Boyhood in Norway
by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

Next he would be inviting them to come in and take little Hans. She saw one of the men—Stubby Mons by name—step forward, and she plainly heard him say:

"We miss the little chap down at the river, Nils. The luck has been against us since he left."

"Well, Mons," Nils answered, "I miss the little chap as much as any of you; perhaps more. But my wife—she's got a sort of crooked notion that the boy won't come home alive if she lets him go to the river. She got a bad scare last time, and it isn't any use arguing with her."

"But won't you let us talk to her, Nils?" one of the lumbermen proposed. "It is a tangled skein, and I don't pretend to say that I can straighten it out. But two men have been killed and one crippled since the little chap was taken away. And in the three years he was with us no untoward thing happened. Now that speaks for itself, Nils, doesn't it?"

"It does, indeed," said Nils, with an air of conviction.

"And you'll let us talk to your wife, and see if we can't make her listen to reason," the man urged.

"You are welcome to talk to her as much as you like," Nils replied, knocking out his pipe on the heel of his boot; "but I warn you that she's mighty cantankerous."

He rose slowly, and tried to open the door. It was locked. "Open, Inga," he said, a trifle impatiently; "there are some men here who want to see you."


Inga sat crouching on the hearth, hugging little Hans to her bosom. She shook and trembled with fear, let her eyes wander around the walls, and now and then moaned at the thought that now they would take little Hans away from her.

"Why don't you open the door for papa?" asked little Hans, wonderingly.

Ah, he too was against her! All the world was against her! And her husband was in league with her enemies!

"Open, I say!" cried Nils, vehemently. "What do you mean by locking the door when decent people come to call upon us?"

Should she open the door or should she not? Holding little Hans in her arms, she rose hesitatingly, and stretched out her hand toward the bolt. But all of a sudden, in a paroxysm of fear, she withdrew her hand, turned about, and fled with the child through the back door. The alder bushes grew close up to the walls of the cottage, and by stooping a little she managed to remain unobserved. Her greatest difficulty was to keep little Hans from shouting to his father, and she had to put her hand over his mouth to keep him quiet; for the boy, who had heard the voices without, could not understand why he should not be permitted to go out and converse with his friends the lumbermen. The wild eyes and agitated face of his mother distressed him, and the little showers of last night's rain which the trees shook down upon him made him shiver.

"Why do you run so, mamma?" he asked, when she removed her hand from his mouth.

"Because the bad men want to take you away from me, Hans," she answered, panting.

"Those were not bad men, mamma," the boy ejaculated. "That was Stubby Mons and Stuttering Peter and Lars Skin-breeches. They don't, want to hurt me."

He expected that his mamma would be much relieved at receiving this valuable information, and return home without delay. But she still pressed on, flushed and panting, and cast the same anxious glances behind her.

In the meanwhile Nils and his guests had entirely lost their patience. Finding his persuasions of no avail, the former began to thump at the door with the handle of his axe, and receiving no response, he climbed up to the window and looked in. To his amazement there was no one in the room. Thinking that Inga might have gone to the cow-stable, he ran to the rear of the cottage, and called her name. Still no answer.

"Hans," he cried, "where are you?"

But Hans, too, was as if spirited away. It scarcely occurred to Nils, until he had searched the cow-stable and the house in vain, that his wife had fled from the harmless lumbermen. Then the thought shot through his brain that possibly she was not quite right in her head; that this fixed idea that everybody wanted to take her child away from her had unsettled her reason. Nils grew hot and cold in the same moment as this dreadful apprehension took lodgement in his mind. Might she not, in her confused effort to save little Hans, do him harm? In the blind and feverish terror which possessed her might she not rush into the water, or leap over a precipice? Visions of little Hans drowning, or whirled into the abyss in his mother's arms, crowded his fancy as he walked back to the lumbermen, and told them that neither his wife nor child was anywhere to be found.

"I would ask ye this, lads," he said, finally: "if you would help me search for them. For Inga—I reckon she is a little touched in the upper story—she has gone off with the boy, and I can't get on without little Hans any more than you can."

The men understood the situation at a glance, and promised their aid. They had all looked upon Inga as "high-strung" and "queer," and it did not surprise them to hear that she had been frightened out of her wits at their request for the loan of little Hans. Forming a line, with a space of twenty feet between each man, they began to beat the bush, climbing the steep slope toward the mountains. Inga, pausing for an instant, and peering out between the tree trunks, saw the alder bushes wave as they broke through the underbrush. She knew now that she was pursued. Tired she was, too, and the boy grew heavier for every step that she advanced. And yet if she made him walk, he might run away from her. If he heard his father's voice, he would be certain to answer. Much perplexed, she looked about her for a hiding-place.

For, as the men would be sure to overtake her, her only safety was in hiding. With tottering knees she stumbled along, carrying the heavy child, grabbing hold of the saplings for support, and yet scarcely keeping from falling. The cold perspiration broke from her brow and a strange faintness overcame her.

"You will have to walk, little Hans," she said, at last. "But if you run away from me, dear, I shall lie down here and die."

Little Hans promised that he would not run away, and for five minutes they walked up a stony path which looked like the abandoned bed of a brook.

"You hurt my hand, mamma," whimpered the boy, "you squeeze so hard."

She would have answered, but just then she heard the voices of the lumbermen scarcely fifty paces away. With a choking sensation and a stitch in her side she pressed on, crying out in spirit for the hills to hide her and the mountains to open their gates and receive her. Suddenly she stood before a rocky wall some eighty or a hundred feet high. She could go no farther. Her strength was utterly exhausted. There was a big boulder lying at the base of the rock, and a spreading juniper half covered it. Knowing that in another minute she would be discovered, she flung herself down behind the boulder, though the juniper needles scratched her face, and pulled little Hans down at her side. But, strange to say, little Hans fell farther than she had calculated, and utterly-vanished from sight. She heard a muffled cry, and reaching her hand in the direction where he had fallen, caught hold of his arm. A strong, wild smell beat against her, and little Hans, as he was pulled out, was enveloped in a most unpleasant odor. But odor or no odor, here was the very hiding-place she had been seeking. A deserted wolf's den, it was, probably—at least she hoped it was deserted; for if it was not, she might be confronted with even uglier customers than the lumbermen. But she had no time for debating the question, for she saw the head of Stubby Mons emerging from the leaves, and immediately behind him came Stuttering Peter, with his long boat-hook. Quick as a flash she slipped into the hole, and dragged Hans after her. The juniper-bush entirely covered the entrance. She could see everyone who approached, without being seen. Unhappily, the boy too caught sight of Stubby Mons, and called him by name. The lumberman stopped and pricked up his ears.

"Did you hear anybody call?" he asked his companion.

"N-n-n-n-aw, I d-d-d-d-didn't," answered Stuttering Peter. "There b-be lots of qu-qu-qu-qu-eer n-noises in the w-w-w-woods."

Little Hans heard every word that they spoke, and he would have cried out again, if it hadn't appeared such great fun to be playing hide-and-go-seek with the lumbermen. He had a delicious sense of being well hidden, and had forgotten everything except the zest of the game. Most exciting it became when Stubby Mons drew the juniper-bush aside and peered eagerly behind the boulder. Inga's heart stuck in her throat; she felt sure that in the next instant they would be discovered. And as ill-luck would have it, there was something alive scrambling about her feet and tugging at her skirts. Suddenly she felt a sharp bite, but clinched her teeth, and uttered no sound. When her vision again cleared, the juniper branch had rebounded into its place, and the face of Stubby Mons was gone. She drew a deep breath of relief, but yet did not dare to emerge from the den. For one, two, three tremulous minutes she remained motionless, feeling all the while that uncomfortable sensation of living things about her.

At last she could endure it no longer. Thrusting little Hans before her, she crawled out of the hole, and looked back into the small cavern. As soon as her eyes grew accustomed to the twilight she uttered a cry of amazement, for out from her skirts jumped a little gray furry object, and two frisky little customers of the same sort were darting about among the stones and tree-roots. The truth dawned upon her, and it chilled her to the marrow of her bones. The wolf's den was not deserted. The old folks were only out hunting, and the shouting and commotion of the searching party had probably prevented them from returning in time to look after their family. She seized little Hans by the hand, and once more dragged him away over the rough path. He soon became tired and fretful, and in spite of all her entreaties began to shout lustily for his father. But the men were now so far away that they could not hear him. He complained of hunger; and when presently they came to a blueberry patch, she flung herself down on the heather and allowed him to pick berries. She heard cow-bells and sheep-bells tinkling round about her, and concluded that she could not be far from the saeters, or mountain dairies. That was fortunate, indeed, for she would not have liked to sleep in the woods with wolves and bears prowling about her.

She was just making an effort to rise from the stone upon which she was sitting, when the big, good-natured face of a cow broke through the leaves and stared at her. There was again help in need. She approached the cow, patted it, and calling little Hans, bade him sit down in the heather and open his mouth. He obeyed rather wonderingly, but perceived his mother's intent when she knelt at his side and began to milk into his mouth. It seemed to him that he had never tasted anything so delicious as this fresh rich milk, fragrant with the odor of the woods and the succulent mountain grass. When his hunger was satisfied, he fell again to picking berries, while Inga refreshed herself with milk in the same simple fashion. After having rested a full hour, she felt strong enough to continue her journey; and hearing the loor, or Alpine horn, re-echoing among the mountains, she determined to follow the sound. It was singular what luck attended her in the midst of her misfortune. Perhaps it was, after all, no idle tale that little Hans was a child of luck; and she had done the lumbermen injustice in deriding their faith in him. Perhaps there was some guiding Providence in all that had happened, destined in the end to lead little Hans to fortune and glory. Much encouraged by this thought, she stooped over him and kissed him; then took his hand and trudged along over logs and stones, through juniper and bramble bushes.

"Mamma," said little Hans, "where are you going?"

"I am going to the saeter," she answered; "where you have wanted so often to go."

"Then why don't you follow the cows? They are going there too."

Surely that child had a marvellous mind! She smiled down upon him and nodded. By following the cows they arrived in twenty minutes at a neat little log cabin, from which the smoke curled up gayly into the clear air.

The dairy-maids who spent the summer there tending the cattle both fell victims to the charms of little Hans, and offered him and his mother their simple hospitality. They told of the lumbermen who had passed the saeter huts, and inquired for her; but otherwise they respected her silence, and made no attempt to pry into her secrets. The next morning she started, after a refreshing sleep, westward toward the coast, where she hoped in some way to find a passage to America. For if little Hans was really born under a lucky star—which fact she now could scarcely doubt—then America was the place for him. There he might rise to become President, or a judge, or a parson, or something or other; while in Norway he would never be anything but a lumberman like his father. Inga had a well-to-do sister, who was a widow, in the nearest town, and she would borrow enough money from her to pay their passage to New York.

It was early in July when little Hans and his mother arrived in New York. The latter had repented bitterly of her rashness in stealing her child from his father, and under a blind impulse traversing half the globe in a wild-goose chase after fortune. The world was so much bigger than she in her quiet valley had imagined; and, what was worse, it wore such a cold and repellent look, and was so bewildering and noisy. Inga had been very sea-sick during the voyage; and after she stepped ashore from the tug that brought her to Castle Garden, the ground kept heaving and swelling under her feet, and made her dizzy and miserable. She had been very wicked, she was beginning to think, and deserved punishment; and if it had not been for a vague and adventurous faith in the great future that was in store for her son, she would have been content to return home, do penance for her folly, and beg her husband's forgiveness. But, in the first place, she had no money to pay for a return ticket; and, secondly, it would be a great pity to deprive little Hans of the Presidency and all the grandeur that his lucky star might here bring him.

Inga was just contemplating this bright vision of Hans's future, when she found herself passing through a gate, at which a clerk was seated.

"What is your name?" he asked, through an interpreter.

"Inga Olsdatter Pladsen."


"Twenty-eight a week after Michaelmas."

"Single or married?"


"Where is your husband?"

"In Norway."

"Are you divorced from him?"

"Divorced—I! Why, no! Who ever heard of such a thing?"

Inga grew quite indignant at the thought of her being divorced. A dozen other questions were asked, at each of which her embarrassment increased. When, finally, she declared that she had no money, no definite destination, and no relatives or friends in the country, the examination was cut short, and after an hour's delay and a wearisome cross-questioning by different officials, she was put on board the tug, and returned to the steamer in which she had crossed the ocean. Four dreary days passed; then there was a tremendous commotion on deck: blowing of whistles, roaring of steam, playing of bands, bumping of trunks and boxes, and finally the steady pulsation of the engines as the big ship stood out to sea. After nine days of discomfort in the stuffy steerage and thirty-six hours of downright misery while crossing the stormy North Sea, Inga found herself once more in the land of her birth. Full of humiliation and shame she met her husband at the railroad station, and prepared herself for a deluge of harsh words and reproaches. But instead of that he patted her gently on the head, and clasped little Hans in his arms and kissed him. They said very little to each other as they rode homeward in the cars; but little Hans had a thousand things to tell, and his father was delighted to hear them. In the evening, when they had reached their native valley, and the boy was asleep, Inga plucked up courage and said, "Nils, it is all a mistake about little Hans's luck."

"Mistake! Why, no," cried Nils. "What greater luck could he have than to be brought safely home to his father?"

Inga had indeed hoped for more; but she said nothing. Nevertheless, fate still had strange things in store for little Hans. The story of his mother's flight to and return from America was picked up by some enterprising journalist, who made a most touching romance of it. Hundreds of inquiries regarding little Hans poured in upon the pastor and the postmaster; and offers to adopt him, educate him, and I know not what else, were made to his parents. But Nils would hear of no adoption; nor would he consent to any plan that separated him from the boy. When, however, he was given a position as superintendent of a lumber yard in the town, and prosperity began to smile upon him, he sent little Hans to school, and as Hans was a clever boy, he made the most of his opportunities.

And now little Hans is indeed a very big Hans, but a child of luck he is yet; for I saw him referred to the other day in the newspapers as one of the greatest lumber dealers, and one of the noblest, most generous, and public-spirited men in Norway.



You may not believe it, but the bear I am going to tell you about really had a bank account! He lived in the woods, as most bears do; but he had a reputation which extended over all Norway and more than half of England. Earls and baronets came every summer, with repeating-rifles of the latest patent, and plaids and field-glasses and portable cooking-stoves, intent upon killing him. But Mr. Bruin, whose only weapons were a pair of paws and a pair of jaws, both uncommonly good of their kind, though not patented, always managed to get away unscathed; and that was sometimes more than the earls and the baronets did.

One summer the Crown Prince of Germany came to Norway. He also heard of the famous bear that no one could kill, and made up his mind that he was the man to kill it. He trudged for two days through bogs, and climbed through glens and ravines, before he came on the scent of a bear, and a bear's scent, you may know, is strong, and quite unmistakable. Finally he discovered some tracks in the moss, like those of a barefooted man, or, I should rather say, perhaps, a man-footed bear. The Prince was just turning the corner of a projecting rock, when he saw a huge, shaggy beast standing on its hind legs, examining in a leisurely manner the inside of a hollow tree, while a swarm of bees were buzzing about its ears. It was just hauling out a handful of honey, and was smiling with a grewsome mirth, when His Royal Highness sent it a bullet right in the breast, where its heart must have been, if it had one. But, instead of falling down flat, as it ought to have done, out of deference to the Prince, it coolly turned its back, and gave its assailant a disgusted nod over its shoulder as it trudged away through the underbrush. The attendants ranged through the woods and beat the bushes in all directions, but Mr. Bruin was no more to be seen that afternoon. It was as if he had sunk into the earth; not a trace of him was to be found by either dogs or men.

From that time forth the rumor spread abroad that this Gausdale Bruin (for that was the name by which he became known) was enchanted. It was said that he shook off bullets as a duck does water; that he had the evil eye, and could bring misfortune to whomsoever he looked upon. The peasants dreaded to meet him, and ceased to hunt him. His size was described as something enormous, his teeth, his claws, and his eyes as being diabolical beyond human conception. In the meanwhile Mr. Bruin had it all his own way in the mountains, killed a young bull or a fat heifer for his dinner every day or two, chased in pure sport a herd of sheep over a precipice; and as for Lars Moe's bay mare Stella, he nearly finished her, leaving his claw-marks on her flank in a way that spoiled her beauty forever.

Now Lars Moe himself was too old to hunt; and his nephew was—well, he was not old enough. There was, in fact, no one in the valley who was of the right age to hunt this Gausdale Bruin. It was of no use that Lars Moe egged on the young lads to try their luck, shaming them, or offering them rewards, according as his mood might happen to be. He was the wealthiest man in the valley, and his mare Stella had been the apple of his eye. He felt it as a personal insult that the bear should have dared to molest what belonged to him, especially the most precious of all his possessions. It cut him to the heart to see the poor wounded beauty, with those cruel scratches on her thigh, and one stiff, aching leg done up in oil and cotton. When he opened the stable-door, and was greeted by Stella's low, friendly neighing, or when she limped forward in her box-stall and put her small, clean-shaped head on his shoulder, then Lars Moe's heart swelled until it seemed on the point of breaking. And so it came to pass that he added a codicil to his will, setting aside five hundred dollars of his estate as a reward to the man who, within six years, should kill the Gausdale Bruin.

Soon after that, Lars Moe died, as some said, from grief and chagrin; though the physician affirmed that it was of rheumatism of the heart. At any rate, the codicil relating to the enchanted bear was duly read before the church door, and pasted, among other legal notices, in the vestibules of the judge's and the sheriff's offices. When the executors had settled up the estate, the question arose in whose name or to whose credit should be deposited the money which was to be set aside for the benefit of the bear-slayer. No one knew who would kill the bear, or if any one would kill it. It was a puzzling question.

"Why, deposit it to the credit of the bear," said a jocose executor; "then, in the absence of other heirs, his slayer will inherit it. That is good old Norwegian practice, though I don't know whether it has ever been the law."

"All right," said the other executors, "so long as it is understood who is to have the money, it does not matter."

And so an amount equal to $500 was deposited in the county bank to the credit of the Gausdale Bruin. Sir Barry Worthington, Bart., who came abroad the following summer for the shooting, heard the story, and thought it a good one. So, after having vainly tried to earn the prize himself, he added another $500 to the deposit, with the stipulation that he was to have the skin.

But his rival for parliamentary honors, Robert Stapleton, Esq., the great iron-master, who had come to Norway chiefly to outshine Sir Barry, determined that he was to have the skin of that famous bear, if any one was to have it, and that, at all events, Sir Barry should not have it. So Mr. Stapleton added $750 to the bear's bank account, with the stipulation that the skin should come to him.

Mr. Bruin, in the meanwhile, as if to resent this unseemly contention about his pelt, made worse havoc among the herds than ever, and compelled several peasants to move their dairies to other parts of the mountains, where the pastures were poorer, but where they would be free from his depredations. If the $1,750 in the bank had been meant as a bribe or a stipend for good behavior, such as was formerly paid to Italian brigands, it certainly could not have been more demoralizing in its effect; for all agreed that, since Lars Moe's death, Bruin misbehaved worse than ever.


There was an odd clause in Lars Moe's will besides the codicil relating to the bear. It read:

"I hereby give and bequeath to my daughter Unna, or, in case of her decease, to her oldest living issue, my bay mare Stella, as a token that I have forgiven her the sorrow she caused me by her marriage."

It seemed incredible that Lars Moe should wish to play a practical joke (and a bad one at that) on his only child, his daughter Unna, because she had displeased him by her marriage. Yet that was the common opinion in the valley when this singular clause became known. Unna had married Thorkel Tomlevold, a poor tenant's son, and had refused her cousin, the great lumber-dealer, Morten Janson, whom her father had selected for a son-in-law.

She dwelt now in a tenant's cottage, northward in the parish; and her husband, who was a sturdy and fine-looking fellow, eked out a living by hunting and fishing. But they surely had no accommodations for a broken-down, wounded, trotting mare, which could not even draw a plough. It is true Unna, in the days of her girlhood, had been very fond of the mare, and it is only charitable to suppose that the clause, which was in the body of the will, was written while Stella was in her prime, and before she had suffered at the paws of the Gausdale Bruin. But even granting that, one could scarcely help suspecting malice aforethought in the curious provision. To Unna the gift was meant to say, as plainly as possible, "There, you see what you have lost by disobeying your father! If you had married according to his wishes, you would have been able to accept the gift, while now you are obliged to decline it like a beggar."

But if it was Lars Moe's intention to convey such a message to his daughter, he failed to take into account his daughter's spirit. She appeared plainly but decently dressed at the reading of the will, and carried her head not a whit less haughtily than was her wont in her maiden days. She exhibited no chagrin when she found that Janson was her father's heir and that she was disinherited. She even listened with perfect composure to the reading of the clause which bequeathed to her the broken-down mare.

It at once became a matter of pride with her to accept her girlhood's favorite, and accept it she did! And having borrowed a side-saddle, she rode home, apparently quite contented. A little shed, or lean-to, was built in the rear of the house, and Stella became a member of Thorkel Tomlevold's family. Odd as it may seem, the fortunes of the family took a turn for the better from the day she arrived; Thorkel rarely came home without big game, and in his traps he caught more than any three other men in all the parish.

"The mare has brought us luck," he said to his wife. "If she can't plough, she can at all events pull the sleigh to church; and you have as good a right as any one to put on airs, if you choose."

"Yes, she has brought us blessing," replied Unna, quietly; "and we are going to keep her till she dies of old age."

To the children Stella became a pet, as much as if she had been a dog or a cat. The little boy Lars climbed all over her, and kissed her regularly good-morning when she put her handsome head in through the kitchen-door to get her lump of sugar. She was as gentle as a lamb and as intelligent as a dog. Her great brown eyes, with their soft, liquid look, spoke as plainly as words could speak, expressing pleasure when she was patted; and the low neighing with which she greeted the little boy, when she heard his footsteps in the door, was to him like the voice of a friend.

He grew to love this handsome and noble animal as he had loved nothing on earth except his father and mother.

As a matter of course he heard a hundred times the story of Stella's adventure with the terrible Gausdale bear. It was a story that never lost its interest, that seemed to grow more exciting the oftener it was told. The deep scars of the bear's claws in Stella's thigh were curiously examined, and each time gave rise to new questions. The mare became quite a heroic character, and the suggestion was frequently discussed between Lars and his little sister Marit, whether Stella might not be an enchanted princess who was waiting for some one to cut off her head, so that she might show herself in her glory. Marit thought the experiment well worth trying, but Lars had his doubts, and was unwilling to take the risk; yet if she brought luck, as his mother said, then she certainly must be something more than an ordinary horse.

Stella had dragged little Lars out of the river when he fell overboard from the pier; and that, too, showed more sense than he had ever known a horse to have.

There could be no doubt in his mind that Stella was an enchanted princess. And instantly the thought occurred to him that the dreadful enchanted bear with the evil eye was the sorcerer, and that, when he was killed, Stella would resume her human guise. It soon became clear to him that he was the boy to accomplish this heroic deed; and it was equally plain to him that he must keep his purpose secret from all except Marit, as his mother would surely discourage him from engaging in so perilous an enterprise. First of all, he had to learn how to shoot; and his father, who was the best shot in the valley, was very willing to teach him. It seemed quite natural to Thorkel that a hunter's son should take readily to the rifle; and it gave him great satisfaction to see how true his boy's aim was, and how steady his hand.

"Father," said Lars one day, "you shoot so well, why haven't you ever tried to kill the Gausdale Bruin that hurt Stella so badly?"

"Hush, child! you don't know what you are talking about," answered his father; "no leaden bullet will harm that wicked beast."

"Why not?"

"I don't like to talk about it—but it is well known that he is enchanted."

"But will he then live for ever? Is there no sort of bullet that will kill him?" asked the boy.

"I don't know. I don't want to have anything to do with witchcraft," said Thorkel.

The word "witchcraft" set the boy to thinking, and he suddenly remembered that he had been warned not to speak to an old woman named Martha Pladsen, because she was a witch. Now, she was probably the very one who could tell him what he wanted to know. Her cottage lay close up under the mountain-side, about two miles from his home. He did not deliberate long before going to seek this mysterious person, about whom the most remarkable stories were told in the valley. To his astonishment, she received him kindly, gave him a cup of coffee with rock candy, and declared that she had long expected him. The bullet which was to slay the enchanted bear had long been in her possession; and she would give it to him if he would promise to give her the beast's heart.

He did not have to be asked twice for that; and off he started gayly with his prize in his pocket. It was rather an odd-looking bullet, made of silver, marked with a cross on one side and with a lot of queer illegible figures on the other. It seemed to burn in his pocket, so anxious was he to start out at once to release the beloved Stella from the cruel enchantment. But Martha had said that the bear could only be killed when the moon was full; and until the moon was full he accordingly had to bridle his impatience.


It was a bright morning in January, and, as it happened, Lars's fourteenth birthday. To his great delight, his mother had gone down to the judge's to sell some ptarmigans, and his father had gone to fell some timber up in the glen. Accordingly he could secure the rifle without being observed. He took an affectionate good-by of Stella, who rubbed her soft nose against his own, playfully pulled at his coat-collar, and blew her sweet, warm breath into his face. Lars was a simple-hearted boy, in spite of his age, and quite a child at heart. He had lived so secluded from all society, and breathed so long the atmosphere of fairy tales, that he could see nothing at all absurd in what he was about to undertake. The youngest son in the story-book always did just that sort of thing, and everybody praised and admired him for it. Lars meant, for once, to put the story-book hero into the shade. He engaged little Marit to watch over Stella while he was gone, and under no circumstances to betray him—all of which Marit solemnly promised.

With his rifle on his shoulder and his skees on his feet, Lars glided slowly along over the glittering surface of the snow, for the mountain was steep, and he had to zigzag in long lines before he reached the upper heights, where the bear was said to have his haunts. The place where Bruin had his winter den had once been pointed out to him, and he remembered yet how pale his father was, when he found that he had strayed by chance into so dangerous a neighborhood. Lars's heart, too, beat rather uneasily as he saw the two heaps of stones, called "The Parson" and "The Deacon," and the two huge fir-trees which marked the dreaded spot. It had been customary from immemorial time for each person who passed along the road to throw a large stone on the Parson's heap, and a small one on the Deacon's; but since the Gausdale Bruin had gone into winter quarters there, the stone heaps had ceased to grow.

Under the great knotted roots of the fir-trees there was a hole, which was more than half-covered with snow; and it was noticeable that there was not a track of bird or beast to be seen anywhere around it. Lars, who on the way had been buoyed up by the sense of his heroism, began now to feel strangely uncomfortable. It was so awfully hushed and still round about him; not the scream of a bird—not even the falling of a broken bough was to be heard. The pines stood in lines and in clumps, solemn, like a funeral procession, shrouded in sepulchral white. Even if a crow had cawed it would have been a relief to the frightened boy—for it must be confessed that he was a trifle frightened—if only a little shower of snow had fallen upon his head from the heavily laden branches, he would have been grateful for it, for it would have broken the spell of this oppressive silence.

There could be no doubt of it; inside, under those tree-roots slept Stella's foe—the dreaded enchanted beast who had put the boldest of hunters to flight, and set lords and baronets by the ears for the privilege of possessing his skin. Lars became suddenly aware that it was a foolhardy thing he had undertaken, and that he had better betake himself home. But then, again, had not Witch-Martha said that she had been waiting for him; that he was destined by fate to accomplish this deed, just as the youngest son had been in the story-book. Yes, to be sure, she had said that; and it was a comforting thought.

Accordingly, having again examined his rifle, which he had carefully loaded with the silver bullet before leaving home, he started boldly forward, climbed up on the little hillock between the two trees, and began to pound it lustily with the butt-end of his gun. He listened for a moment tremulously, and heard distinctly long, heavy sighs from within.

His heart stood still. The bear was awake! Soon he would have to face it! A minute more elapsed; Lars's heart shot up into his throat. He leaped down, placed himself in front of the entrance to the den, and cocked his rifle. Three long minutes passed. Bruin had evidently gone to sleep again. Wild with excitement, the boy rushed forward and drove his skee-staff straight into the den with all his might. A sullen growl was heard, like a deep and menacing thunder. There could be no doubt that now the monster would take him to task for his impertinence.

Again the boy seized his rifle; and his nerves, though tense as stretched bow-strings, seemed suddenly calm and steady. He lifted the rifle to his cheek, and resolved not to shoot until he had a clear aim at heart or brain. Bruin, though Lars could hear him rummaging within, was in no hurry to come out, But he sighed and growled uproariously, and presently showed a terrible, long-clawed paw, which he thrust out through his door and then again withdrew. But apparently it took him a long while to get his mind clear as to the cause of the disturbance; for fully five minutes had elapsed when suddenly a big tuft of moss was tossed out upon the snow, followed by a cloud of dust and an angry creaking of the tree-roots.

Great masses of snow were shaken from the swaying tops of the firs, and fell with light thuds upon the ground. In the face of this unexpected shower, which entirely hid the entrance to the den, Lars was obliged to fall back a dozen paces; but, as the glittering drizzle cleared away, he saw an enormous brown beast standing upon its hind legs, with widely distended jaws. He was conscious of no fear, but of a curious numbness in his limbs, and strange noises, as of warning shouts and cries, filling his ears.

Fortunately, the great glare of the sun-smitten snow dazzled Bruin; he advanced slowly, roaring savagely, but staring rather blindly before him out of his small, evil-looking eyes. Suddenly, when he was but a few yards distant, he raised his great paw, as if to rub away the cobwebs that obscured his sight.

It was the moment for which the boy had waited. Now he had a clear aim! Quickly he pulled the trigger; the shot reverberated from mountain to mountain, and in the same instant the huge brown bulk rolled in the snow, gave a gasp, and was dead! The spell was broken! The silver bullet had pierced his heart. There was a curious unreality about the whole thing to Lars. He scarcely knew whether he was really himself or the hero of the fairy-tale.

All that was left for him to do now was to go home and marry Stella, the delivered princess.

The noises about him seemed to come nearer and nearer; and now they sounded like human voices. He looked about him, and to his amazement saw his father and Marit, followed by two wood-cutters, who, with raised axes, were running toward him. Then he did not know exactly what happened; but he felt himself lifted up by two strong arms, and tears fell hot and fast upon his face.

"My boy! my boy!" said the voice in his ears, "I expected to find you dead."

"No, but the bear is dead," said Lars, innocently.

"I didn't mean to tell on you, Lars," cried Marit, "but I was so afraid, and then I had to."

The rumor soon filled the whole valley that the great Gausdale Bruin was dead, and that the boy Lars Tomlevold had killed him. It is needless to say that Lars Tomlevold became the parish hero from that day. He did not dare to confess in the presence of all this praise and wonder that at heart he was bitterly disappointed; for when he came home, throbbing with wild expectancy, there stood Stella before the kitchen door, munching a piece of bread; and when she hailed him with a low whinny, he burst into tears. But he dared not tell any one why he was weeping.

This story might have ended here, but it has a little sequel. The $1,750 which Bruin had to his credit in the bank had increased to $2,290; and it was all paid to Lars. A few years later, Martin Janson, who had inherited the estate of Moe from old Lars, failed in consequence of his daring forest speculations, and young Lars was enabled to buy the farm at auction at less than half its value. Thus he had the happiness to bring his mother back to the place of her birth, of which she had been wrongfully deprived; and Stella, who was now twenty-one years old, occupied once more her handsome box-stall, as in the days of her glory. And although she never proved to be a princess, she was treated as if she were one, during the few years that remained to her.

[Footnote 1: In Norway confirmation is always preceded by a public examination of the candidates in the aisle of the church. The order in which they are arranged is supposed to indicate their attainments, but does, as a rule, indicate the rank and social position of their parents.]

[Footnote 2: Norwegian snow-shoes.]

[Footnote 3: The genius of cattle, represented as a beautiful maiden disfigured by a heifer's tail, which she is always trying to hide, though often unsuccessfully.]


Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse