell on Christmas Eve never fails to provoke that weird and melancholy Wolf-cry from the wooded graveyard a hundred steps away, where they laid his Little Jim, the only being on earth that ever met him with the touch of love.
THE LEGEND OF THE WHITE REINDEER
Skoal! Skoal! For Norway Skoal! Sing ye the song of the Vand-dam troll. When I am hiding Norway's luck On a White Storbuk Comes riding, riding.
Bleak, black, deep, and cold is Utrovand, a long pocket of glacial water, a crack in the globe, a wrinkle in the high Norwegian mountains, blocked with another mountain, and flooded with a frigid flood, three thousand feet above its Mother Sea, and yet no closer to its Father Sun.
Around its cheerless shore is a belt of stunted trees, that sends a long tail up the high valley, till it dwindles away to sticks and moss, as it also does some half-way up the granite hills that rise a thousand feet, encompassing the lake. This is the limit of trees, the end of the growth of wood. The birch and willow are the last to drop out of the long fight with frost. Their miniature thickets are noisy with the cries of Fieldfare, Pipit, and Ptarmigan, but these are left behind on nearing the upper plateau, where shade of rock and sough of wind are all that take their place. The chilly Hoifjeld rolls away, a rugged, rocky plain, with great patches of snow in all the deeper hollows, and the distance blocked by snowy peaks that rise and roll and whiter gleam, till, dim and dazzling in the north, uplifts the Jotunheim, the home of spirits, of glaciers, and of the lasting snow.
The treeless stretch is one vast attest to the force of heat. Each failure of the sun by one degree is marked by a lower realm of life. The northern slope of each hollow is less boreal than its southern side. The pine and spruce have given out long ago; the mountain-ash went next; the birch and willow climbed up half the slope. Here, nothing grows but creeping plants and moss. The plain itself is pale grayish green, one vast expanse of reindeer-moss, but warmed at spots into orange by great beds of polytrichum, and, in sunnier nooks, deepened to a herbal green. The rocks that are scattered everywhere are of a delicate lilac, but each is variegated with spreading frill-edged plasters of gray-green lichen or orange powder-streaks and beauty-spots of black. These rocks have great power to hold the heat, so that each of them is surrounded by a little belt of heat-loving plants that could not otherwise live so high. Dwarfed representatives of the birch and willow both are here, hugging the genial rock, as an old French habitant hugs his stove in winter-time, spreading their branches over it, instead of in the frigid air. A foot away is seen a chillier belt of heath, and farther off, colder, where none else can grow, is the omnipresent gray-green reindeer-moss that gives its color to the upland. The hollows are still filled with snow, though now it is June. But each of these white expanses is shrinking, spending itself in ice-cold streams that somehow reach the lake. These snoe-flaks show no sign of life, not even the 'red-snow' tinge, and around each is a belt of barren earth, to testify that life and warmth can never be divorced.
Birdless and lifeless, the gray-green snow-pied waste extends over all the stretch that is here between the timber-line and the snow-line, above which winter never quits its hold. Farther north both come lower, till the timber-line is at the level of the sea; and all the land is in that treeless belt called Tundra in the Old World, and Barrens in the New, and that everywhere is the Home of the Reindeer—the Realm of the Reindeer-moss.
In and out it flew, in and out, over the water and under, as the Varsimle', the leader doe of the Reindeer herd, walked past on the vernal banks, and it sang:—
"Skoal! Skoal! Gamle Norge Skoal!" and more about "a White Reindeer and Norway's good luck," as though the singer were gifted with special insight.
When old Sveggum built the Vand-dam on the Lower Hoifjeld, just above the Utrovand, and set his ribesten a-going, he supposed that he was the owner of it all. But some one was there before him. And in and out of the spouting stream this some one dashed, and sang songs that he made up to fit the place and the time. He skipped from skjaeke to skjaeke of the wheel, and did many things which Sveggum could set down only to luck—whatever that is; and some said that Sveggum's luck was a Wheel-troll, a Water-fairy, with a brown coat and a white beard, one that lived on land or in water, as he pleased.
But most of Sveggum's neighbors saw only a Fossekal, the little Waterfall Bird that came each year and danced in the stream, or dived where the pool is deep. And maybe both were right, for some of the very oldest peasants will tell you that a Fairy-troll may take the form of a man or the form of a bird. Only this bird lived a life no bird can live, and sang songs that men never had sung in Norway. Wonderful vision had he, and sights he saw that man never saw. For the Fieldfare would build before him, and the Lemming fed its brood under his very eyes. Eyes were they to see; for the dark speck on Suletind that man could barely glimpse was a Reindeer, with half-shed coat, to him and the green slime on the Vandren was beautiful green pasture with a banquet spread.
Oh, Man is so blind, and makes himself so hated! But Fossekal harmed none, so none were afraid of him. Only he sang, and his songs were sometimes mixed with fun and prophecy, or perhaps a little scorn.
From the top of the tassel-birch he could mark the course of the Vand-dam stream past the Nystuen hamlet to lose itself in the gloomy waters of Utrovand or by a higher flight he could see across the barren upland that rolled to Jotunheim in the north.
The great awakening was on now. The springtime had already reached the woods; the valleys were a-throb with life; new birds coming from the south, winter sleepers reappearing, and the Reindeer that had wintered in the lower woods should soon again be seen on the uplands.
Not without a fight do the Frost Giants give up the place so long their own; a great battle was in progress; but the Sun was slowly, surely winning, and driving them back to their Jotunheim. At every hollow and shady place they made another stand, or sneaked back by night, only to suffer another defeat. Hard hitters these, as they are stubborn fighters; many a granite rock was split and shattered by their blows in reckless fight, so that its inner fleshy tints were shown and warmly gleamed among the gray-green rocks that dotted the plain, like the countless flocks of Thor. More or less of these may be found at every place of battle-brunt, and straggled along the slope of Suletind was a host that reached for half a mile. But stay! these moved. Not rocks were they, but living creatures.
They drifted along erratically, yet one way, all up the wind. They swept out of sight in a hollow, to reappear on a ridge much nearer, and serried there against the sky, we marked their branching horns, and knew them for the Reindeer in their home.
The band came drifting our way, feeding like Sheep, grunting like only themselves. Each one found a grazing-spot, stood there till it was cleared off, then trotted on crackling hoofs to the front in search of another. So the band was ever changing in rank and form. But one there was that was always at or near the van—a large and well-favored Simle', or Hind. However much the band might change and spread, she was in the forefront, and the observant would soon have seen signs that she had an influence over the general movement—that she, indeed, was the leader. Even the big Bucks, in their huge velvet-clad antlers, admitted this untitular control; and if one, in a spirit of independence, evinced a disposition to lead elsewhere, he soon found himself uncomfortably alone.
The Varsimle', or leading Hind, had kept the band hovering, for the last week or two, along the timber-line, going higher each day to the baring uplands, where the snow was clearing and the deer-flies were blown away. As the pasture zone had climbed she had followed in her daily foraging, returning to the sheltered woods at sundown, for the wild things fear the cold night wind even as man does. But now the deer-flies were rife in the woods, and the rocky hillside nooks warm enough for the nightly bivouac, so the woodland was deserted.
Probably the leader of a band of animals does not consciously pride itself on leadership, yet has an uncomfortable sensation when not followed. But there are times with all when solitude is sought. The Varsimle' had been fat and well through the winter, yet now was listless, and lingered with drooping head as the grazing herd moved past her.
Sometimes she stood gazing blankly while the unchewed bunch of moss hung from her mouth, then roused to go on to the front as before; but the spells of vacant stare and the hankering to be alone grew stronger. She turned downward to seek the birch woods, but the whole band turned with her. She stood stock-still, with head down. They grazed and grunted past, leaving her like a statue against the hillside. When all had gone on, she slunk quietly away; walked a few steps, looked about, made a pretense of grazing, snuffed the ground, looked after the herd, and scanned the hills; then downward fared toward the sheltering woods.
Once as she peered over a bank she sighted another Simle', a doe Reindeer, uneasily wandering by itself. But the Varsimle' wished not for company. She did not know why, but she felt that she must hide away somewhere.
She stood still until the other had passed on, then turned aside, and went with faster steps and less wavering, till she came in view of Utrovand, away down by the little stream that turns old Sveggum's ribesten. Up above the dam she waded across the limpid stream, for deep-laid and sure is the instinct of a wild animal to put running water between itself and those it shuns. Then, on the farther bank, now bare and slightly green, she turned, and passing in and out among the twisted trunks, she left the noisy Vand-dam. On the higher ground beyond she paused, looked this way and that, went on a little, but returned; and here, completely shut in by softly painted rocks, and birches wearing little springtime hangers, she seemed inclined to rest; yet not to rest, for she stood uneasily this way and that, driving away the flies that settled on her legs, heeding not at all the growing grass, and thinking she was hid from all the world.
But nothing escapes the Fossekal. He had seen her leave the herd, and now he sat on a gorgeous rock that overhung, and sang as though he had waited for this and knew that the fate of the nation might turn on what passed in this far glen. He sang:
Skoal! Skoal! For Norway Skoal! Sing ye the song of the Vand-dam troll. When I am hiding Norway's luck On a White Storbuk Comes riding, riding.
There are no Storks in Norway, and yet an hour later there was a wonderful little Reindeer lying beside the Varsimle'. She was brushing his coat, licking and mothering him, proud and happy as though this was the first little Renskalv ever born. There might be hundreds born in the herd that month, but probably no more like this one, for he was snowy white, and the song of the singer on the painted rock was about
Good luck, good luck, And a White Storbuk,
as though he foresaw clearly the part that the White Calf was to play when he grew to be a Storbuk.
But another wonder now came to pass. Before an hour, there was a second little Calf—a brown one this time. Strange things happen, and hard things are done when they needs must. Two hours later, when the Varsimle' led the White Calf away from the place, there was no Brown Calf, only some flattened rags with calf-hair on them.
The mother was wise: better one strongling than two weaklings. Within a few days the Simle' once more led the band, and running by her side was the White Calf. The Varsimle' considered him in all things, so that he really set the pace for the band, which suited very well all the mothers that now had Calves with them. Big, strong, and wise was the Varsimle', in the pride of her strength, and this White Calf was the flower of her prime. He often ran ahead of his mother as she led the herd, and Rol, coming on them one day, laughed aloud at the sight as they passed, old and young, fat Simle' and antlered Storbuk, a great brown herd, all led, as it seemed, by a little White Calf.
So they drifted away to the high mountains, to be gone all summer. "Gone to be taught by the spirits who dwell where the Black Loon laughs on the ice," said Lief of the Lower Dale; but Sveggum, who had always been among the Reindeer, said: "Their mothers are the teachers, even as ours are."
When the autumn came, old Sveggum saw a moving sno-flack far off on the brown moor-land; but the Troll saw a white yearling, a Nekbuk; and when they ranged alongside of Utrovand to drink, the still sheet seemed fully to reflect the White One, though it barely sketched in the others, with the dark hills behind.
Many a little Calf had come that spring, and had drifted away on the moss-barrens, to come back no more; for some were weaklings and some were fools; some fell by the way, for that is law; and some would not learn the rules, and so died. But the White Calf was strongest of them all, and he was wise, so he learned of his mother, who was wisest of them all. He learned that the grass on the sun side of a rock is sweet, and though it looks the same in the dark hollows, it is there worthless. He learned that when his mother's hoofs crackled he must be up and moving, and when all the herd's hoofs crackled there was danger, and he must keep by his mother's side. For this crackling is like the whistling of a Whistler Duck's wings: it is to keep the kinds together. He learned that where the little Bomuldblomster hangs its Cotton tufts is dangerous bog; that the harsh cackle of the Ptarmigan means that close at hand are Eagles, as dangerous for Fawn as for Bird. He learned that the little troll-berries are deadly, that when the verra-flies come stinging he must take refuge on a snow-patch, and that of all animal smells only that of his mother was to be fully trusted. He learned that he was growing. His flat calf sides and big joints were changing to the full barrel and clean limbs of the Yearling, and the little bumps which began to show on his head when he was only a fortnight old were now sharp, hard spikes that could win in fight.
More than once they had smelt that dreaded destroyer of the north that men call the Gjerv or Wolverene; and one day, as this danger-scent came suddenly and in great strength, a huge blot of dark brown sprang rumbling from a rocky ledge, and straight for the foremost—the White Calf. His eye caught the flash of a whirling, shaggy mass, with gleaming teeth and eyes, hot-breathed and ferocious. Blank horror set his hair on end; his nostrils flared in fear: but before he fled there rose within another feeling—one of anger at the breaker of his peace, a sense that swept all fear away, braced his legs, and set his horns at charge. The brown brute landed with a deep-chested growl, to be received on the young one's spikes. They pierced him deeply, but the shock was overmuch; it bore the White One down, and he might yet have been killed but that his mother, alert and ever near, now charged the attacking monster, and heavier, better armed, she hurled and speared him to the ground. And the White Calf, with a very demon glare in his once mild eyes, charged too; and even after the Wolverene was a mere hairy mass, and his mother had retired to feed, he came, snorting out his rage, to drive his spikes into the hateful thing, till his snowy head was stained with his adversary's blood.
Thus he showed that below the ox-like calm exterior was the fighting beast; that he was like the men of the north, rugged, square-built, calm, slow to wrath, but when aroused "seeing red."
When they ranked together by the lake that fall, the Fossekal sang his old song:
When I am hiding Norway's luck On a White Storbuk Comes riding, riding,
as though this was something he had awaited, then disappeared no one knew where. Old Sveggum had seen it flying through the stream, as birds fly through the air, walking in the bottom of a deep pond as a Ptarmigan walks on the rocks, living as no bird can live; and now the old man said it had simply gone southward for the winter. But old Sveggum could neither read nor write: how should he know?
Each springtime when the Reindeer passed over Sveggum's mill-run, as they moved from the lowland woods to the bleaker shore of Utrovand, the Fossekal was there to sing about the White Storbuk, which each year became more truly the leader.
That first spring he stood little higher than a Hare. When he came to drink in the autumn, his back was above the rock where Sveggum's stream enters Utrovand. Next year he barely passed under the stunted birch, and the third year the Fossekal on the painted rock was looking up, not down, at him as he passed. This was the autumn when Rol and Sveggum sought the Hoifjeld to round up their half-wild herd and select some of the strongest for the sled. There was but one opinion about the Storbuk. Higher than the others, heavier, white as snow, with a mane that swept the shallow drifts, breasted like a Horse and with horns like a storm-grown oak, he was king of the herd, and might easily be king of the road.
There are two kinds of deer-breakers, as there are two kinds of horse-breakers: one that tames and teaches the animal, and gets a spirited, friendly helper; one that aims to break its spirit, and gets only a sullen slave, ever ready to rebel and wreak its hate. Many a Lapp and many a Norsk has paid with his life for brutality to his Reindeer, and Rol's days were shortened by his own pulk-Ren. But Sveggum was of gentler sort. To him fell the training of the White Storbuk. It was slow, for the Buck resented all liberties from man, as he did from his brothers; but kindness, not fear, was the power that tamed him, and when he had learned to obey and glory in the sled race, it was a noble sight to see the great white mild-eyed beast striding down the long snow-stretch of Utrovand, the steam jetting from his nostrils, the snow swirling up before like the curling waves on a steamer's bow, sled, driver, and Deer all dim in flying white.
Then came the Yule-tide Fair, with the races on the ice, and Utrovand for once was gay. The sullen hills about reechoed with merry shouting. The Reindeer races were first, with many a mad mischance for laughter. Rol himself was there with his swiftest sled Deer, a tall, dark, five-year-old, in his primest prime. But over-eager, over-brutal, he harried the sullen, splendid slave till in mid-race—just when in a way to win—it turned at a cruel blow, and Rol took refuge under the upturned sled until it had vented its rage against the wood; and so he lost the race, and the winner was the young White Storbuk. Then he won the five-mile race around the lake; and for each triumph Sveggum hung a little silver bell on his harness, so that now he ran and won to merry music.
Then came the Horse races,—running races these; the Reindeer only trots,—and when Balder, the victor Horse, received his ribbon and his owner the purse, came Sveggum with all his winnings in his hand, and said: "Ho, Lars, thine is a fine Horse, but mine is a better Storbuk; let us put our winnings together and race, each his beast, for all."
A Ren against a Race-horse—such a race was never seen till now. Off at the pistol-crack they flew. "Ho, Balder! (cluck!) Ho, hi, Balder!" Away shot the beautiful Racer, and the Storbuk, striding at a slower trot, was left behind.
"Ho, Balder!" "Hi, Storbuk!" How the people cheered as the Horse went bounding and gaining! But he had left the line at his top speed; the Storbuk's rose as he flew—faster—faster. The Pony ceased to gain. A mile whirled by; the gap began to close. The Pony had over-spurted at the start, but the Storbuk was warming to his work—striding evenly, swiftly, faster yet, as Sveggum cried in encouragement: "Ho, Storbuk! good Storbuk!" or talked to him only with a gentle rein. At the turning-point the pair were neck and neck; then the Pony—though well driven and well shod-slipped on the ice, and thenceforth held back as though in fear, so the Storbuk steamed away. The Pony and his driver were far behind when a roar from every human throat in Filefjeld told that the Storbuk had passed the wire and won the race. And yet all this was before the White Ren had reached the years of his full strength and speed.
Once that day Rol essayed to drive the Storbuk. They set off at a good pace, the White Buk ready, responsive to the single rein, and his mild eyes veiled by his drooping lashes. But, without any reason other than the habit of brutality, Rol struck him. In a moment there was a change. The Racer's speed was checked, all four legs braced forward till he stood; the drooping lids were raised, the eyes rolled—there was a green light in them now. Three puffs of steam were jetted from each nostril. Rol shouted, then, scenting danger, quickly upset the sled and hid beneath. The Storbuk turned to charge the sled, sniffing and tossing the snow with his foot; but little Knute, Sveggum's son, ran forward and put his arms around the Storbuk's neck; then the fierce look left the Reindeer's eye, and he suffered the child to lead him quietly back to the starting-point. Beware, O driver! the Reindeer, too, "sees red."
This was the coming of the White Storbuk for the folk of Filefjeld.
In the two years that followed he became famous throughout that country as Sveggum's Storbuk, and many a strange exploit was told of him. In twenty minutes he could carry old Sveggum round the six-mile rim of Utrovand. When the snow-slide buried all the village of Holaker, it was the Storbuk that brought the word for help to Opdalstole and returned again over the forty miles of deep snow in seven hours, to carry brandy, food, and promise of speedy aid.
When over-venturesome young Knute Sveggumsen broke through the new thin ice of Utrovand, his cry for help brought the Storbuk to the rescue; for he was the gentlest of his kind and always ready to come at call.
He brought the drowning boy in triumph to the shore, and as they crossed the Vand-dam stream, there was the Troll-bird to sing:
Good luck, good luck, With the White Storbuk.
After which he disappeared for months—doubtless dived into some subaqueous cave to feast and revel all winter; although Sveggum did not believe it was so.
How often is the fate of kingdoms given into child hands, or even committed to the care of Bird or Beast! A She-wolf nursed the Roman Empire. A Wren pecking crumbs on a drum-head aroused the Orange army, it is said, and ended the Stuart reign in Britain. Little wonder, then, that to a noble Reindeer Buk should be committed the fate of Norway: that the Troll on the wheel should have reason in his rhyme.
These were troublous times in Scandinavia. Evil men, traitors at heart, were sowing dissension between the brothers Norway and Sweden. "Down with the Union!" was becoming the popular cry.
Oh, unwise peoples! If only you could have been by Sveggum's wheel to hear the Troll when he sang:
The Raven and the Lion They held the Bear at bay; But he picked the bones of both When they quarrelled by the way.
Threats of civil war, of a fight for independence, were heard throughout Norway. Meetings were held more or less secretly, and at each of them was some one with well-filled pockets and glib tongue, to enlarge on the country's wrongs, and promise assistance from an outside irresistible power as soon as they showed that they meant to strike for freedom. No one openly named the power. That was not necessary; it was everywhere felt and understood. Men who were real patriots began to believe in it. Their country was wronged. Here was one to set her right. Men whose honor was beyond question became secret agents of this power. The state was honeycombed and mined; society was a tangle of plots. The king was helpless, though his only wish was for the people's welfare. Honest and straightforward, what could he do against this far-reaching machination? The very advisers by his side were corrupted through mistaken patriotism. The idea that they were playing into the hands of the foreigner certainly never entered into the minds of these dupes—at least, not those of the rank and file. One or two, tried, selected, and bought by the arch-enemy, knew the real object in view, and the chief of these was Borgrevinck, a former lansman of Nordlands. A man of unusual gifts, a member of the Storthing, a born leader, he might have been prime minister long ago, but for the distrust inspired by several unprincipled dealings. Soured by what he considered want of appreciation, balked in his ambition, he was a ready tool when the foreign agent sounded him. At first his patriotism had to be sopped, but that necessity disappeared as the game went on, and perhaps he alone, of the whole far-reaching conspiracy, was prepared to strike at the Union for the benefit of the foreigner.
Plans were being perfected,—army officers being secretly misled and won over by the specious talk of "their country's wrongs," and each move made Borgrevinck more surely the head of it all,—when a quarrel between himself and the "deliverer" occurred over the question of recompense. Wealth untold they were willing to furnish; but regal power, never. The quarrel became more acute. Borgrevinck continued to attend all meetings, but was ever more careful to centre all power in himself, and even prepared to turn round to the king's party if necessary to further his ambition. The betrayal of his followers would purchase his own safety. But proofs he must have, and he set about getting signatures to a declaration of rights which was simply a veiled confession of treason. Many of the leaders he had deluded into signing this before the meeting at Laersdalsoren. Here they met in the early winter, some twenty of the patriots, some of them men of position, all of them men of brains and power. Here, in the close and stifling parlor, they planned, discussed, and questioned. Great hopes were expressed, great deeds were forecast, in that stove-hot room.
Outside, against the fence, in the winter night, was a Great White Reindeer, harnessed to a sled, but lying down with his head doubled back on his side as he slept, calm, unthoughtful, ox-like. Which seemed likelier to decide the nation's fate, the earnest thinkers indoors, or the ox-like sleeper without? Which seemed more vital to Israel, the bearded council in King Saul's tent, or the light-hearted shepherd-boy hurling stones across the brook at Bethlehem? At Laersdalsoren it was as before: deluded by Borgrevinck's eloquent plausibility, all put their heads in the noose, their lives and country in his hands, seeing in this treacherous monster a very angel of self-sacrificing patriotism. All? No, not all. Old Sveggum was there. He could neither read nor write. That was his excuse for not signing. He could not read a letter in a book, but he could read something of the hearts of men. As the meeting broke up he whispered to Axel Tanberg: "Is his own name on that paper?" And Axel, starting at the thought, said: "No." Then said Sveggum: "I don't trust that man. They ought to know of this at Nystuen." For there was to be the really important meeting. But how to let them know was the riddle. Borgrevinck was going there at once with his fast Horses.
Sveggum's eye twinkled as he nodded toward the Storbuk, standing tied to the fence. Borgrevinck leaped into his sleigh and went off at speed, for he was a man of energy. Sveggum took the bells from the harness, untied the Reindeer, stepped into the pulk. He swung the single rein, clucked to the Storbuk, and also turned his head toward Nystuen. The fast Horses had a long start, but before they had climbed the eastward hill Sveggum needs must slack, so as not to overtake them. He held back till they came to the turn above the woods at Maristuen; then he quit the road, and up the river flat he sped the Buk, a farther way, but the only way to bring them there ahead.
Squeak, crack-squeak, crack-squeak, crack—at regular intervals from the great spreading snow-shoes of the Storbuk, and the steady sough of his breath was like the Nordland as she passes up the Hardanger Fjord. High up, on the smooth road to the left, they could hear the jingle of the horse-bells and the shouting of Borgrevinck's driver, who, under orders, was speeding hard for Nystuen.
The highway was a short road and smooth, and the river valley was long and rough; but when, in four hours, Borgrevinck got to Nystuen, there in the throng was a face that he had just left at Laersdalsoren. He appeared not to notice, though nothing ever escaped him.
At Nystuen none of the men would sign. Some one had warned them. This was serious; might be fatal at such a critical point. As he thought it over, his suspicions turned more and more to Sveggum, the old fool that could not write his name at Laersdalsoren. But how did he get there before himself with his speedy Horses?
There was a dance at Nystuen that night; the dance was necessary to mask the meeting; and during that Borgrevinck learned of the swift White Ren.
The Nystuen trip had failed, thanks to the speed of the White Buk. Borgrevinck must get to Bergen before word of this, or all would be lost. There was only one way, to be sure of getting there before any one else. Possibly word had already gone from Laersdalsoren. But even at that, Borgrevinck could get there and save himself, at the price of all Norway, if need be, provided he went with the White Storbuk. He would not be denied. He was not the man to give up a point, though it took all the influence he could bring to bear, this time, to get old Sveggum's leave.
The Storbuk was quietly sleeping in the corral when Sveggum came to bring him. He rose leisurely, hind legs first, stretched one, then the other, curling his tail tight on his back as he did so, shook the hay from the great antlers as though they were a bunch of twigs, and slowly followed Sveggum at the end of the tight halter. He was so sleepy and slow that Borgrevinck impatiently gave him a kick, and got for response a short snort from the Buk, and from Sveggum an earnest warning, both of which were somewhat scornfully received. The tinkling bells on the harness had been replaced, but Borgrevinck wanted them removed. He wished to go in silence. Sveggum would not be left behind when his favorite Ren went forth, so he was given a seat in the horse-sleigh which was to follow, and the driver thereof received from his master a secret hint to delay.
Then, with papers on his person to death-doom a multitude of misguided men, with fiendish intentions in his heart as well as the power to carry them out, and with the fate of Norway in his hands, Borgrevinck was made secure in the sled, behind the White Storbuk, and sped at dawn on his errand of desolation.
At the word from Sveggum the White Ren set off with a couple of bounds that threw Borgrevinck back in the pulk. This angered him, but he swallowed his wrath on seeing that it left the horse-sleigh behind. He shook the line, shouted, and the Buk settled down to a long, swinging trot. His broad hoofs clicked double at every stride. His nostrils, out level, puffed steady blasts of steam in the frosty morning as he settled to his pace. The pulk's prow cut two long shears of snow, that swirled up over man and sled till all were white. And the great ox-eyes of the King Ren blazed joyously in the delight of motion, and of conquest too, as the sound of the horse-bells faded far behind.
Even masterful Borgrevinck could not but mark with pleasure the noble creature that had balked him last night and now was lending its speed to his purpose; for it was his intention to arrive hours before the horse-sleigh, if possible.
Up the rising road they sped as though downhill, and the driver's spirits rose with the exhilarating speed. The snow groaned ceaselessly under the prow of the pulk, and the frosty creaking under the hoofs of the flying Ren was like the gritting of mighty teeth. Then came the level stretch from Nystuen's hill to Dalecarl's, and as they whirled by in the early day, little Carl chanced to peep from a window, and got sight of the Great White Ren in a white pulk with a white driver, just as it is in the stories of the Giants, and clapped his hands, and cried, "Good, good!"
But his grandfather, when he caught a glimpse of the white wonder that went without even sound of bells, felt a cold chill in his scalp, and went back to light a candle that he kept at the window till the sun was high, for surely this was the Storbuk of Jotunheim.
But the Ren whirled on, and the driver shook the reins and thought only of Bergen. He struck the White Steed with the loose end of the rope. The Buk gave three great snorts and three great bounds, then faster went, and as they passed by Dyrskaur, where the Giant sits on the edge, his head was muffled in scud, which means that a storm is coming. The Storbuk knew it. He sniffed, and eyed the sky with anxious look, and even slacked a little; but Borgrevinck yelled at the speeding beast, though going yet as none but he could go, and struck him once, twice, and thrice, and harder yet. So the pulk was whirled along like a skiff in a steamer's wake; but there was blood in the Storbuk's eye now; and Borgrevinck was hard put to balance the sled. The miles flashed by like roods till Sveggum's bridge appeared. The storm-wind now was blowing, but there was the Troll. Whence came he now, none knew, but there he was, hopping on the keystone and singing of
Norway's fate and Norway's luck, Of the hiding Troll and the riding Buk.
Down the winding highway they came, curving inward as they swung around the corner. At the voice on the bridge the Deer threw back his ears and slackened his pace. Borgrevinck, not knowing whence it came, struck savagely at the Ren. The red light gleamed in those ox-like eyes. He snorted in anger and shook the great horns, but he did not stop to avenge the blow. For him was a vaster vengeance still. He onward sped as before, but from that time Borgrevinck had lost all control. The one voice that the Ren would hear had been left behind. They whirled aside, off the road, before the bridge was reached. The pulk turned over, but righted itself, and Borgrevinck would have been thrown out and killed but for the straps. It was not to be so; it seemed rather as though the every curse of Norway had been gathered into the sled for a purpose. Bruised and battered, he reappeared. The Troll from the bridge leaped lightly to the Storbuk's head, and held on to the horns as he danced and sang his ancient song, and a new song, too:
Ha! at last! Oh, lucky day, Norway's curse to wipe away!
Borgrevinck was terrified and furious. He struck harder at the Storbuk as he bounded over the rougher snow, and vainly tried to control him. He lost his head in fear. He got out his knife, at last, to strike at the wild Buk's hamstrings, but a blow from the hoof sent it flying from his hand. Their speed on the road was slow to that they now made: no longer striding at the trot, but bounding madly, great five-stride bounds, the wretched Borgrevinck strapped in the sled, alone and helpless through his own contriving, screaming, cursing, and praying. The Storbuk with bloodshot eyes, madly steaming, careered up the rugged ascent, up to the broken, stormy Hoifjeld; mounting the hills as a Petrel mounts the rollers, skimming the flats as a Fulmar skims the shore, he followed the trail where his mother had first led his tottering steps, up from the Vand-dam nook. He followed the old familiar route that he had followed for five years, where the white-winged Rype flies aside, where the black rock mountains, shining white, come near and block the sky, "where the Reindeer find their mysterie."
On like the little snow-wreath that the storm-wind sends dancing before the storm, on like a whirlwind over the shoulder of Suletind, over the knees of Torholmenbrae—the Giants that sit at the gateway. Faster than man or beast could follow, up—up—up—and on; and no one saw them go, but a Raven that swooped behind, and flew as Raven never flew, and the Troll, the same old Troll that sang by the Vand-dam, and now danced and sang between the antlers:
Good luck, good luck for Norway With the White Storbuk comes riding.
Over Tvindehoug they faded like flying scud on the moorlands, on to the gloomy distance, away toward Jotunheim, the home of the Evil Spirits, the Land of the Lasting Snow. Their every sign and trail was wiped away by the drifting storm, and the end of them no man knows.
The Norse folk awoke as from a horrid nightmare. Their national ruin was averted; there were no deaths, for there were no proofs; and the talebearer's strife was ended.
The one earthly sign remaining from that drive is the string of silver bells that Sveggum had taken from the Storbuk's neck—the victory bells, each the record of a triumph won; and when the old man came to understand, he sighed, and hung to the string a final bell, the largest of them all.
Nothing more was ever seen or heard of the creature who so nearly sold his country, or of the White Storbuk who balked him. Yet those who live near Jotunheim say that on stormy nights, when the snow is flying and the wind is raving in the woods, there sometimes passes, at frightful speed, an enormous White Reindeer with fiery eyes, drawing a snow-white pulk, in which is a screaming wretch in white, and on the head of the Deer, balancing by the horns, is a brown-clad, white-bearded Troll, bowing and grinning pleasantly at him, and singing
Of Norway's luck And a White Storbuk—
the same, they say, as the one that with prophetic vision sang by Sveggum's Vand-dam on a bygone day when the birches wore their springtime hangers, and a great mild-eyed Varsimle' came alone, to go away with a little white Renskalv walking slowly, demurely, by her side.