A half-superstitious regard for him became general among the people; first, because it seemed impossible that any man could play as he did without the aid of some supernatural power; and secondly, because his gentle demeanor and quaint, terse sayings inspired them with admiration. It was difficult to tell by whom the name, Wise Nils, was first started, but it was felt by all to be appropriate, and it therefore clung to the modest fiddler, in spite of all his protests.
Before he was twenty-five years old it became the fashion to go to him and consult him in difficult situations; and though he long shrank from giving advice, his reluctance wore away, when it became evident to him that he could actually benefit the people.
There was nothing mysterious in his counsel. All he said was as clear and rational as the day-light. But the good folk were nevertheless inclined to attribute a higher authority to him; and would desist from vice or folly for his sake, when they would not for their own sake. It was odd, indeed: this Wise Nils, the fiddler, became a great man in the valley, and his renown went abroad and brought him visitors, seeking his counsel, from distant parishes. Rarely did anyone leave him disappointed, or at least without being benefited by his sympathetic advice.
One summer, during the tourist season, a famous foreign musician came to Norway, accompanied by a rich American gentleman. While in his neighborhood, they heard the story of the rustic fiddler, and became naturally curious to see him.
They accordingly went to his cottage, in order to have some sport with him, for they expected to find a vain and ignorant charlatan, inflated by the flattery of his more ignorant neighbors. But Nils received them with a simple dignity which quite disarmed them. They had come to mock; they stayed to admire. This peasant's artless speech, made up of ancient proverbs and shrewd common-sense, and instinct with a certain sunny beneficence, impressed them wonderfully.
And when, at their request, he played some of his improvisations, the renowned musician exclaimed that here was, indeed, a great artist lost to the world. In spite of the poor violin, there was a marvellously touching quality in the music; something new and alluring which had never been heard before.
But Nils himself was not aware of it. Occasionally, while he played, the Nixy's haunting strain would flit through his brain, or hover about it, where he could feel it, as it were, but yet be unable to catch it. This was his regret—his constant chase for those elusive notes that refused to be captured.
But he consoled himself many a time with the reflection that it was the fiddle's fault, not his own. With a finer instrument, capable of rendering more delicate shades of sound, he might yet surprise the Nixy's strain, and record it unmistakably in black and white.
The foreign musician and his American friend departed, but returned at the end of two weeks. They then offered to accompany Nils on a concert tour through all the capitals of Europe and the large cities of America, and to insure him a sum of money which fairly made him dizzy.
Nils begged for time to consider, and the next day surprised them by declining the startling offer.
He was a peasant, he said, and must remain a peasant. He belonged here in his native valley, where he could do good, and was happy in the belief that he was useful.
Out in the great world, of which he knew nothing, he might indeed gather wealth, but he might lose his peace of mind, which was more precious than wealth. He was content with a moderate prosperity, and that he had already attained. He had enough, and more than enough, to satisfy his modest wants, and to provide those who were dear to him with reasonable comfort in their present condition of life.
The strangers were amazed at a man's thus calmly refusing a fortune that was within his easy grasp, for they did not doubt that Nils, with his entirely unconventional manner of playing, and yet with that extraordinary moving quality in his play, would become the rage both in Europe and America, as a kind of heaven-born, untutored genius, and fill both his own pockets and theirs with shekels.
They made repeated efforts to persuade him, but it was all in vain. With smiling serenity, he told them that he had uttered his final decision. They then took leave of him, and a month after their departure there arrived from Germany a box addressed to Nils. He opened it with some trepidation, and it was found to contain a Cremona violin—a genuine Stradivarius.
The moment Nils touched the strings with the bow, a thrill of rapture went through him, the like of which he had never experienced. The divine sweetness and purity of the tone that vibrated through those magic chambers resounded through all his being, and made him feel happy and exalted.
It occurred to him, while he was coaxing the intoxicating music from his instrument, that tonight would be midsummer night. Now was his chance to catch the Nixy's strain, for this exquisite violin would be capable of rendering the very chant of the archangels in the morning of time.
To-night he would surprise the Nixy, and the divine strain should no more drift like a melodious mist through his brain; for at midsummer night the Nixy always plays the loudest, and then, if ever, is the time to learn what he felt must be the highest secret of the musical art.
Hugging his Stradivarius close to his breast, to protect it from the damp night-air, Nils hurried through the birch woods down to the river. The moon was sailing calmly through a fleecy film of cloud, and a light mist hovered over the tops of the forest.
The fiery afterglow of the sunset still lingered in the air, though the sun had long been hidden, but the shadows of the trees were gaunt and dark, as in the light of the moon.
The sound of the cataract stole with a whispering rush through the underbrush, for the water was low at midsummer, and a good deal of it was diverted to the mill, which was working busily away, with its big water-wheel going round and round.
Nils paused close to the mill, and peered intently into the rushing current; but nothing appeared. Then he stole down to the river-bank, where he seated himself on a big stone, barely out of reach of the spray, which blew in gusts from the cataract. He sat for a long while motionless, gazing with rapt intentness at the struggling, foaming rapids, but he saw or heard nothing.
Then all of a sudden it seemed to him that the air began to vibrate faintly with a vague, captivating rhythm. Nils could hear his heart beat in his throat. With trembling eagerness he unwrapped the violin and raised it to his chin.
Now, surely, there was a note. It belonged on the A string. No, not there. On the E string, perhaps. But no, not there, either.
Look! What is that?
A flash, surely, through the water of a beautiful naked arm.
And there—no, not there—but somewhere from out of the gentle rush of the middle current there seemed to come to him a marvellous mist of drifting sound—ineffably, rapturously sweet!
With a light movement Nils runs his bow over the strings, but not a ghost, not a semblance, can he reproduce of the swift, scurrying flight of that wondrous melody. Again and again he listens breathlessly, and again and again despair overwhelms him.
Should he, then, never see the Nixy, and ask the fulfilment of his three wishes?
Curiously enough, those three wishes which once were so great a part of his life had now almost escaped him. It was the Nixy's strain he had been intent upon, and the wishes had lapsed into oblivion.
And what were they, really, those three wishes, for the sake of which he desired to confront the Nixy?
Well, the first—the first was—what was it, now? Yes, now at length he remembered. The first was wisdom.
Well, the people called him Wise Nils now, so, perhaps, that wish was superfluous. Very likely he had as much wisdom as was good for him. At all events, he had refused to acquire more by going abroad to acquaint himself with the affairs of the great world.
Then the second wish; yes, he could recall that. It was fame. It was odd indeed; that, too, he had refused, and what he possessed of it was as much, or even far more, than he desired. But when he called to mind the third and last of his boyish wishes, a moderate prosperity or a good violin—for that was the alternative—he had to laugh outright, for both the violin and the prosperity were already his.
Nils lapsed into deep thought, as he sat there in the summer night, with the crowns of the trees above him and the brawling rapids swirling about him.
Had not the Nixy bestowed upon him her best gift already in permitting him to hear that exquisite ghost of a melody, that shadowy, impalpable strain, which had haunted him these many years? In pursuing that he had gained the goal of his desires, till other things he had wished for had come to him unawares, as it were, and almost without his knowing it. And now what had he to ask of the Nixy, who had blessed him so abundantly?
The last secret, the wondrous strain, forsooth, that he might imprison it in notes, and din it in the ears of an unappreciative multitude! Perhaps it were better, after all, to persevere forever in the quest, for what would life have left to offer him if the Nixy's strain was finally caught, when all were finally attained, and no divine melody haunted the brain, beyond the powers even of a Stradivarius to lure from its shadowy realm?
Nils walked home that night plunged in deep meditation. He vowed to himself that he would never more try to catch the Nixy's strain. But the next day, when he seized the violin, there it was again, and, strive as he might, he could not forbear trying to catch it.
Wise Nils is many years older now; has a good wife and several children, and is a happy man; but to this day, resolve as he will, he has never been able to abandon the effort to catch the Nixy's strain. Sometimes he thinks he has half caught it, but when he tries to play it, it is always gone.
THE WONDER CHILD
A very common belief in Norway, as in many other lands, is that the seventh child of the seventh child can heal the sick by the laying on of hands. Such a child is therefore called a wonder child. Little Carina Holt was the seventh in a family of eight brothers and sisters, but she grew to be six years old before it became generally known that she was a wonder child. Then people came from afar to see her, bringing their sick with them; and morning after morning, as Mrs. Holt rolled up the shades, she found invalids, seated or standing in the snow, gazing with devout faith and anxious longing toward Carina's window.
It seemed a pity to send them away uncomforted, when the look and the touch cost Carina so little. But there was another fear that arose in the mother's breast, and that was lest her child should be harmed by the veneration with which she was regarded, and perhaps come to believe that she was something more than a common mortal. What was more natural than that a child who was told by grown-up people that there was healing in her touch, should at last come to believe that she was something apart and extraordinary?
It would have been a marvel, indeed, if the constant attention she attracted, and the pilgrimages that were made to her, had failed to make any impression upon her sensitive mind. Vain she was not, and it would have been unjust to say that she was spoiled. She had a tender nature, full of sympathy for sorrow and suffering. She was constantly giving away her shoes, her stockings, nay, even her hood and cloak, to poor little invalids, whose misery appealed to her merciful heart. It was of no use to scold her; you could no more prevent a stream from flowing than Carina from giving. It was a spontaneous yielding to an impulse that was too strong to be resisted.
But to her father there was something unnatural in it; he would have preferred to have her frankly selfish, as most children are, not because he thought it lovely, but because it was childish and natural. Her unusual goodness gave him a pang more painful than ever the bad behavior of her brothers had occasioned. On the other hand, it delighted him to see her do anything that ordinary children did. He was charmed if she could be induced to take part in a noisy romp, play tag, or dress her dolls. But there followed usually after each outbreak of natural mirth a shy withdrawal into herself, a resolute and quiet retirement, as if she, were a trifle ashamed of her gayety. There was nothing morbid in these moods, no brooding sadness or repentance, but a touching solemnity, a serene, almost cheerful seriousness, which in one of her years seemed strange.
Mr. Holt had many a struggle with himself as to how he should treat Carina's delusion; and he made up his mind, at last, that it was his duty to do everything in his power to dispel and counteract it. When he happened to overhear her talking to her dolls one day, laying her hands upon them, and curing them of imaginary diseases, he concluded it was high time for him to act.
He called Carina to him, remonstrated kindly with her, and forbade her henceforth to see the people who came to her for the purpose of being cured. But it distressed him greatly to see how reluctantly she consented to obey him.
When Carina awoke the morning after this promise had been extorted from her, she heard the dogs barking furiously in the yard below. Her elder sister, Agnes, was standing half dressed before the mirror, holding the end of one blond braid between her teeth, while tying the other with a pink ribbon. Seeing that Carina was awake, she gave her a nod in the glass, and, removing her braid, observed that there evidently were sick pilgrims under the window. She could sympathize with Sultan and Hector, she averred, in their dislike of pilgrims.
"Oh, I wish they would not come!" sighed Carina. "It will be so hard for me to send them away."
"I thought you liked curing people," exclaimed Agnes.
"I do, sister, but papa has made me promise never to do it again."
She arose and began to dress, her sister assisting her, chatting all the while like a gay little chirruping bird that neither gets nor expects an answer. She was too accustomed to Carina's moods to be either annoyed or astonished; but she loved her all the same, and knew that her little ears were wide open, even though she gave no sign of listening.
Carina had just completed her simple toilet when Guro, the chamber-maid, entered, and announced that there were some sick folk below who wished to see the wonder child.
"Tell them I cannot see them," answered Carina, with a tremulous voice; "papa does not permit me."
"But this man, Atle Pilot, has come from so far away in this dreadful cold," pleaded Guro, "and his son is so very bad, poor thing; he's lying down in the boat, and he sighs and groans fit to move a stone."
"Don't! Don't tell her that," interposed Agnes, motioning to the girl to begone. "Don't you see it is hard enough for her already?"
There was something in the air, as the two sisters descended the stairs hand in hand, which foreboded calamity. The pastor had given out from the pulpit last Sunday that he would positively receive no invalids at his house; and he had solemnly charged every one to refrain from bringing their sick to his daughter. He had repeated this announcement again and again, and he was now very much annoyed at his apparent powerlessness to protect his child from further imposition. Loud and angry speech was heard in his office, and a noise as if the furniture were being knocked about. The two little girls remained standing on the stairs, each gazing at the other's frightened face. Then there was a great bang, and a stalwart, elderly sailor came tumbling head foremost out into the hall. His cap was flung after him through the crack of the door. Agnes saw for an instant her father's face, red and excited; and in his bearing there was something wild and strange, which was so different from his usual gentle and dignified appearance. The sailor stood for a while bewildered, leaning against the wall; then he stooped slowly and picked up his cap. But the moment he caught sight of Carina his embarrassment vanished, and his rough features were illuminated with an intense emotion.
"Come, little miss, and help me," he cried, in a hoarse, imploring whisper. "Halvor, my son—he is the only one God gave me—he is sick; he is going to die, miss, unless you take pity on him."
"Where is he?" asked Carina.
"He's down in the boat, miss, at the pier. But I'll carry him up to you, if you like. We have been rowing half the night in the cold, and he is very low."
"No, no; you mustn't bring him here," said Agnes, seeing by Carina's face that she was on the point of yielding. "Father would be so angry."
"He may kill me if he likes," exclaimed the sailor, wildly. "It doesn't matter to me. But Halvor he's the only one I have, miss, and his mother died when he was born, and he is young, miss, and he will have many years to live, if you'll only have mercy on him."
"But, you know, I shouldn't dare, on papa's account, to have you bring him here," began Carina, struggling with her tears.
"Ah, yes! Then you will go to him. God bless you for that!" cried the poor man, with agonized eagerness. And interpreting the assent he read in Carina's eye, he caught her up in his arms, snatched a coat from a peg in the wall, and wrapping her in it, tore open the door. Carina made no outcry, and was not in the least afraid. She felt herself resting in two strong arms, warmly wrapped and borne away at a great speed over the snow. But Agnes, seeing her sister vanish in that sudden fashion, gave a scream which called her father to the door.
"What has happened?" he asked. "Where is Carina?"
"That dreadful Atle Pilot took her and ran away with her."
"Ran away with her?" cried the pastor in alarm. "How? Where?"
"Down to the pier."
It was a few moments' work for the terrified father to burst open the door, and with his velvet skull-cap on his head, and the skirts of his dressing-gown flying wildly about him, rush down toward the beach. He saw Atle Pilot scarcely fifty feet in advance of him, and shouted to him at the top of his voice. But the sailor only redoubled his speed, and darted out upon the pier, hugging tightly to his breast the precious burden he carried. So blindly did he rush ahead that the pastor expected to see him plunge headlong into the icy waves. But, as by a miracle, he suddenly checked himself, and grasping with one hand the flag-pole, swung around it, a foot or two above the black water, and regained his foothold upon the planks. He stood for an instant irresolute, staring down into a boat which lay moored to the end of the pier. What he saw resembled a big bundle, consisting of a sheepskin coat and a couple of horse blankets.
"Halvor," he cried, with a voice that shook with emotion, "I have brought her."
There was presently a vague movement under the horse-blankets, and after a minute's struggle a pale yellowish face became visible. It was a young face—the face of a boy of fifteen or sixteen. But, oh, what suffering was depicted in those sunken eyes, those bloodless, cracked lips, and the shrunken yellow skin which clung in premature wrinkles about the emaciated features! An old and worn fur cap was pulled down over his ears, but from under its rim a few strands of blond hair were hanging upon his forehead.
Atle had just disentangled Carina from her wrappings, and was about to descend the stairs to the water when a heavy hand seized him by the shoulder, and a panting voice shouted in his ear:
"Give me back my child."
He paused, and turned his pathetically bewildered face toward the pastor. "You wouldn't take him from me, parson," he stammered, helplessly; "no, you wouldn't. He's the only one I've got."
"I don't take him from you," the parson thundered, wrathfully. "But what right have you to come and steal my child, because yours is ill?"
"When life is at stake, parson," said the pilot, imploringly, "one gets muddled about right and wrong. I'll do your little girl no harm. Only let her lay her blessed hands upon my poor boy's head, and he will be well."
"I have told you no, man, and I must put a stop to this stupid idolatry, which will ruin my child, and do you no good. Give her back to me, I say, at once."
The pastor held out his hand to receive Carina, who stared at him with large pleading eyes out of the grizzly wolf-skin coat.
"Be good to him, papa," she begged. "Only this once."
"No, child; no parleying now; come instantly."
And he seized her by main force, and tore her out of the pilot's arms. But to his dying day he remembered the figure of the heart-broken man, as he stood outlined against the dark horizon, shaking his clinched fists against the sky, and crying out, in a voice of despair:
"May God show you the same mercy on the Judgment Day as you have shown to me!"
Six miserable days passed. The weather was stormy, and tidings of shipwreck and calamity filled the air. Scarcely a visitor came to the parsonage who had not some tale of woe to relate. The pastor, who was usually so gentle and cheerful, wore a dismal face, and it was easy to see that something was weighing on his mind.
"May God show you the same mercy on the Judgment Day as you have shown to me!"
These words rang constantly in his ears by night and by day. Had he not been right, according to the laws of God and man, in defending his household against the assaults of ignorance and superstition? Would he have been justified in sacrificing his own child, even if he could thereby save another's? And, moreover, was it not all a wild, heathenish delusion, which it was his duty as a servant of God to stamp out and root out at all hazards? Yes, there could be no doubt of it; he had but exercised his legal right. He had done what was demanded of him by laws human and divine. He had nothing to reproach himself for. And yet, with a haunting persistency, the image of the despairing pilot praying God for vengeance stared at him from every dark corner, and in the very church bells, as they rang out their solemn invitation to the house of God, he seemed to hear the rhythm and cadence of the heart-broken father's imprecation. In the depth of his heart there was a still small voice which told him that, say what he might, he had acted cruelly. If he put himself in Atle Pilot's place, bound as he was in the iron bonds of superstition, how different the case would look? He saw himself, in spirit, rowing in a lonely boat through the stormy winter night to his pastor, bringing his only son, who was at the point of death, and praying that the pastor's daughter might lay her hands upon him, as Christ had done to the blind, the halt, and the maimed. And his pastor received him with wrath, nay, with blows, and sent him away uncomforted. It was a hideous picture indeed, and Mr. Holt would have given years of his life to be rid of it.
It was on the sixth day after Atle's visit that the pastor, sitting alone in his study, called Carina to him. He had scarcely seen her during the last six days, or at least talked with her. Her sweet innocent spirit would banish the shadows that darkened his soul.
"Carina," he said, in his old affectionate way, "papa wants to see you. Come here and let me talk a little with you."
But could he trust his eyes? Carina, who formerly had run so eagerly into his arms, stood hesitating, as if she hoped to be excused.
"Well, my little girl," he asked, in a tone of apprehension, "don't you want to talk with papa?"
"I would rather wait till some other time, papa," she managed to stammer, while her little face flushed with embarrassment.
Mr. Holt closed the door silently, flung himself into a chair, and groaned. That was a blow from where he had least expected it. The child had judged him and found him wanting. His Carina, his darling, who had always been closest to his heart, no longer responded to his affection! Was the pilot's prayer being fulfilled? Was he losing his own child in return for the one he had refused to save? With a pang in his breast, which was like an aching wound, he walked up and down on the floor and marvelled at his own blindness. He had erred indeed; and there was no hope that any chance would come to him to remedy the wrong.
The twilight had deepened into darkness while he revolved this trouble in his mind. The night was stormy, and the limbs of the trees without were continually knocking and bumping against the walls of the house. The rusty weather-vane on the roof whined and screamed, and every now and then the sleet dashed against the window-panes like a handful of shot. The wind hurled itself against the walls, so that the timbers creaked and pulled at the shutters, banged stray doors in out-of-the-way garrets, and then, having accomplished its work, whirled away over the fields with a wild and dismal howl. The pastor sat listening mournfully to this tempestuous commotion. Once he thought he heard a noise as of a door opening near by him, and softly closing; but as he saw no one, he concluded it was his overwrought fancy that had played him a trick. He seated himself again in his easy-chair before the stove, which spread a dim light from its draught-hole into the surrounding gloom.
While he sat thus absorbed in his meditations, he was startled at the sound of something resembling a sob. He arose to strike a light, but found that his match-safe was empty. But what was that? A step without, surely, and the groping of hands for the door-knob.
"Who is there?" cried the pastor, with a shivering uneasiness.
He sprang forward and opened the door. A broad figure, surmounted by a sou'wester, loomed up in the dark.
"What do you want?" asked Mr. Holt, with forced calmness.
"I want to know," answered a gruff, hoarse voice, "if you'll come to my son now, and help him into eternity?"
The pastor recognized Atle Pilot's voice, though it seemed harsher and hoarser than usual.
"Sail across the fjord on a night like this?" he exclaimed.
"That's what I ask you."
"And the boy is dying, you say?"
"Can't last till morning."
"And has he asked for the sacrament?"
The pilot stepped across the threshold and entered the room. He proceeded slowly to pull off his mittens; then looking up at the pastor's face, upon which a vague sheen fell from the stove, he broke out:
"Will you come or will you not? You wouldn't help him to live; now will you help him to die?"
The words, thrust forth with a slow, panting emphasis, hit the pastor like so many blows.
"I will come," he said, with solemn resolution. "Sit down till I get ready."
He had expected some expression of gratification or thanks, for Atle well knew what he had asked. It was his life the pastor risked, but this time in his calling as a physician, not of bodies, but of souls. It struck him, while he took leave of his wife, that there was something resentful and desperate in the pilot's manner, so different from his humble pleading at their last meeting.
As he embraced the children one by one, and kissed them, he missed Carina, but was told that she had probably gone to the cow-stable with the dairy-maid, who was her particular friend. So he left tender messages for her, and, summoning Atle, plunged out into the storm. A servant walked before him with a lantern, and lighted the way down to the pier, where the boat lay tossing upon the waves.
"But, man," cried the pastor, seeing that the boat was empty, "where are your boatmen?"
"I am my own boatman," answered Atle, gloomily. "You can hold the sheet, I the tiller."
Mr. Holt was ashamed of retiring now, when he had given his word.
But it was with a sinking heart that he stepped into the frail skiff, which seemed scarcely more than a nutshell upon the tempestuous deep. He was on the point of asking his servant, unacquainted though he was with seamanship, to be the third man in the boat; but the latter, anticipating his intention, had made haste to betake himself away. To venture out into this roaring darkness, with no beacon to guide them, and scarcely a landmark discernible, was indeed to tempt Providence.
But by the time he had finished this reflection, the pastor felt himself rushing along at a tremendous speed, and short, sharp commands rang in his ears, which instantly engrossed all his attention. To his eyes the sky looked black as ink, except for a dark-blue unearthly shimmer that now and then flared up from the north, trembled, and vanished. By this unsteady illumination it was possible to catch a momentary glimpse of a head, and a peak, and the outline of a mountain. The small sail was double-reefed, yet the boat careened so heavily that the water broke over the gunwale. The squalls beat down upon them with tumultuous roar and smoke, as of snow-drifts, in their wake; but the little boat, climbing the top of the waves and sinking into the dizzy black pits between them, sped fearlessly along and the pastor began to take heart. Then, with a fierce cutting distinctness, came the command out of the dark.
"Pull out the reefs!"
"Are you crazy, man?" shouted the pastor. "Do you want to sail straight into eternity?"
"Pull out the reefs!" The command was repeated with wrathful emphasis.
"Then we are dead men, both you and I."
"So we are, parson—dead men. My son lies dead at home, though you might have saved him. So, now, parson, we are quits."
With a fierce laugh he rose up, and still holding the tiller, stretched his hand to tear out the reefs. But at that instant, just as a quivering shimmer broke across the sky, something rose up from under the thwart and stood between them. Atle started back with a hoarse scream.
"In Heaven's name, child!" he cried. "Oh, God, have mercy upon me!"
And the pastor, not knowing whether he saw a child or a vision, cried out in the same moment: "Carina, my darling! Carina, how came you here?"
It was Carina, indeed; but the storm whirled her tiny voice away over the waves, and her father, folding her with one arm to his breast, while holding the sheet with the other, did not hear what she answered to his fervent exclamation. He only knew that her dear little head rested close to his heart, and that her yellow hair blew across his face.
"I wanted to save that poor boy, papa," were the only words that met his ears. But he needed no more to explain the mystery. It was Carina, who, repenting of her unkindness to him, had stolen into his study, while he sat in the dark, and there she had heard Atle Pilot's message. Even if this boy was sick unto death, she might perhaps cure him, and make up for her father's harshness. Thus reasoned the sage Carina; and she had gone secretly and prepared for the voyage, and battled with the storm, which again and again threw her down on her road to the pier. It was a miracle that she got safely into the boat, and stowed herself away snugly under the stern thwart.
The clearing in the north gradually spread over the sky, and the storm abated. Soon they had the shore in view, and the lights of the fishermen's cottages gleamed along the beach of the headland. Presently they ran into smoother water; a star or two flashed forth, and wide blue expanses appeared here and there on the vault of the sky. They spied the red lanterns marking the wharf, about which a multitude of boats lay, moored to stakes, and with three skilful tacks Atle made the harbor. It was here, standing on the pier, amid the swash and swirl of surging waters, that the pilot seized Carina's tiny hand in his big and rough one.
"Parson," he said, with a breaking voice, "I was going to run afoul of you, and wreck myself with you; but this child, God bless her! she ran us both into port, safe and sound."
But Carina did not hear what he said, for she lay sweetly sleeping in her father's arms.
"THE SONS OF THE VIKINGS"
When Hakon Vang said his prayers at night, he usually finished with these words: "And I thank thee, God, most of all, because thou madest me a Norseman, and not a German or an Englishman or a Swede."
To be a Norseman appears to the Norse boy a claim to distinction.
God has made so many millions of Englishmen and Russians and Germans, that there can be no particular honor in being one of so vast a herd; while of Norsemen He has made only a small and select number, whom He looks after with special care; upon whom He showers such favors as poverty and cold (with a view to keeping them good and hardy), and remoteness from all the glittering temptations that beset the nations in whom He takes a less paternal interest. Thus at least reasons, in a dim way, the small boy in Norway; thus he is taught to reason by his parents and instructors.
As for Hakon Vang, he strutted along the beach like a turkey-cock, whenever he thought of his glorious descent from the Vikings—those daring pirates that stole thrones and kingdoms, and mixed their red Norse blood in the veins of all the royal families of Europe. The teacher of history (who was what is called a Norse-Norseman) had on one occasion, with more patriotic zeal than discretion, undertaken to pick out those boys in his class who were of pure Norse descent; whose blood was untainted by any foreign admixture. The delighted pride of this small band made them an object of envy to all the rest of the school. Hakon, when his name was mentioned, felt as if he had added a yard to his height. Tears of joy started to his eyes; and to give vent to his overcharged feelings, he broke into a war-whoop; for which he received five black marks and was kept in at recess.
But he minded that very little; all great men, he reflected, have had to suffer for their country.
What Hakon loved above all things to study—nay, the only thing he loved to study—was the old Sagas, which are tales, poems, and histories of the deeds of the Norsemen in ancient times. With eleven of his classmates, who were about his own age and as Norse as himself, he formed a brotherhood which was called "The Sons of the Vikings." They gave each other tremendously bloody surnames, in the style of the Sagas—names that reeked with gore and heroism. Hakon himself assumed the pleasing appellation "Skull-splitter," and his classmate Frithjof Ronning was dubbed Vargr-i-Veum, which means Wolf-in-the-Temple. One Son of the Vikings was known as Ironbeard, another as Erling the Lop-Sided, a third as Thore the Hound, a fourth as Aslak Stone-Skull. But a serious difficulty, which came near disrupting the brotherhood, arose over these very names. It was felt that Hakon had taken an unfair advantage of the rest in selecting the bloodiest name at the outset (before anyone else had had an opportunity to choose), and there was a general demand that he should give it up and allow all to draw lots for it. But this Hakon stoutly refused to do; and declared that if anyone wanted his name he would have to fight for it, in good old Norse fashion.
A holm-gang or duel was then arranged; that is, a ring was marked out with stones; the combatants stepped within it, and he who could drive his antagonist outside of the stone ring was declared to be the victor. Frithjof, who felt that he had a better claim to be named Skull-Splitter than Hakon, was the first to accept the challenge; but after a terrible combat was forced to bite the dust. His conqueror was, however, filled with such a glowing admiration of his valor (as combatants in the Sagas frequently are), that he proposed that they should swear eternal friendship and foster-brotherhood, and seal their compact, according to Norse custom, by the ceremony called "Mingling of Blood." It is needless to say that this seemed to all the boys a most delightful proposition; and they entered upon the august rite with a deep sense of its solemnity.
First a piece of sod, about twelve feet square, was carefully raised upon wooden stakes representing spears, so as to form a green roof over the foster-brothers. Then, sitting upon the black earth, where the turf had been removed, they bared their arms to the shoulder, and in the presence of his ten brethren, as witnesses, each swore that he would regard the other as his true brother and love him and treat him as such, and avenge his death if he survived him; in solemn testimony of which each drew a knife and opened a vein in his arm, letting their blood mingle and flow together. Hakon, however, in his heroic zeal, drove the knife into his flesh rather recklessly, and when the blood had flowed profusely for five minutes, he grew a trifle uneasy. Frithjof, after having bathed his arm in a neighboring brook, had no difficulty in stanching the blood, but the poor Skull-Splitter's wound, in spite of cold water and bandages, kept pouring forth its warm current without sign of abatement. Hakon grew paler and paler, and would have burst into tears, if he had not been a "Son of the Vikings." It would have been a relief to him, for the moment, not to have been a "Son of the Vikings." For he was terribly frightened, and thought surely he was going to bleed to death. The other Vikings, too, began to feel rather alarmed at such a prospect; and when Erling the Lop-Sided (the pastor's son) proposed that they should carry Hakon to the doctor, no one made any objection. But the doctor unhappily lived so far away that Hakon might die before he got there.
"Well, then," said Wolf-in-the Temple, "let us take him to old Witch-Martha. She can stanch blood and do lots of other queer things."
"Yes, and that is much more Norse, too," suggested Thore the Hound; "wise women learned physic and bandaged wounds in the olden time. Men were never doctors."
"Yes, Witch-Martha is just the right style," said Erling the Lop-Sided down in his boots; for he had naturally a shrill voice and gave himself great pains to produce a manly bass.
"We must make a litter to carry the Skull-Splitter on," exclaimed Einar Bowstring-Twanger (the sheriff's son); "he'll never get to Witch-Martha alive if he is to walk."
This suggestion was favorably received, the boys set to work with a will, and in a few minutes had put together a litter of green twigs and branches. Hakon, who was feeling curiously light-headed and exhausted, allowed himself to be placed upon it in a reclining position; and its swinging motion, as his friends carried it along, nearly rocked him to sleep. The fear of death was but vaguely present to his mind; but his self-importance grew with every moment, as he saw his blood trickle through the leaves and drop at the roadside. He appeared to himself a brave Norse warrior who was being carried by his comrades from the battle-field, where he had greatly distinguished himself. And now to be going, to the witch who, by magic rhymes and incantations, was to stanch the ebbing stream of his life—what could be more delightful?
Witch Martha lived in a small lonely cottage down by the river. Very few people ever went to see her in the day-time; but at night she often had visitors. Mothers who suspected that their children were changelings, whom the Trolds had put in the cradle, taking the human infants away; girls who wanted to "turn the hearts" of their lovers, and lovers who wanted to turn the hearts of the girls; peasants who had lost money or valuables and wanted help to trace the thief—these and many others sought secret counsel with Witch-Martha, and rarely went away uncomforted. She was an old weather-beaten woman with a deeply wrinkled, smoky-brown face, and small shrewd black eyes. The floor in her cottage was strewn with sand and fresh juniper twigs; from the rafters under the ceiling hung bunches of strange herbs; and in the windows were flower-pots with blooming plants in them.
Martha was stooping at the hearth, blowing and puffing at the fire under her coffee-pot, when the Sons of the Vikings knocked at the door. Wolf-in-the-Temple was the man who took the lead; and when Witch-Martha opened the upper half of the door (she never opened both at the same time) she was not a little astonished to see the Captain's son, Frithjof Ronning, staring up at her with an anxious face.
"What cost thou want, lad?" she asked, gruffly; "thou hast gone astray surely, and I'll show thee the way home."
"I am Wolf-in-the-Temple," began Frithjof, thrusting out his chest, and raising his head proudly.
"Dear me, you don't say so!" exclaimed Martha.
"My comrade and foster-brother Skull-Splitter has been wounded; and I want thee, old crone, to stanch his blood before he bleeds to death."
"Dear, dear me, how very strange!" ejaculated the Witch, and shook her aged head.
She had been accustomed to extraordinary requests; but the language of this boy struck her as being something of the queerest she had yet heard.
"Where is thy Skull-Splitter, lad?" she asked, looking at him dubiously.
"Right here in the underbrush," Wolf-in-the-Temple retorted, gallantly; "stir thy aged stumps now, and thou shalt be right royally rewarded."
He had learned from Walter Scott's romances that this was the proper way to address inferiors, and he prided himself not a little on his jaunty condescension. Imagine then his surprise when the "old crone" suddenly turned on him with an angry scowl and said:
"If thou canst not keep a civil tongue in thy head, I'll bring a thousand plagues upon thee, thou umnannerly boy."
By this threat Wolf-in-the-Temple's courage was sadly shaken. He knew Martha's reputation as a witch, and had no desire to test in his own person whether rumor belied her.
"Please, mum, I beg of you," he said, with a sudden change of tone; "my friend Hakon Vang is bleeding to death; won't you please help him?"
"Thy friend Hakon Vang!" cried Martha, to whom that name was very familiar; "bring him in, as quick as thou canst, and I'll do what I can for him."
Wolf-in-the-Temple put two fingers into his mouth and gave a loud shrill whistle, which was answered from the woods, and presently the small procession moved up to the door, carrying their wounded comrade between them. The poor Skull-Splitter was now as white as a sheet, and the drowsiness of his eyes and the laxness of his features showed that help came none too early. Martha, in hot haste, grabbed a bag of herbs, thrust it into a pot of warm water, and clapped it on the wound. Then she began to wag her head slowly to and fro, and crooned, to a soft and plaintive tune, words which sounded to the ears of the boys shudderingly strange:
"I conjure in water, I conjure in lead, I conjure with herbs that grew o'er the dead; I conjure with flowers that I plucked, without shoon, When the ghosts were abroad, in the wane of the moon. I conjure with spirits of earth and air That make the wind sigh and cry in despair; I conjure by him within sevenfold rings That sits and broods at the roots of things. I conjure by him who healeth strife, Who plants and waters the germs of life. I conjure, I conjure, I bid thee be still, Thou ruddy stream, thou hast flowed thy fill! Return to thy channel and nurture his life Till his destined measure of years be rife."
She sang the last two lines with sudden energy; and when she removed her hand from the wound, the blood had ceased to flow. The poor Skull-Splitter was sleeping soundly; and his friends, shivering a little with mysterious fears, marched up and down whispering to one another. They set a guard of honor at the leafy couch of their wounded comrade; intercepted the green worms and other insects that kept dropping down upon him from the alder branches overhead, and brushed away the flies that would fain disturb his slumbers. They were all steeped to the core in old Norse heroism; and they enjoyed the situation hugely. All the life about them was half blotted out; they saw it but dimly. That light of youthful romance, which never was on sea or land, transformed all the common things that met their vision into something strange and wonderful. They strained their ears to catch the meaning of the song of the birds, so that they might learn from them the secrets of the future, as Sigurd the Volsung did, after he had slain the dragon, Fafnir. The woods round about them were filled with dragons and fabulous beasts, whose tracks they detected with the eyes of faith; and they started out every morning, during the all too brief vacation, on imaginary expeditions against imaginary monsters.
When at the end of an hour the Skull-Splitter woke from his slumber, much refreshed, Witch-Martha bandaged his arm carefully, and Wolf-in-the Temple (having no golden arm-rings) tossed her, with magnificent superciliousness, his purse, which contained six cents. But she flung it back at him with such force that he had to dodge with more adroitness than dignity.
"I'll get my claws into thee some day, thou foolish lad," she said, lifting her lean vulture-like hand with a threatening gesture.
"No, please don't, Martha, I didn't mean anything," cried the boy, in great alarm; "you'll forgive me, won't you, Martha?"
"I'll bid thee begone, and take thy foolish tongue along with thee," she answered, in a mollified tone.
And the Sons of the Vikings, taking the hint, shouldered the litter once more, and reached Skull-Splitter's home in time for supper.
The Sons of the Vikings were much troubled. Every heroic deed which they plotted had this little disadvantage, that they were in danger of going to jail for it. They could not steal cattle and horses, because they did not know what to do with them when they had got them; they could not sail away over the briny deep in search of fortune or glory, because they had no ships; and sail-boats were scarcely big enough for daring voyages to the blooming South which their ancestors had ravaged. The precious vacation was slipping away, and as yet they had accomplished nothing that could at all be called heroic. It was while the brotherhood was lamenting this fact that Wolf-in-the-Temple had a brilliant idea. He procured his father's permission to invite his eleven companions to spend a day and a night at the Ronning saeter, or mountain dairy, far up in the highlands. The only condition Mr. Ronning made was that they were to be accompanied by his man, Brumle-Knute, who was to be responsible for their safety. But the boys determined privately to make Brumle-Knute their prisoner, in case he showed any disposition to spoil their sport. To spend a day and a night in the woods, to imagine themselves Vikings, and behave as they imagined Vikings would behave, was a prospect which no one could contemplate without the most delightful excitement. There, far away from sheriffs and pastors and maternal supervision, they might perhaps find the long-desired chance of performing their heroic deed.
It was a beautiful morning early in August that the boys started from Strandholm, Mr. Ronning's estate, accompanied by Brumle-Knute. The latter was a middle-aged, round-shouldered peasant, who had the habit of always talking to himself. To look at him you would have supposed that he was a rough and stupid fellow who would have quite enough to do in looking after himself. But the fact was, that Brumle-Knute was the best shot, the best climber—and altogether the most keen-eyed hunter in the whole valley. It was a saying that he could scent game so well that he never needed a dog; and that he could imitate to perfection the call of every game bird that inhabited the mountain glens. Sweet-tempered he was not; but so reliable, skilful, and vigilant, and moreover so thorough a woodsman, that the boys could well afford to put up with his gruff temper.
The Sons of the Vikings were all mounted on ponies; and Wolf-in-the-Temple, who had been elected chieftain, led the troop. At his side rode Skull-Splitter, who was yet a trifle pale after his blood-letting, but brimming over with ambition to distinguish himself. They had all tied their trousers to their legs with leather thongs, in order to be perfectly "Old Norse;" and some of them had turned their plaids and summer overcoats inside out, displaying the gorgeous colors of the lining. Loosely attached about their necks and flying in the wind, these could easily serve for scarlet or purple cloaks wrought on Syrian looms. Most of the boys carried also wooden swords and shields, and the chief had a long loor or Alpine horn. Only the valiant Ironbeard, whose father was a military man, had a real sword and a real scabbard into the bargain. Wolf-in-the-Temple, and Erling the Lop-Sided, had each an old fowling-piece; and Brumle-Knute carried a double-barrelled rifle. This, to be sure, was not; quite historically correct; but firearms are so useful in the woods, even if they are not correct, that it was resolved not to notice the irregularity; for there were boars in the mountains, besides wolves and foxes and no end of smaller game.
For an hour or more the procession rode, single file, up the steep and rugged mountain-paths; but the boys were all in high spirits and enjoyed themselves hugely. The mere fact that they were Vikings, on a daring foraging expedition into a neighboring kingdom, imparted a wonderful zest to everything they did and said. It might be foolish, but it was on that account none the less delightful. They sent out scouts to watch for the approach of an imaginary enemy; they had secret pass-words and signs; they swore (Viking style) by Thor's hammer and by Odin's eye. They talked appalling nonsense to each other with a delicious sentiment of its awful blood-curdling character. It was about noon when they reached the Strandholm saeter, which consisted of three turf-thatched log-cabins or chalets, surrounded by a green inclosure of half a dozen acres. The wide highland plain, eight or ten miles long, was bounded on the north and west by throngs of snow-hooded mountain peaks, which rose, one behind another, in glittering grandeur; and in the middle of the plain there were two lakes or tarns, connected by a river which was milky white where it entered the lakes and clear as crystal where it escaped.
"Now, Vikings," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, when the boys had done justice to their dinner, "it behooves us to do valiant deeds, and to prove ourselves worthy of our fathers."
"Hear, hear," shouted Ironbeard, who was fourteen years old and had a shadow of a moustache, "I am in for great deeds, hip, hip, hurrah!"
"Hold your tongue when you hear me speak," commanded the chieftain, loftily; "we will lie in wait at the ford, between the two tarns, and capture the travellers who pass that way. If perchance a princess from the neighboring kingdom pass, on the way to her dominions, we will hold her captive until her father, the king, comes to ransom her with heaps of gold in rings and fine garments and precious weapons."
"But what are we to do with her when we have caught her?" asked the Skull-Splitter, innocently.
"We will keep her imprisoned in the empty saeter hut," Wolf-in-the-Temple responded. "Now, are you ready? We'll leave the horses here on the croft, until our return."
The question now was to elude Brumle-Knute's vigilance; for the Sons of the Vikings had good reasons for fearing that he might interfere with their enterprise. They therefore waited until Brumle-knute was invited by the dairymaid to sit down to dinner. No sooner had the door closed upon his stooping figure, than they stole out through a hole in the fence, crept on all-fours among the tangled dwarf-birches and the big gray boulders, and following close in the track of their leader, reached the ford between the lakes. There they observed two enormous heaps of stones known as the Parson and the Deacon; for it had been the custom from immemorial times for every traveller to fling a big stone as a "sacrifice" for good luck upon the Parson's heap and a small stone upon the Deacon's. Behind these piles of stone the boys hid themselves, keeping a watchful eye on the road and waiting for their chief's signal to pounce upon unwary travellers. They lay for about fifteen minutes in expectant silence, and were on the point of losing their patience.
"Look here, Wolf-in-the-Temple," cried Erling the Lop-Sided, "you may think this is fun, but I don't. Let us take the raft there and go fishing. The tarn is simply crowded with perch and bass."
"Hold your disrespectful tongue," whispered the chief, warningly, "or I'll discipline you so you'll remember it till your dying day."
"Ho, ho!" laughed the rebel, jeeringly; "big words and fat pork don't stick in the throat. Wait till I get you alone and we shall see who'll be disciplined."
Erling had risen and was about to emerge from his hiding-place, when suddenly hoof-beats were heard, and a horse was seen approaching, carrying on its back a stalwart peasant lass, in whose lap a pretty little girl of twelve or thirteen was sitting.
The former was clad in scarlet bodice, a black embroidered skirt, and a snowy-white kerchief was tied about her head. Her blonde hair hung in golden profusion down over her back and shoulders. The little girl was city-clad, and had a sweet and appealing face. She was chattering guilelessly with her companion, asking more questions than she could possibly expect to have answered. Nearer and nearer they came to the great stone heaps, dreaming of no harm.
"And, Gunbjor," the Skull-Splitter heard the little girl say, "you don't really believe that there are trolds and fairies in the mountains, do you?"
"Them as are wiser than I am have believed that," was Gunbjor's answer; "but we don't hear so much about the trolds nowadays as they did when my granny was young. Then they took young girls into the mountain and——"
Here came a wild, piercing yell, as the Sons of the Vikings rushed forward from behind the rocks, and with a terrible war-whoop swooped down upon the road. Wolf-in-the-Temple, who led the band, seized the horse by the bridle, and flourishing his sword threateningly, addressed the frightened peasant lass.
"Is this, perchance, the Princess Kunigunde, the heir to the throne of my good friend, King Bjorn the Victorious?" he asked, with a magnificent air, seizing the trembling little girl by the wrist.
"Nay," Gunbjor answered, as soon as she could find her voice, "this is the Deacon's Maggie, as is going to the saeter with me to spend Sunday."
"She cannot proceed on her way," said the chieftain, decisively, "she is my prisoner."
Gunbjor, who had been frightened out of her wits by the small red- and blue-cloaked men, swarming among the stones, taking them to be trolds or fairies, now gradually recovered her senses. She recognized in Erling the Lop-Sided the well-known features of the parson's son; and as soon as she had made this discovery she had no great difficulty in identifying the rest. "Never you fear, pet," she said to the child in her lap, "these be bad boys as want to frighten us. I'll give them a switching if they don't look out."
"The Princess Kunigunde is my prisoner until it please her noble father to ransom her for ten pounds of silver," repeated Wolf-in-the-Temple, putting his arm about little Maggie's waist and trying to lift her from the saddle.
"You keep yer hands off the child, or I'll give you ten pounds of thrashing," cried Gunbjor, angrily.
"She shall be treated with the respect due to her rank," Wolf-in-the-Temple proceeded, loftily. "I give King Bjorn the Victorious three moons in which to bring me the ransom."
"And I'll give you three boxes on the ear, and a cut with my whip, into the bargain, if you don't let the horse alone, and take yer hands off the child."
"Vikings!" cried the chief, "lay hands on her! Tear her from the saddle! She has defied us! She deserves no mercy."
With a tremendous yell the boys rushed forward, brandishing their swords above their heads, and pulled Gunbjor from the saddle. But she held on to her charge with a vigorous clutch, and as soon as her feet touched the ground she began with her disengaged hand to lay about her, with her whip, in a way that proved extremely unpleasant. Wolf-in-the-Temple, against whom her assault was especially directed, received some bad cuts across his face, and Ironbeard was driven backward into the ford, where he fell, full length, and rose dripping wet and mortified. Thore the Hound got a thump in his head from Gunbjor's stalwart elbows, and Skull-Splitter, who had more courage than discretion, was pitched into the water with no more ceremony than if he had been a superfluous kitten. The fact was—I cannot disguise it—within five minutes the whole valiant band of the Sons of the Vikings were routed by that terrible switch, wielded by the intrepid Gunbjor. When the last of her foes had bitten the dust, she calmly remounted her pony, and with the Deacon's Maggie in her lap rode, at a leisurely pace, across the ford.
"Good-by, lads," she said, nodding her head at them over her shoulder; "ye needn't be afraid. I won't tell on you."
To have been routed by a woman was a terrible humiliation to the valiant Sons of the Vikings. They were silent and moody during the evening, and sat staring into the big bonfire on the saeter green with stern and melancholy features. They had suffered defeat in battle, and it behooved them to avenge it. About nine o'clock they retired into their bunks in the log cabin, but no sooner was Brumle-Knute's rhythmic snoring perceived than Wolf-in-the-Temple put his head out and called to his comrades to meet him in front of the house for a council of war. Instantly they scrambled out of their alcoves, pulled on their coats and trousers; and noiselessly stole out into the night. The sun was yet visible, but a red veil of fiery mist was drawn across his face; and a magic air of fairy-tales and strange unreality was diffused over mountains, plains and lakes. The river wound like a huge, blood-red serpent through the mountain pastures, and the snow-hooded peaks blazed with fiery splendor.
The boys were quite stunned at the sight of such magnificence, and stood for some minutes gazing at the landscape, before giving heed to the summons of the chief.
"Comrades," said Wolf-in-the-Temple, solemnly, "what is life without honor?"
There was not a soul present who could answer that conundrum, and after a fitting pause the chief was forced to answer it himself.
"Life without honor, comrades," he said, severely, "life—without honor is—nothing."
"Hear, hear!" cried Ironbeard; "good for you, old man!"
"Silence!" thundered Wolf-in-the-Temple, "I must beg the gentlemen to observe the proprieties."
This tremendous phrase rarely failed to restore order, and the flippant Ironbeard was duly rebuked by the glances of displeasure which met him on all sides. But in the meanwhile the chief had lost the thread of his speech and could not recover it. "Vikings," he resumed, clearing his throat vehemently, "we have been—that is to say—we have sustained——"
"A thrashing," supplied the innocent Skull-Splitter.
But the awful stare which was fixed upon him convinced him that he had made a mistake; and he shrunk into an abashed silence. "We must do something to retrieve our honor," continued the chief, earnestly; "we must—take steps—to to get upon our legs again," he finished, blushing with embarrassment.
"I would suggest that we get upon our legs first, and take the steps afterward," remarked the flippant Ironbeard, with a sly wink at Thore the Hound.
The chief held it to be beneath his dignity to notice this interruption, and after having gazed for a while in silence at the blood-red mountain peaks, he continued, more at his ease:
"I propose, comrades, that we go on a bear hunt. Then, when we return with a bear-skin or two, our honor will be all right; no one will dare laugh at us. The brave boy-hunters will be the admiration and pride of the whole valley."
"But Brummle-Knute," observed the Skull-Splitter; "do you think he will allow us to go bear-hunting?"
"What do we care whether he allows us or not?" cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, scornfully; "he sleeps like a log; and I propose that we tie his hands and feet before we start."
This suggestion met with enthusiastic approval, and all the boys laughed heartily at the idea of Brumle-Knute waking up and finding himself tied with ropes, like a calf that is carried to market.
"Now, comrades," commanded the chief, with a flourish of his sword, "get to bed quickly. I'll call you at four o'clock; we'll then start to chase the monarch of the mountains."
The Sons of the Vikings scrambled into their bunks with great despatch; and though their beds consisted of pine twigs, covered with a coarse sheet, and a bat of straw for a pillow, they fell asleep without rocking, and slept more soundly than if they had rested on silken bolsters filled with eiderdown. Wolf-in-the-Temple was as good as his word, and waked them promptly at four o'clock; and their first task, after having filled their knapsacks with provisions, was to tie Brumle-Knute's hands and feet with the most cunning slip-knots, which would tighten more, the more he struggled to unloose them. Ironbeard, who had served a year before the mast, was the contriver of this daring enterprise; and he did it so cleverly that Brumle-Knute never suspected that his liberty was being interfered with. He snorted a little and rubbed imaginary cobwebs from his face; but soon lapsed again into a deep, snoring unconsciousness.
The faces of the Sons of the Vikings grew very serious as they started out on this dangerous expedition. There was more than one of them who would not have objected to remaining at home, but who feared to incur the charge of cowardice if he opposed the wishes of the rest. Wolf-in-the-Temple walked at the head of the column, as they hastened with stealthy tread out of the saeter inclosure, and steered their course toward the dense pine forest, the tops of which were visible toward the east, where the mountain sloped toward the valley. He carried his fowling-piece, loaded with shot, in his right hand, and a powder-horn and other equipments for the chase were flung across his shoulder. Erling the Lop-Sided was similarly armed, and Ironbeard, glorying in a real sword, unsheathed it every minute and let it flash in the sun. It was a great consolation to the rest of the Vikings to see these formidable weapons; for they were not wise enough to know that grown-up bears are not killed with shot, and that a fowling-piece is a good deal more dangerous than no weapon at all, in the hands of an inexperienced hunter.
The sun, who had exchanged his flaming robe de nuit for the rosy colors of morning, was now shooting his bright shafts of light across the mountain plain, and cheering the hearts of the Sons of the Vikings. The air was fresh and cool; and it seemed a luxury to breathe it. It entered the lungs in a pure, vivifying stream like an elixir of life, and sent the blood dancing through the veins. It was impossible to mope in such air; and Ironbeard interpreted the general mood when he struck up the tune:
"We wander with joy on the far mountain path, We follow the star that will guide us;"
but before he had finished the third verse, it occurred to the chief that they were bear-hunters, and that it was very unsportsmanlike behavior to sing on the chase. For all that they were all very jolly, throbbing with excitement at the thought of the adventures which they were about to encounter; and concealing a latent spark of fear under an excess of bravado. At the end of an hour's march they had reached the pine forest; and as they were all ravenously hungry they sat down upon the stones, where a clear mountain brook ran down the slope, and unpacked their provisions. Wolf-in-the-Temple had just helped himself, in old Norse fashion, to a slice of smoked ham, having slashed a piece off at random with his knife, when Erling the Lop-Sided observed that that ham had a very curious odor. Everyone had to test its smell; and they all agreed that it did have a singular flavor, though its taste was irreproachable.
"It smells like a menagerie," said the Skull-Splitter, as he handed it to Thore the Hound.
"But the bread and the biscuit smell just the same," said Thore the Hound; "in fact, it is the air that smells like a menagerie."
"Boys," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, "do you see that track in the mud?"
"Yes; it is the track of a barefooted man," suggested the innocent Skull-Splitter.
Ironbeard and Erling the Lop-Sided flung themselves down among the stones and investigated the tracks; and they were no longer in doubt as to where the pungent wild odor came from, which they had attributed to the ham.
"Boys," said Erling, looking up with an excited face, "a she-bear with one or two cubs has been here within a few minutes."
"This is her drinking-place," said Ironbeard: "the tracks are many and well-worn; if she hasn't been here this morning, she is sure to come before long."
"We are in luck indeed," Wolf-in-the-Temple observed, coolly; "we needn't go far for our bear. He will be coming for us."
At that moment the note of an Alpine horn was heard; but it was impossible to determine how far it was away; for the echo took up the note and flung it back and forth with clear and strong reverberations from mountain to mountain.
"It is Brumle-Knute who is calling us," said Thore the Hound. "The dairymaid must have released him. Shall we answer?"
"Never," cried the chief, proudly; "I forbid you to answer. Here we have our heroic deed in sight, and I want no one to spoil it. If there is a coward among us, let him take to his heels; no one shall detain him."
There were perhaps several who would have liked to accept the invitation; but no one did. Skull-Splitter, by way of diversion, plumped backward into the brook, and sat down in the cool pool up to his waist. But nobody laughed at his mishap; because they had their minds full of more serious thoughts. Wolf-in-the-Temple, who had climbed up on a big moss-grown boulder, stood, gun in hand, and peered in among the bushes.
"Boys," he whispered, "drop down on your bellies—quick."
All, crowding behind a rock, obeyed, pushing themselves into position with hands and feet. With wildly beating hearts the Vikings gazed up among the gray wilderness of stone and underbrush, and first one, then another, caught sight of something brown and hairy that came toddling down toward them, now rolling like a ball of yarn, now turning a somersault, and now again pegging industriously along on four clumsy paws. It was the prettiest little bear cub that ever woke on its mossy lair in the woods. Now it came shuffling down in a boozy way to take its morning bath. It seemed but half awake; and Skull-Splitter imagined that it was a trifle cross, because its mother had waked it too early. Evidently it had made no toilet as yet, for bits of moss were sticking in its hair; and it yawned once or twice, and shook its head disgustedly. Skull-Splitter knew so well that feeling and could sympathize with the poor young cub. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, who watched it no less intently, was filled with quite different emotions. Here was his heroic deed, for which he had hungered so long. To shoot a bear—that was a deed worthy of a Norseman. One step more—then two—and then—up rose the bear cub on its hind legs and rubbed its eyes with its paws. Now he had a clean shot—now or never; and pulling the trigger Wolf-in-the-Temple blazed away and sent a handful of shot into the carcass of the poor little bear. Up jumped all the Sons of the Vikings from behind their stones, and, with a shout of triumph, ran up the path to where the cub was lying. It had rolled itself up into a brown ball, and whimpered like a child in pain. But at that very moment there came an ominous growl out of the underbrush, and a crackling and creaking of branches was heard which made the hearts of the boys stand still.
"Erling," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, "hand me your gun, and load mine for me as quick as you can."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the head of a big brown she-bear became visible among the bushes. She paused in the path, where her cub was lying, turned him over with her paw, licked his face, grumbled with a low soothing tone, snuffed him all over and rubbed her nose against his snout. But unwarily she must have touched some sore spot; for the cub gave a sharp yelp of pain and writhed and whimpered as he looked up into his mother's eyes, clumsily returning her caresses. The boys, half emerged from their hiding-places, stood watching this demonstration of affection not without sympathy; and Skull-Splitter, for one, heartily wished that the chief had not wounded the little bear. Quite ignorant as he was of the nature of bears, he allowed his compassion to get the better of his judgment. It seemed such a pity that the poor little beast should lie there and suffer with one eye put out and forty or fifty bits of lead distributed through its body. It would be much more merciful to put it out of its misery altogether. And accordingly when Erling the Lop-Sided handed him his gun to pass on to the chief, Skull-Splitter started forward, flung the gun to his cheek, and blazed away at the little bear once more, entirely heedless of consequences. It was a random, unskilful shot, which was about equally shared by the cub and its mother. And the latter was not in a mood to be trifled with. With an angry roar she rose on her hind legs and advanced against the unhappy Skull-Splitter with two uplifted paws. In another moment she would give him one of her vigorous "left-handers," which would probably pacify him forever. Ironbeard gave a scream of terror and Thore the Hound broke down an alder-sapling in his excitement. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, remembering that he had sworn foster-brotherhood with this brave and foolish little lad, thought that now was the time to show his heroism. Here it was no longer play, but dead earnest. Down he leaped from his rock, and just as the she-bear was within a foot of the Skull-Splitter, he dealt her a blow in the head with the butt end of his gun which made the sparks dance before her eyes. She turned suddenly toward her new assailant, growling savagely, and scratched her ear with her paw. And Skull-Splitter, who had slipped on the pine needles and fallen, scrambled to his feet again, leaving his gun on the ground, and with a few aimless steps tumbled once more into the brook. Ironbeard, seeing that he was being outdone by his chief, was quick to seize the gun, and rushing forward dealt the she-bear another blow, which, instead of disabling her, only exasperated her further. She glared with her small bloodshot eyes now at the one, now at the other boy, as if in doubt which she would tackle first. It was an awful moment; one or the other might have saved himself by flight, but each was determined to stand his ground. Vikings could die, but never flee. With a furious growl the she-bear started toward her last assailant, lifting her terrible paw. Ironbeard backed a few steps, pointing his gun before him; and with benumbing force the paw descended upon the gun-barrel, striking it out of his hands.
It seemed all of a sudden to the boy as if his arms were asleep up to the shoulders; he had a stinging sensation in his flesh and a humming in his ears, which made him fear that his last hour had come. If the bear renewed the attack now, he was utterly defenceless. He was not exactly afraid, but he was numb all over. It seemed to matter little what became of him.
But now a strange thing happened. To his unutterable astonishment he saw the she-bear drop down on all fours and vent her rage on the gun, which, in a trice, was bent and broken into a dozen fragments. But in this diversion she was interrupted by Wolf-in-the-Temple, who hammered away again at her head with the heavy end of his weapon. Again she rose, and presented two rows of white teeth which looked as if they meant business. It was the chief's turn now to meet his fate; and it was the more serious because his helper was disarmed and could give him no assistance. With a wildly thumping heart he raised the butt end of his gun and dashed forward, when as by a miracle a shot was heard—a sharp, loud shot that rumbled away with manifold reverberations among the mountains. In the same instant the huge brown bear tumbled forward, rolled over, with a gasping growl, and was dead.
"O Brumle-Knute! Brumle-Knute!" yelled the boys in joyous chorus, as they saw their rescuer coming forward from behind the rocks, "how did you find us?"
"I heard yer shots and I saw yer tracks," said Brumle-Knute, dryly; "but when ye go bear-hunting another time ye had better load with bullets instead of bird-shot."
"But Brumle-Knute, we only wanted to shoot the little bear," protested Wolf-in-the-Temple.
"That may be," Brumle-Knute replied; "but the big bears, they are a curiously unreasonable lot—they are apt to get mad when you fire at their little ones. Next time you must recollect to take the big bear into account."
I need not tell you that the Sons of the Vikings became great heroes when the rumor of their bear hunt was noised abroad through the valley. But, for all that, they determined to disband their brotherhood. Wolf-in-the-Temple expressed the sentiment of all when, at their last meeting, he made a speech, in which these words occurred:
"Brothers, the world isn't quite the same now as it was in the days when our Viking forefathers spread the terror of their name through the South. We are not so strong as they were, nor so hardy. When we mingle blood, we have to send for a surgeon. If we steal princesses we may go to jail for it—or—or—well—never mind—what else may happen. Heroism isn't appreciated as once it was in this country; and I, for one, won't try to be a hero any more. I resign my chieftainship now, when I can do it with credit. Let us all make our bows of adieu as bear hunters; and if we don't do anything more in the heroic line it is not because we can't, but because we won't."
PAUL JESPERSEN'S MASQUERADE
There was great excitement in the little Norse town, Bumlebro, because there was going to be a masquerade. Everybody was busy inventing the character which he was to represent, and the costume in which he was to represent it.
Miss Amelia Norbeck, the apothecary's daughter, had intended to be Marie Antoinette, but had to give it up because the silk stockings were too dear, although she had already procured the beauty-patches and the powdered wig.
Miss Arctander, the judge's daughter, was to be Night, in black tulle, spangled with silver stars, and Miss Hanna Broby was to be Morning, in white tulle and pink roses.
There had never BEEN a masquerade in Bumlebro, and there would not have been one now, if it had not been for the enterprise of young Arctander and young Norbeck, who had just returned from the military academy in the capital, and were anxious to exhibit themselves to the young girls in their glory.
Of course, they could not afford to be exclusive, for there were but twenty or thirty families in the town that laid any claims to gentility, and they had all to be invited in order to fill the hall and pay the bills. Thus it came to pass that Paul Jespersen, the book-keeper in the fish-exporting firm of Broby & Larsen, received a card, although, to be sure, there had been a long debate in the committee as to where the line should be drawn.
Paul Jespersen was uncommonly elated when he read the invitation, which was written on a gilt-edged card, requesting the pleasure of Mr. Jespersen's company at a bal masque Tuesday, January 3d, in the Association Hall.
"The pleasure of his company!"
Think of it! He felt so flattered that he blushed to the tips of his ears. It must have been Miss Clara Broby who had induced them to be so polite to him, for those insolent cadets, who only nodded patronizingly to him in response to his deferential greeting, would never have asked for "the pleasure of his company."
Having satisfied himself on this point, Paul went to call upon Miss Clara in the evening, in order to pay her some compliment and consult her in regard to his costume; but Miss Clara, as it happened, was much more interested in her own costume than in that of Mr. Jespersen, and offered no useful suggestions.
"What character would you advise me to select, Mr. Jespersen?" she inquired, sweetly. "My sister Hanna, you know, is going to be Morning, so I can't be that, and it seems to me Morning would have suited me just lovely."
"Go as Beauty," suggested Mr. Jespersen, blushing at the thought of his audacity.
"So I will, Mr. Jespersen," she answered, laughing, "if you will go as the Beast."
Paul, being a simple-hearted fellow, failed to see any sarcasm in this, but interpreted it rather as a hint that Miss Clara desired his escort, as Beauty, of course, only would be recognizable in her proper character by the presence of the Beast.
"I shall be delighted, Miss Clara," he said, beaming with pleasure. "If you will be my Beauty, I'll be your Beast."
Miss Clara did not know exactly how to take this, and was rather absent-minded during the rest of the interview. She had been chaffing Mr. Jespersen, of course, but she did not wish to be absolutely rude to him, because he was her father's employee, and, as she often heard her father say, a very valuable and trustworthy young man.
When Paul got home he began at once to ponder upon his character as Beast, and particularly as Miss Clara's Beast. It occurred to him that his uncle, the furrier, had an enormous bear-skin, with head, eyes, claws, and all that was necessary, and without delay he went to try it on.
His uncle, feeling that this event was somehow to redound to the credit of the family, agreed to make the necessary alterations at a trifling cost, and when the night of the masquerade arrived, Paul was so startled at his appearance that he would have run away from himself if such a thing had been possible. He had never imagined that he would make such a successful Beast.
By an ingenious contrivance with a string, which he pulled with his hand, he was able to move his lower jaw, which, with its red tongue and terrible teeth, presented an awful appearance. By patching the skin a little behind, his head was made to fit comfortably into the bear's head, and his mild blue eyes looked out of the holes from which the bear's eyes had been removed. The skin was laced with thin leather thongs from the neck down, but the long, shaggy fur made the lacing invisible.
Paul Jespersen practiced ursine behavior before the looking-glass for about half an hour. Then, being uncomfortably warm, he started down-stairs, and determined to walk to the Association Hall. He chuckled to himself at the thought of the sensation he would make, if he should happen to meet anybody on the road.
Having never attended a masquerade before, he did not know that dressing-rooms were provided for the maskers, and, being averse to needless expenditure, he would as soon have thought of flying as of taking a carriage. There was, in fact, but one carriage on runners in the town, and that was already engaged by half a dozen parties.
The moon was shining faintly upon the snow, and there was a sharp frost in the air when Paul Jespersen put his hairy head out of the street-door and reconnoitred the territory.
There was not a soul to be seen, except an old beggar woman who was hobbling along, supporting herself with two sticks. Paul darted, as quickly as his unwieldly bulk would allow, into the middle of the street. He enjoyed intensely the fun of walking abroad in such a monstrous guise. He contemplated with boyish satisfaction his shadow which stretched, long and black and horrible, across the snow.
It was a bit slippery, and he had to manoeuvre carefully in order to keep right side up. Presently he caught up with the beggar woman.
"Good-evening!" he said.
The old woman turned about, stared at him horror-stricken; then, as soon as she had collected her senses, took to her heels, yelling at the top of her voice. A big mastiff, who had just been let loose for the night, began to bark angrily in a back yard, and a dozen comrades responded from other yards, and came bounding into the street.
"Hello!" thought Paul Jespersen. "Now look out for trouble."
He felt anything but hilarious when he saw the pack of angry dogs dancing and leaping about him, barking in a wildly discordant chorus.
"Why, Hector, you fool, don't you know me?" he said, coaxingly, to the judge's mastiff. "And you, Sultan, old man! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Here, Caro, that's a good fellow! Come, now, don't excite yourself!"
But Hector, Sultan, and Caro were all proof against such blandishments, and as for Bismarck, the apothecary's collie, he grew every moment more furious, and showed his teeth in a very uncomfortable fashion.
To defend one's self was not to be thought of, for what defence is possible to a sham bear against a dozen genuine dogs? Paul could use neither his teeth nor his claws to any purpose, while the dogs could use theirs, as he presently discovered, with excellent effect.
He had just concluded to seek safety in flight, when suddenly he felt a bite in his left calf, and saw the brute Bismarck tug away at his leg as if it had been a mutton-chop. He had scarcely recovered from this surprise when he heard a sharp report, and a bullet whizzed away over his head, after having neatly put a hole through the right ear. Paul concluded, with reason, that things were getting serious.
If he could only get hold of that blockhead, the judge's groom, who was violating the law about fire-arms, he would give him an exhibition in athletics which he would not soon forget; but, being for the moment deprived of this pleasure, he knew of nothing better to do than to dodge through the nearest street-door, and implore the protection of the very first individual he might meet.
It so happened that Paul selected the house of two middle-aged milliners for this experiment.
Jemina and Malla Hansen were just seated at the table drinking tea with their one constant visitor, the post-office clerk, Mathias, when, all of a sudden, they heard a tremendous racket in the hall, and the furious barking of dogs.
With a scream of fright, the two old maids jumyed up, dropping their precious tea-cups, and old Mathias, who had tipped his chair a little backward, lost his balance, and pointed his heels toward the ceiling. Before he had time to pick himself up the door was burst open and a great hairy monster sprang into the room.
"Mercy upon us!" cried Jemina. "It is the devil!"
But now came the worst of it all. The bear put his paw on his heart, and with the politest bow in the world, remarked:
"Pardon me, ladies, if I intrude."
He had meant to say more, but his audience had vanished; only the flying tails of Mathias's coat were seen, as he slammed the door on them, in his precipitate flight.
"Police! police!" someone shouted out of the window of the adjoining room.
Police! Now, with all due respect for the officers of the law, Paul Jespersen had no desire to meet them at the present moment. To be hauled up at the station-house and fined for street disorder—nay, perhaps be locked up for the night, if, as was more than likely, the captain of police was at the masquerade, was not at all to Paul's taste. Anything rather than that! He would be the laughing stock of the whole town if, after his elaborate efforts, he were to pass the night in a cell, instead of dancing with Miss Clara Broby.
Hearing the cry for police repeated, Paul looked about him for some means of escape. It occurred to him that he had seen a ladder in the hall leading up to the loft. There he could easily hide himself until the crowd had dispersed.
Without further reflection, he rushed out through the door by which he had entered, climbed the ladder, thrust open a trap-door, and, to his astonishment, found himself under the wintry sky.
The roof sloped steeply, and he had to balance carefully in order to avoid sliding down into the midst of the noisy mob of dogs and street-boys who were laying siege to the door.
With the utmost caution he crawled along the roof-tree, trembling lest he should be discovered by some lynx-eyed villain in the throng of his pursuers. Happily, the broad brick chimney afforded him some shelter, of which he was quick to take advantage. Rolling himself up into the smallest possible compass, he sat for a long time crouching behind the chimney; while the police were rummaging under the beds and in the closets of the house, in the hope of finding him.
He had, of course, carefully closed the trap-door by which he had reached the comparative safety of his present position; and he could not help chuckling to himself at the thought of having outwitted the officers of the law.
The crowd outside, after having made night hideous by their whoops and yells, began, at the end of an hour, to grow weary; and the dogs being denied entrance to the house, concluded that they had no further business there, and slunk off to their respective kennels.
The people, too, scattered, and only a few patient loiterers hung about the street door, hoping for fresh developments. It seemed useless to Paul to wait until these provoking fellows should take themselves away. They were obviously prepared to make a night of it, and time was no object to them.
It was then that Paul, in his despair, resolved upon a daring stratagem. Mr. Broby's house was in the same block as that of the Misses Hansen, only it was at the other end of the block. By creeping along the roof-trees of the houses, which, happily, differed but slightly in height, he could reach the Broby house, where, no doubt, Miss Clara was now waiting for him, full of impatience.
He did not deliberate long before testing the practicability of this plan. The tanner Thoresen's house was reached without accident, although he barely escaped being detected by a small boy who was amusing himself throwing snow-balls at the chimney. It was a slow and wearisome mode of locomotion—pushing himself forward on his belly; but, as long as the streets were deserted, it was a pretty safe one.
He gave a start whenever he heard a dog bark; for the echoes of the ear-splitting concert they had given him were yet ringing in his brain.
It was no joke being a bear, he thought, and if he had suspected that it was such a serious business, he would not so rashly have undertaken it. But now there was no way of getting out of it; for he had nothing on but his underclothes under the bear-skin.
At last he reached the Broby house, and drew a sigh of relief at the thought that he was now at the end of his journey.
He looked about him for a trap-door by which he could descend into the interior, but could find none. There was an inch of snow on the roof, glazed with frost: and if there was a trap-door, it was securely hidden.
To jump or slide down was out of the question, for he would, in that case, risk breaking his neck. If he cried for help, the groom, who was always ready with his gun, might take a fancy to shoot at him; and that would be still more unpleasant. It was a most embarrassing situation.
Paul's eyes fell upon a chimney; and the thought flashed through his head that there was the solution of the difficulty. He observed that no smoke was coming out of it, so that he would run no risk of being converted into smoked ham during the descent.
He looked down through the long, black tunnel. It was a great, spacious, old-fashioned chimney, and abundantly wide enough for his purpose.
A pleasant sound of laughter and merry voices came to him from the kitchen below. It was evident the girls were having a frolic. So, without further ado, Paul Jespersen stuffed his great hairy bulk into the chimney and proceeded to let himself down.
There were notches and iron rings in the brick wall, evidently put there for the convenience of the chimney-sweeps; and he found his task easier than he had anticipated. The soot, to be sure, blinded his eyes, but where there was nothing to be seen, that was no serious disadvantage.
In fact, everything was going as smoothly as possible, when suddenly he heard a girl's voice cry out:
"Gracious goodness! what is that in the chimney?"
"Probably the chimney-sweep," a man's voice answered.
"Chimney-sweep at this time of night!"
Paul, bracing himself against the walls, looked down and saw a cluster of anxious faces all gazing up toward him. A candle which one of the girls held in her hand showed him that the distance down to the hearth was but short; so, to make an end of their uncertainty, he dropped himself down—quietly, as he thought, but by the force of his fall blowing the ashes about in all directions.
A chorus of terrified screams greeted him. One girl fainted, one leaped up on a table, and the rest made for the door.
And there sat poor Paul, in the ashes on the hearth, utterly bewildered by the consternation he had occasioned. He picked himself up by and by, rubbed the soot out of his eyes with the backs of his paws, and crawled out upon the floor.
He had just managed to raise himself upon his hind-legs, when an awful apparition became visible in the door, holding a candle. It was now Paul's turn to be frightened. The person who stood before him bore a close resemblance to the devil.
"What is all this racket about?" he cried, in a tone of authority.
Paul felt instantly relieved, for the voice was that of his revered chief, Mr. Broby, who, he now recollected, was to figure at the masquerade as Mephistopheles. Behind him peeped forth the faces of his two daughters, one as Morning and the other as Spring.
"May I ask what is the cause of this unseemly noise?" repeated Mr. Broby, advancing to the middle of the room. The light of his candle now fell upon the huge bear whom, after a slight start, he recognized as a masker.
"Excuse me, Mr. Broby," said Paul, "but Miss Clara did me the honor——"
"Oh yes, papa," Miss Clara interrupted him, stepping forth in all her glory of tulle and flowers; "it is Paul Jespersen, who was going to be my Beast."
"And it is you who have frightened my servants half out of their wits, Jespersen?" said Mr. Broby, laughing.
"He tumbled down through the chimney, sir," declared the cook, who had half-recovered from her fright.
"Well," said Mr. Broby, with another laugh, "I admit that was a trifle unconventional. Next time you call, Jespersen, you must come through the door."
He thought Jespersen had chosen to play a practical joke on the servants, and, though he did not exactly like it, he was in no mood for scolding. After having been carefully brushed and rolled in the snow, Paul offered his escort to Miss Clara; and she had not the heart to tell him that she was not at all Beauty, but Spring. And Paul was not enough of an expert to know the difference.
LADY CLARE THE STORY OF A HORSE
The king was dead, and among the many things he left behind him which his successor had no use for were a lot of fancy horses. There were long-barrelled English hunters, all legs and neck; there were Kentucky racers, graceful, swift, and strong; and two Arabian steeds, which had been presented to his late majesty by the Sultan of Turkey. To see the beautiful beasts prancing and plunging, as they were being led through the streets by grooms in the royal livery, was enough to make the blood dance in the veins of any lover of horse-flesh. And to think that they were being led ignominiously to the auction mart to be sold under the hammer—knocked down to the highest bidder! It was a sin and a shame surely! And they seemed to feel it themselves; and that was the reason they acted so obstreperously, sometimes lifting the grooms off their feet as they reared and snorted and struck sparks with their steel-shod hoofs from the stone pavement.
Among the crowd of schoolboys who followed the equine procession, shrieking and yelling with glee and exciting the horses by their wanton screams, was a handsome lad of fourteen, named Erik Carstens. He had fixed his eyes admiringly on a coal-black, four-year-old mare, a mere colt, which brought up the rear of the procession. How exquisitely she was fashioned! How she danced over the ground with a light mazurka step, as if she were shod with gutta-percha and not with iron! And then she had a head so daintily shaped, small and spirited, that it was a joy to look at her. Erik, who, in spite of his youth, was not a bad judge of a horse, felt his heart beat like a trip-hammer, and a mighty yearning took possession of him to become the owner of that mare.
Though he knew it was time for dinner he could not tear himself away, but followed the procession up one street and down another, until it stopped at the horse market. There a lot of jockeys and coarse-looking dealers were on hand; and an opportunity was afforded them to try the horses before the auction began. They forced open the mouths of the beautiful animals, examined their teeth, prodded them with whips to see if they were gentle, and poked them with their fingers or canes. But when a loutish fellow, in a brown corduroy suit, indulged in that kind of behavior toward the black mare she gave a resentful whinny and without further ado grabbed him with her teeth by the coat collar, lifted him up and shook him as if he had been a bag of straw. Then she dropped him in the mud, and raised her dainty head with an air as if to say that she held him to be beneath contempt. The fellow, however, was not inclined to put up with that kind of treatment. With a volley of oaths he sprang up and would have struck the mare in the mouth with his clinched fist, if Erik had not darted forward and warded off the blow.
"How dare you strike that beautiful creature?" he cried, indignantly.
"Hold your jaw, you gosling, or I'll hit you instead," retorted the man.
But by that time one of the royal grooms had made his appearance and the brute did not dare carry out his threat. While the groom strove to quiet the mare, a great tumult arose in some other part of the market-place. There was a whinnying, plunging, rearing, and screaming, as if the whole field had gone mad. The black mare joined in the concert, and stood with her ears pricked up and her head raised in an attitude of panicky expectation. Quite fearlessly Erik walked up to her, patted her on the neck and spoke soothingly to her.
"Look out," yelled the groom, "or she'll trample you to jelly!"
But instead of that, the mare rubbed her soft nose against the boy's cheek, with a low, friendly neighing, as if she wished to thank him for his gallant conduct. And at that moment Erik's heart went out to that dumb creature with an affection which he had never felt toward any living thing before. He determined, whatever might happen, to bid on her and to buy her, whatever she might prove to be worth. He knew he had a few thousand dollars in the bank—his inheritance from his mother, who had died when he was a baby—and he might, perhaps, be able to persuade his father to sanction the purchase. At any rate, he would have some time to invent ways and means; for his father, Captain Carstens, was now away on the great annual drill, and would not return for some weeks.
As a mere matter of form, he resolved to try the mare before bidding on her; and slipping a coin into the groom's hand he asked for a saddle. It turned out, however, that all the saddles were in use, and Erik had no choice but to mount bareback.
"Ride her on the snaffle. She won't stand the curb," shouted the groom, as the mare, after plunging to the right and to the left, darted through the gate to the track, and, after kicking up a vast deal of tan-bark, sped like a bullet down the race-course.
"Good gracious, how recklessly that boy rides!" one jockey observed to another; "but he has got a good grip with his knees all the same."
"Yes, he sits like a daisy," the second replied, critically; "but mind my word, Lady Clare will throw him yet. She never could stand anybody but the princess on her back: and that was the reason her Royal Highness was so fond of her. Mother of Moses, won't there be a grand rumpus when she comes back again and finds Lady Clare gone! I should not like to be in the shoes of the man who has ordered Lady Clare under the hammer."
"But look at the lad! I told you Lady Clare wouldn't stand no manner of nonsense from boys."
"She is kicking like a Trojan! She'll make hash of him if he loses his seat."
"Yes, but he sticks like a burr. That's a jewel of a lad, I tell ye. He ought to have been a jockey."
Up the track came Lady Clare, black as the ace of spades, acting like the Old Harry. Something had displeased her, obviously, and she held Erik responsible for it. Possibly she had just waked up to the fact that she, who had been the pet of a princess, was now being ridden by an ordinary commoner. At all events, she had made up her mind to get rid of the commoner without further ceremony. Putting her fine ears back and dilating her nostrils, she suddenly gave a snort and a whisk with her tail, and up went her heels toward the eternal stars—that is, if there had been any stars visible just then. Everybody's heart stuck in his throat; for fleet-footed racers were speeding round and round, and the fellow who got thrown in the midst of all these trampling hoofs would have small chance of looking upon the sun again. People instinctively tossed their heads up to see how high he would go before coming down again; but, for a wonder, they saw nothing, except a cloud of dust mixed with tan-bark, and when that had cleared away they discovered the black mare and her rider, apparently on the best of terms, dashing up the track at a breakneck pace.