"I'll tell her so," said poor Philip, his heart aching for his lost love as he spoke, though he smiled. "It will give her pleasure to hear it."
Macfarlane blushed again like any awkward schoolboy.
"Oh, I dinna ken aboot that!" he said hurriedly. "She's just a grand woman anyway." Then, bethinking himself of another subject, he asked, "Have you heard o' the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy lately?"
Errington and Lorimer replied in the negative.
Macfarlane laughed—his eyes twinkled. "It's evident ye never read police reports," he said—"Talk o' misters,—he's a pretty specimen! He's been hunted out o' his place in Yorkshire for carryin' on love-affairs wi' the women o' his congregation. One day he locked himsel' in the vestry wi' the new-married wife o' one o' his preencipal supporters—an' he had a grand time of it—till the husband came an' dragged him oot an' thrashed him soundly. Then he left the neighborhood—an' just th' ither day—he turned up in Glasgie."
Macfarlane paused and laughed again.
"Well?" said Lorimer, with some interest—"Did you meet him there?"
"That did I—but no to speak to him—he was for too weel lookit after to need my services," and Macfarlane rubbed his great hands together with an irrepressible chuckle. "There was a crowd o' hootin' laddies round him, an' he was callin' on the heavens to bear witness to his purity. His hat was off—an' he had a black eye—an' a' his coat was covered wi' mud, an' a policeman was embracin' him vera affectionately by th' arm. He was in charge for drunken, disorderly, an' indecent conduct—an' the magistrate cam' down pretty hard on him. The case proved to be exceptionally outrageous—so he's sentenced to a month's imprisonment an' hard labor. Hard labor! Eh, mon! but that's fine! Fancy him at work—at real work for the first time in a' his days! Gude Lord! I can see him at it!"
"So he's come to that!" and Errington shrugged his shoulders with weary contempt. "I thought he would. His career as a minister is ended, that's one comfort!"
"Don't be too sure o' that!" said Sandy cautiously. "There's always America, ye ken. He can mak' a holy martyr o' himsel' there! He may gain as muckle a reputation as Henry Ward Beecher—ye canna ever tell what may happen—'tis a queer warld!"
"Queer, indeed!" assented Lorimer as they all rose and left the restaurant together. "If our present existence is the result of a fortuitous conglomeration of atoms,—I think the atoms ought to have been more careful what they were about, that's all I can say!"
They reached the open street, where Macfarlane shook hands and went his way, promising to call on Errington as soon as Thelma should be again at home.
"He's turned out quite a fine fellow," said Lorimer, when he had gone. "I should never have thought he had so much in him. He has become a philanthropist."
"I fancy he's better than an ordinary philanthropist," replied Philip. "Philanthropists often talk a great deal and do nothing."
"Like members of Parliament," suggested Lorimer, with a smile.
"Exactly so. By-the-by—I've resigned my candidateship."
"Oh, I'm sick of the thing! One has to be such a humbug to secure one's votes. I had a wretched time yesterday,—speechifying and trying to rouse up clodhoppers to the interests of their country,—and all the time my darling at home was alone, and breaking her heart about me! By Jove! if I'd only known! When I came back this morning to all this misery—I told Neville to send in my resignation. I repeated the same thing to him the last thing before I left the house."
"But you might have waited a day or two," said Lorimer wonderingly. "You're such a fellow of impulse, Phil—"
"Well, I can't help it. I'm tired of politics. I began with a will, fancying that every member of the house had his country's interests at heart,—not a bit of it! They're all for themselves—most of them, at any rate—they're not even sincere in their efforts to do good to the population. And it's all very well to stick up for the aristocracy; but why, in Heaven's name, can't some of the wealthiest among them do as much as our old Mac is doing, for the outcast and miserable poor? I see some real usefulness and good in his work, and I'll help him in it with a will—when—when Thelma comes back."
Thus talking, the two friends reached the Garrick Club, where they found Beau Lovelace in the reading-room, turning over some new books with the curious smiling air of one who believes there can be nothing original under the sun, and that all literature is mere repetition. He greeted them cheerfully.
"Come out of here," he said. "Come into a place where we can talk. There's an old fellow over there who's ready to murder any member who even whispers. We won't excite his angry passions. You know we're all literature-mongers here,—we've each got our own little particular stall where we sort our goods—our mouldy oranges, sour apples, and indigestible nuts,—and we polish them up to look tempting to the public. It's a great business, and we can't bear to be looked at while we're turning our apples with the best side outwards, and boiling our oranges to make them swell and seem big! We like to do our humbug in silence and alone."
He led the way into the smoking-room—and there heard with much surprise and a great deal of concern the story of Thelma's flight.
"Ingenuous boy!" he said kindly, clapping Philip on the shoulder. "How could you be such a fool as to think that repeated visits to Violet Vere, no matter on what business, would not bring the dogs of scandal yelping about your heels! I wonder you didn't see how you were compromising yourself!"
"He never told me a word about it," interposed Lorimer, "or else I should have given him a bit of my mind on the subject."
"Of course!" agreed Lovelace. "And—excuse me—why the devil didn't you let your secretary manage his domestic squabbles by himself?"
"He's very much broken down," said Errington. "A hopeless, frail, disappointed man. I thought I could serve him—"
"I see!" and Beau's eyes were bent on him with a very friendly look. "You're a first-rate fellow, Errington,—but you shouldn't fly off so readily on the rapid wings of impulse. Now I suppose you want to shoot Lennox—that can't be done—not in England at any rate."
"It can't be done at all, anywhere," said Lorimer gravely. "He's dead."
Beau Lovelace started back in amazement. "Dead! You don't say so! Why, he was dining last night at the Criterion—I saw him there."
Briefly they related the sudden accident that had occurred, and described its fatal result.
"He died horribly!" said Philip in a low voice. "I haven't got over it yet. That evil, tortured face of his haunts me."
Lovelace was only slightly shocked. He had known Lennox's life too well, and had despised it too thoroughly, to feel much regret now it was thus abruptly ended.
"Rather an unpleasant exit for such a fellow," he remarked. "Not aesthetic at all. And so you were going to castigate him?"
"Look!" and Philip showed him the horsewhip; "I've been carrying this thing about all day,—I wish I could drop it in the streets; but if I did, some one would be sure to pick it up and return it to me."
"If it were a purse containing bank-notes you could drop it with the positive certainty of never seeing it again," laughed Beau. "Here, hand it over!" and he possessed himself of it. "I'll keep it till you come back. You leave for Norway to-night, then?"
"Yes. If I can. But it's the winter season—and there'll be all manner of difficulties. I'm afraid it's no easy matter to reach the Altenfjord at this time of year."
"Why not use your yacht, and be independent of obstacles?" suggested Lovelace.
"She's under repairs, worse luck!" sighed Philip despondingly. "She won't be in sailing condition for another month. No—I must take my chance—that's all. It's possible I may overtake Thelma at Hull—that's my great hope."
"Well, don't be down in the mouth about it, my boy!" said Beau sympathetically. "It'll all come right, depend upon it! Your wife's a sweet, gentle, noble creature,—and when once she knows all about the miserable mistake that has arisen, I don't know which will be greatest, her happiness or her penitence, for having misunderstood the position. Now let's have some coffee."
He ordered this refreshment from a passing waiter, and as he did so, a gentleman, with hands clasped behind his back, and a suave smile on his countenance, bowed to him with marked and peculiar courtesy as he sauntered on his way through the room. Beau returned the salute with equal politeness.
"That's Whipper," he explained with a smile, when the gentleman was out of earshot. "The best and most generous of men! He's a critic—all critics are large-minded and generous, we know,—but he happens to be remarkably so. He did me the kindest turn I ever had in my life. When my first book came out, he fell upon it tooth and claw, mangled it, tore it to ribbons, metaphorically speaking,—and waved the fragments mockingly in the eyes of the public. From that day my name was made—my writings sold off with delightful rapidity, and words can never tell how I blessed, and how I still bless, Whipper! He always pitches into me—that's what's so good of him! We're awfully polite to each other, as you observe—and what is so perfectly charming is that he's quite unconscious how much he's helped me along! He's really a first-rate fellow. But I haven't yet attained the summit of my ambition,"—and here Lovelace broke off with a sparkle of fun in his clear steel-grey eyes.
"Why, what else do you want?" asked Lorimer laughing.
"I want," returned Beau solemnly, "I want to be jeered at by Punch! I want Punch to make mouths at me, and give me the benefit of his inimitable squeak and gibber. No author's fame is quite secure till dear old Punch has abused him. Abuse is the thing nowadays, you know. Heaven forbid that I should be praised by Punch. That would be frightfully unfortunate!"
Here the coffee arrived, and Lovelace dispensed it to his friends, talking gaily the while in an effort to distract Errington from his gloomy thoughts.
"I've just been informed on respectable authority, that Walt Whitman is the new Socrates," he said laughingly. "I felt rather stunned at the moment but I've got over it now. Oh, this deliciously mad London! what a gigantic Colney Hatch it is for the crazed folk of the world to air their follies in! That any reasonable Englishmen with such names as Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, and Shelley, to keep the glory of their country warm, should for one moment consider Walt Whitman a poet! Ye gods! Where are your thunderbolts!"
"He's an American, isn't he?" asked Errington.
"He is, my dear boy! An American whom the sensible portion of America rejects. We, therefore,—out of opposition,—take him up. His chief recommendation is that he writes blatantly concerning commonplaces,—regardless of music or rhythm. Here's a bit of him concerning the taming of oxen. He says the tamer lives in a
"'Placid pastoral region. There they bring him the three-year-olds and the four-year-olds to break them,— Some are such beautiful animals, so lofty looking,—some are buff-colored, some mottled, one has a white line running along his back, some are brindled, Some have wide flaring horns (a good sign!) look you! the bright hides See the two with stars on their foreheads—see the round bodies and broad backs How straight and square they stand on their legs—'"
"Stop, stop!" cried Lorimer, putting his hands to his ears. "This is a practical joke, Beau! No one would call that jargon poetry!"
"Oh! wouldn't they though!" exclaimed Lovelace. "Let some critic of reputation once start the idea, and you'll have the good London folk who won't bother to read him for themselves, declaring him as fine as Shakespeare. The dear English muttons! fine Southdowns! fleecy baa-lambs! once let the Press-bell tinkle loudly enough across the fields of literature, and they'll follow, bleating sweetly in any direction! The sharpest heads in our big metropolis are those who know this, and who act accordingly."
"Then why don't you act accordingly?" asked Errington, with a faint smile.
"Oh, I? I can't! I never asked a favor from the Press in my life—but its little bell has tinkled for me all the same, and a few of the muttons follow, but not all. Are you off?" this, as they rose to take their leave. "Well, Errington, old fellow," and he shook hands warmly, "a pleasant journey to you, and a happy return home! My best regards to your wife. Lorimer, have you settled whether you'll go with me to Italy? I start the day after to-morrow."
Lorimer hesitated—then said, "All right! My mother's delighted at the idea,—yes, Beau! we'll come. Only I hope we shan't bore you."
"Bore me! you know me better than that," and he accompanied them out of the smoking-room into the hall, while Errington, a little surprised at this sudden arrangement, observed—
"Why, George—I thought you'd be here when we came back from Norway—to—to welcome Thelma, you know!"
George laughed. "My dear boy, I shan't be wanted! Just let me know how everything goes on. You—you see, I'm in duty bound to take my mother out of London in winter."
"Just so!" agreed Lovelace, who had watched him narrowly while he spoke. "Don't grudge the old lady her southern sunshine. Errington! Lorimer wants brushing up a bit too—he looks seedy. Then I shall consider it settled—the day after to-morrow, we meet at Charing Cross—morning tidal express, of course,—never go by night service across the Channel if you can help it."
Again they shook hands and parted.
"Best thing that young fellow can do!" thought Lovelace as he returned to the Club reading-room. "The sooner he gets out of this, into new scenes the better,—he's breaking his heart over the beautiful Thelma. By Jove! the boy's eyes looked like those of a shot animal whenever her name was mentioned. He's rather badly hit!"
He sat down and began to meditate. "What can I do for him, I wonder?" he thought. "Nothing, I suppose. A love of that sort can't be remedied. It's a pity—a great pity! And I don't know any woman likely to make a counter-impression on him. He'd never put up with an Italian beauty"—he paused in his reflections, and the color flushed his broad, handsome brow, as the dazzling vision of a sweet, piquant face with liquid dark eyes and rippling masses of rich brown hair came flitting before him—"unless he saw Angela," he murmured to himself softly,—"and he will not see her,—besides, Angela loves me!"
And after this, his meditations seemed to be particularly pleasant, to judge from the expression of his features. Beau was by no means ignorant of the tender passion—he had his own little romance, as beautiful and bright as a summer day—but he had resolved that London, with its love of gossip, its scandal, and society papers,—London, that on account of his popularity as a writer, watched his movements and chronicled his doings in the most authoritative and incorrect manner,—London should have no chance of penetrating into the secret of his private life. And so far he had succeeded—and was likely still to succeed.
Meanwhile, as he still sat in blissful reverie, pretending to read a newspaper, though his thoughts were far away from it, Errington and Lorimer arrived at the Midland Station. Britta was already there with the luggage,—she was excited and pleased—her spirits had risen at the prospect of seeing her mistress soon again,—possibly, she thought gladly, they might find her at Hull,—they might not have to go to Norway at all. The train came up to the platform—the tickets were taken,—and Sir Philip, with Britta, entered—a first-class compartment, while Lorimer stood outside leaning with folded arms on the carriage-window, talking cheerfully.
"You'll find her all right, Phil, I'm positive!" he said. "I think it's very probable she has been compelled to remain at Hull,—and even at the worst, Britta can guide you all over Norway, if necessary. Nothing will daunt her!"
And he nodded kindly to the little maid who had regained her rosy color and the sparkle of her eyes in the eagerness she felt to rejoin her beloved "Froeken." The engine-whistle gave a warning shriek—Philip leaned out and pressed his friend's hand warmly.
"Good-bye, old fellow! I'll write to you in Italy."
"All right—mind you do! And I say—give my love to Thelma!"
Philip smiled and promised. The train began to move,—slowly at first, then more quickly, till with clattering uproar and puffing clouds of white steam, it rushed forth from the station, winding through the arches like a black snake, till it had twisted itself rapidly out of sight. Lorimer, left alone, looked after it wistfully, with a heavy weight of unuttered love and sorrow at his heart, and as he at last turned away, those haunting words that he had heard under the pines at the Altenfjord recurred again and again to his memory—the words uttered by the distraught Sigurd—and how true they were, he thought! how desperately, cruelly true!
"Good things may come for others—but for you, the heavens are empty!"
"Honor is an old-world thing, but it smells sweet to those in whose hand it is strong."—OUIDA.
Disappointment upon disappointment awaited Errington at Hull. Unfortunately, neither he nor Britta knew of the existence of the good Norwegian innkeeper, Friedhof, who had assisted Thelma in her flight—and all their persistent and anxious inquiries elicited no news of her. Moreover, there was no boat of any kind leaving immediately for Norway—not even a whaler or fishing-smack. In a week's time,—possibly later,—there would be a steamer starting for Christiansund, and for this, Errington, though almost mad with impatience, was forced to wait. And in the meantime, he roamed about the streets of Hull, looking eagerly at every fair-haired woman who passed him, and always hoping that Thelma herself would suddenly meet him face to face, and put her hands in his. He wrote to Neville and told him to send on any letters that might arrive for him, and by every post he waited anxiously for one from Thelma but none came. To relieve his mind a little, he scribbled a long letter to her, explaining everything, telling her how ardently he loved and worshipped her—how he was on his way to join her at the Altenfjord,—and ending by the most passionate vows of unchanging love and fidelity. He was somewhat soothed when he had done this—though he did not realize the fact that in all probability he himself might arrive before the letter. The slow, miserable days went on—the week was completed—the steamer for Christiansund started at last,—and, after a terribly stormy passage, he and the faithful Britta were landed there.
On arrival, he learned that a vessel bound for the North Cape had left on the previous day—there would not be another for a fortnight. Cursing his ill-luck, he resolved to reach the Altenfjord by land, and began to make arrangements accordingly. Those who knew the country well endeavored to dissuade him from this desperate project—the further north, the greater danger, they told him,—moreover, the weather was, even for Norway, exceptionally trying. Snow lay heavily over all the country he would have to traverse—the only means of conveyance was by carriole or pulkha—the latter a sort of sledge used by the Laplanders, made in the form of a boat, and generally drawn by reindeer. The capabilities of the carriole would be exhausted as soon as the snow-covered regions were reached—and to manage a pulkha successfully, required special skill of no ordinary kind. But the courageous little Britta made short work of all these difficulties—she could drive a pulkha,—she knew how to manage reindeer,—she entertained not the slightest doubt of being able to overcome all the obstacles on the way. At the same time, she frankly told Sir Philip that the journey would be a long one, perhaps occupying several days—that they would have to rest at different farms or stations on the road, and put up with hard fare—that the cold would be intense,—that often they would find it difficult to get relays of the required reindeer,—and that it might perhaps be wiser to wait for the next boat going to the North Cape.
But Errington would hear of no more delays—each hour that passed filled him with fresh anxieties—and once in Norway he could not rest. The idea that Thelma might be ill—dying—or dead—gained on him with redoubled force,—and his fears easily communicating themselves to Britta, who was to the full as impatient as he, the two made up their minds, and providing every necessary for the journey they could think of, they started for the far sunless North, through a white, frozen land, which grew whiter and more silent the further they went,—even as the brooding sky above them grew darker and darker. The aurora borealis flashed its brilliant shafts of color against the sable breast of heaven,—the tall pines, stripped bare, every branch thick with snow and dropping icicles, stood,—pale ghosts of the forest,—shedding frozen tears—the moon, more like steel than silver, shone frostily cold, her light seeming to deepen rather than soften the dreariness of the land—and on—on—on—they went, Britta enveloped to the chin in furs, steadily driving the strange elfin-looking steeds with their horned heads casting long distorted shadows on the white ground,—and Philip beside her, urging her on with feverish impatience, while he listened to the smooth trot of the reindeer,—the tinkle of the bells on their harness, and the hiss of the sledge across the sparkling snow.
Meanwhile, as he thus pursued his long and difficult journey, rumor was very busy with his name in London. Everybody—that is, everybody worth consideration in the circle of the "Upper Ten"—was talking about him,—shrugging their shoulders, lifting their eyebrows and smiling knowingly, whenever he was mentioned. He became more known in one day than if he had served his country's interests in Parliament for years.
On the very morning after he had left the metropolis en route for Norway, that admirably conducted society journal, the Snake, appeared,—and of course, had its usual amount of eager purchasers, anxious to see the latest bit of aristocratic scandal. Often these good folks were severely disappointed—the Snake was sometimes so frightfully dull, that it had actually nothing to say against anybody—then, naturally, it was not worth buying. But this time it was really interesting—it knocked down—or tried to knock down—at one blow, a formerly spotless reputation—and "really—really!" said the Upper Ten, "it was dreadful, but of course it was to be expected! Those quiet, seemingly virtuous persons are always the worst when you come to know them, yet who would have thought it!" And society read the assailing paragraph, and rolled it in its rank mouth, like a bon-bon, enjoying its flavor. It ran as follows:—
"We hear on excellent authority that the Norwegian 'beauty,' Lady Bruce-Errington, wife of Sir Philip Bruce-Errington, is about to sue for a divorce on the ground of infidelity. The offending dama in the question is an admired actress, well-known to the frequenters of the Brilliant Theatre. But there are always two sides to these affairs, and it is rumored that the fair Norwegian (who before her marriage, we understand, was a great adept in the art of milking reindeer on the shores of her native Fjord) has private reasons of her own for desiring the divorce, not altogether in keeping with her stated reasons or her apparent reserve. We are, however, always on the side of the fair sex, and, as the faithless husband has made no secret of his new liaison, we do not hesitate to at once pronounce in the lady's favor. The case is likely to prove interesting to believers in wedded happiness, combined with the strictest moral and religious sentiments."
Quite by accident this piece of would-be "smartness" was seen by Beau Lovelace. He had a wholesome contempt for the Snake—and all its class,—he would never have looked at it, or known of the paragraph, had not a friend of his at the Garrick pointed it out to him with half a smile and half a sneer.
"It's a damned lie!" said Beau briefly.
"That remains to be proved!" answered his friend, and went away laughing.
Beau read it over and over again, his blood firing with honest indignation. Thelma! Thelma—that pure white lily of womanhood,—was she to have her stainless life blurred by the trail of such a thing as the Snake?—and was Errington's honor to be attainted in his absence, and he condemned without a word uttered in his defence?
"Detestable blackguard!" muttered Lovelace, reverting in his mind to the editor of the journal in question. "What's his name I wonder?" He searched and found it at the top of a column-"Sole Editor and Proprietor, C. Snawley-Grubbs, to whom all checks and post-office orders should be made payable. The Editor cannot be responsible for the return of rejected MSS."
Beau noted the name, and wrote the address of the office in his pocket-book, smiling curiously to himself the while.
"I'm almost glad Errington's out of the way," he said half aloud. "He shan't see this thing if I can help it, though I dare say some particularly affectionate friend will send it to him, carefully marked. At any rate, he needn't know it just yet—and as for Lorimer—shall I tell him! No, I won't. I'll have the game all to myself—and—by Jove! how I shall enjoy it!"
An hour later he stood in the office of the Snake, courteously inquiring for Mr. Snawley-Grubbs. Apparently he had come on horseback, for he held a riding-whip in his hand,—the very whip Errington had left with him the previous day. The inky, dirty, towzle-headed boy who presided in solitary grandeur over the Snake's dingy premises, stared at him inquiringly,—visitors of his distinguished appearance and manner being rather uncommon. Those who usually had business with the great Grubbs were of a different type altogether,—some of them discarded valets or footmen, who came to gain half a crown or five shillings by offering information as to the doings of their late masters and mistresses,—shabby "supers" from the theatres, who had secured the last bit of scandal concerning some celebrated stage or professional "beauty"—sporting men and turf gamblers of the lowest class,— unsuccessful dramatists and small verse writers—these, with now and then a few "ladies"—ladies of the bar-room, ballet, and demi-monde, were the sort, of persons who daily sought private converse with Grubbs—and Beau Lovelace, with his massive head, fine muscular figure, keen eyes, and self-assertive mien, was quite a novel specimen of manhood for the wondering observation of the office-boy, who scrambled off his high chair with haste and something of respect as he said—
"What name, sir, please?"
"Beaufort Lovelace," said the gentleman, with a bland smile. "Here is my card. Ask Mr. Grubbs whether he can see me for a few minutes. If he is engaged—editors generally are engaged—tell him I'll wait."
The boy went off in a greater hurry than ever. The name of Lovelace was quite familiar to him—he knew him, not as a distinguished novelist, but as "'im who makes such a precious lot of money." And he was breathless with excitement; when he reached the small editorial chamber at the top of a dark, narrow flight of stairs, wherein sat the autocratic Snawley, smiling suavely over a heap of letters and disordered MSS. He glanced at the card which his ink-smeared attendant presented him.
"Ah, indeed!" he said condescendingly. "Lovelace—Lovelace? Oh yes—I suppose it must be the novelist of that name—yes!—show him up."
Shown up he was accordingly. He entered the room with a firm tread, and closed the door behind him!
"How do you do, my dear sir!" exclaimed Grubbs warmly. "You are well known to me by reputation! I am charmed—delighted to make the personal acquaintance of one who is—yes—let me say, who is a brother in literature! Sit down, I beg of you!"
And he waved his hand towards a chair, thereby displaying the great rings that glittered on his podgy fingers.
Beau, however, did not seat himself—he only smiled very coldly and contemptuously.
"We can discuss the fraternal nature of our relationship afterwards," he said satirically, "Business first. Pray, sir,"—here he drew from his pocket the last number of the Snake—"are you the writer of this paragraph?"
He pointed to it, as he flattened the journal and laid it in front of the editor on the desk. Mr. Snawley-Grubbs glanced at it and smiled unconcernedly.
"No I am not. But I happen to know it is perfectly correct. I received the information on the highest—the very highest and most credible authority."
"Indeed!" and Beau's lip curled haughtily, while his hand clenched the riding-whip more firmly. "Then allow me to tell you, sir, that it is utterly false in every particular—moreover—that it is a gross libel,—published with deliberate intent to injure those whom it presumes to mention,—and that, whoever wrote it,—you, sir, you alone are responsible for a most mischievous, scandalous, and damnable lie!"
Mr. Grubbs was in no wise disconcerted. Honest indignation honestly expressed, always amused him—he was amused now.
"You're unduly excited, Mr. Lovelace," he said with a little laugh. "Permit me to remark that your language is rather extraordinary—quite too strong under the circumstances! However, you're a privileged person—genius is always a little mad, or shall we say,—eccentric?—I suppose you are a friend of Sir Philip Errington, and you naturally feel hurt—yes—yes, I quite understand! But the scourge of the press—the wholesome, purifying scourge, cannot be withheld out of consideration for private or personal feelings. No—no! There's a higher duty—the duty we owe to the public!"
"I tell you again," repeated Lovelace firmly—"the whole thing is a lie. Will you apologize?"
Mr. Grubbs threw himself back in his chair and laughed aloud.
"Apologize? My dear sir, you must be dreaming! Apologize? Certainly not! I cannot retract the statements I have made—and I firmly believe them to be true. And though there is a saying, 'the greater the truth the greater the libel,' I'm ready, sir, and, always have been ready, to sacrifice myself to the cause of truth. Truth, truth for ever! Tell the truth and shame the devil! You are at liberty to inform Sir Philip Errington from me, that as it is my object—a laudable and praiseworthy one, too, I think—to show up the awful immorality now reigning in our upper classes, I do not regret in the least the insertion of the paragraph in question. If it only makes him ashamed of his vices, I shall have done a good deed, and served the interests of society at large. At the same time, if he wishes to bring an action for libel—"
"You dog!" exclaimed Lovelace fiercely, approaching him with such a sudden rapid stride that the astonished editor sprang up and barricaded himself behind his own chair. "You hope for that, do you? An action for libel! nothing would please you better! To bring your scandalous printed trash into notoriety,—to hear your name shouted by dirty hawkers and newsboys—to be sentenced as a first-class misdemenent; ah, no such luck for you! I know the tricks of your vile trade! There are other ways of dealing with a vulgar bully and coward!"
And before the startled Grubbs could realize his position, Lovelace closed with him, beat him under, and struck the horsewhip smartly cross his back and shoulders. He uttered a yell of pain and fury, and strove vigorously to defend himself, but, owing to his obesity, his muscles were weak and flabby, and he was powerless against the activity and strength of his opponent. Lash after lash descended regularly and mercilessly—his cries, which gradually became like the roarings of a bull of Basban, were unheard, as the office-boy below, profiting by a few idle moments, had run across the street to buy some chestnuts at a stall he particularly patronized. Beau thrashed on with increasing enjoyment—Grubbs resisted him less and less, till finally he slipped feebly down on the floor and grovelled there, gasping and groaning. Beau gave him one or two more artistic cuts, and stood above him, with the serene, triumphant smile of a successful athlete. Suddenly a loud peal of laughter echoed from the doorway,—a woman stood there, richly dressed in silk and fur, with diamonds sparkling in her ears and diamonds clasping the long boa at her throat. It was Violet Vere.
"Why, Snawley!" she cried with cheerful familiarity. "How are you? All broken, and no one to pick up the pieces! Serve you right! Got it at last, eh? Don't get up! You look so comfortable!"
"Bodily assault," gasped Grubbs. "I'll summons—call the police—call," his voice died away in inarticulate gurglings, and raising himself, he sat up on the floor in a sufficiently abject and ludicrous posture, wiping the tears of pain from his eyes. Beau looked at the female intruder and recognized her at once. He saluted her with cold courtesy, and turned again to Grubbs.
"Will you apologize?"
Beau made another threatening movement—Miss Vere interposed.
"Stop a bit," she said, regarding him with her insolent eyes, in which lurked, however, an approving smile. "I don't know who you are, but you seem a fighting man! Don't go at him again till I've had a word. I say, Grubbs! you've been hitting at me in your trashy paper."
Grubbs still sat on the floor groaning.
"You must eat those words," went on the Vere calmly. "Eat 'em up with sauce for dinner. The 'admired actress well known at the Brilliant,' has nothing to do with the Bruce-Errington man,—not she! He's a duffer, a regular stiff one—no go about him anyhow. And what the deuce do you mean by calling me an offending dama. Keep your oaths to yourself, will you?"
Beau Lovelace was amused. Grubbs turned his watering eye from one to the other in wretched perplexity. He made an effort to stand up and succeeded.
"I'll have you arrested, sir!" he exclaimed shaking his fists at Beau, and quivering with passion, "on a charge of bodily assault—shameful bodily assault, sir!"
"All right!" returned Beau coolly. "If I were fined a hundred pounds for it, I should think it cheap for the luxury of thrashing such a hound!"
Grubbs quaked at the determined attitude and threatening eye of his assailant, and turned for relief to Miss Vere whose smile, however, was not sympathetic.
"You'd better cave in!" she remarked airily. "You've got the worst of it, you know!"
She had long been on confidential terms with the Snake proprietor, and she spoke to him now with the candor of an old friend.
"Dear me, what do you expect of me!" he almost whimpered. "I'm not to blame! The paragraph was inserted without my knowledge by my sub-editor—he's away just now, and—there! why?" he cried with sudden defiance, "why don't you ask Sir Francis Lennox about it? He wrote the whole thing."
"Well, he's dead," said Miss Vere with the utmost coolness. "So it wouldn't be much use asking him. HE can't answer,—you'll have to answer for him."
"I don't believe it!" exclaimed Mr. Grubbs. "He can't be dead!"
"Oh, yes, he can, and he is," retorted Violet. "And a good job too! He was knocked over by a train at Charing Cross. You'll see it in to-day's paper, if you take the trouble to look. And mind you contradict all that stuff about me in your next number—do you hear? I'm going to America with a Duke next month, and I can't afford to have my reputation injured. And I won't be called a 'dama' for any penny-a-liner living." She paused, and again broke out laughing, "Poor old Snawley! You do look so sore! Ta-ta!" And she moved towards the door. Lovelace, always courteous, opened it for her. She raised her hard, bright eyes, and smiled.
"Thanks! Hope I shall see you again some day!"
"You are very good!" responded Beau gravely.
Either his tone, which was one chill indifference, or some thing in his look, irritated her suddenly—for a rash of hot color crimsoned her face, and she bit her lips vexedly as she descended the office-stairs.
"He's one of your high-and-mighty sort," she thought disdainfully, as she entered her cosy brougham and was driven away. "Quite too awfully moral!" She pulled a large, elaborately cut glass scent-bottle out of the pocket of her cloak, and, unscrewing the gold top, applied it, not to her nose but her mouth. It contained neat Cognac—and she drank a goodly gulp of it with evident relish, swallowing a scented bon-bon immediately afterwards to take away the suspicious odor. "Yes—quite too awfully moral!" she repeated with a grin. "Not in my line at all! Lord! It's lucky there are not many such fellows about, or what would become of me? A precious poor business I should make of it!"
Meanwhile, Lovelace, left alone again with Mr. Grubbs, reiterated his demand for an apology. Grubbs made a rush for the door, as soon as Miss Vere had gone, with the full intention of summoning the police, but Beau coolly placed his back against it with resolute firmness, and flourished his whip defiantly.
"Come, sir, none of this nonsense!" he said sternly. "I don't mean to leave this spot till I have satisfaction. If Sir Francis Lennox wrote that scandalous paragraph the greater rascal he,—and the more shame to you for inserting it.—You, who make it your business to know all the dirty alleys and dark corners of life, must have known his character pretty thoroughly. There's not the slightest excuse for you. Will you apologize?—and retract every word of that paragraph, in your next issue?"
Grubbs, breathless with rage and fear, glared at him, but made no answer.
"If you refuse to comply," went on Beau deliberately, balancing the horsewhip lightly on his hand, "I'll just tell you what the consequences will be. I've thrashed you once—and I'll thrash you again. I have only to give the cue to several worthy fellows of my acquaintance, who don't care how much they pay for their fun, and each of them in turn will thrash you. As for an action for libel, don't expect it—but I swear there shan't be a safe corner in London for you. If, however, you publish next week a full retraction of your printed lie—why, then I—shall be only too happy to forget that such an individual as yourself burdens this planet. There are the two alternatives—choose!"
Grubbs hesitated, but coward fear made him quail the prospect of unlimited thrashings.
"Very well," he said sullenly. "Write what you want put in—I'll attend to it—I don't mind obliging Miss Vere. But all the same, I'll have you arrested!"
Beau laughed. "Do so by all means!" he said gaily. "I'll leave my address with you!" He wrote rapidly a few lines on a piece of paper to the following effect—
"We have to entirely contradict a statement we made last week respecting a supposed forthcoming divorce case in which Sir Philip Bruce-Errington was seriously implicated. There was no truth whatever in the statement, and we herewith apologize most humbly and heartily for having inadvertently given credence to a rumor which is now proved to be utterly false and without the slightest shadow of a foundation."
He handed this to Grubbs.
"Insert that word for word, at the head of your paragraphs," he said, "and you'll hear no more of me, unless you give me fresh provocation. And I advise you to think twice before you have me arrested—for I'll defend my own case, and—ruin you! I'm rather a dangerous customer to have much to do with! However, you've got my card—you know where to find me if you want me. Only you'd better send after me to-night if you do—to-morrow I may be absent."
He smiled, and drew on his gloves leisurely, eyeing meanwhile the discomfited editor, who was furtively rubbing his shoulder where the lash had stung it somewhat severely.
"I'm exceedingly glad I've hurt you, Mr. Grubbs," he said blandly. "And the next time you want to call me your brother in literature, pray reflect on the manner in which my fraternal affection displayed itself! good morning!"
And he took his departure with a quiet step and serene manner, leaving Snawley-Grubbs to his own meditations, which were far from agreeable. He was not ignorant of the influence Beau Lovelace possessed, both on the press and in society—he was a general favorite,—a man whose opinions were quoted, and whose authority was accepted everywhere. If he appeared to answer a charge of assault against Grubbs, and defended his own case, he certainly would have the best of it. He might—he would have to pay a fine, but what did he care for that? He would hold up the Snake and its proprietor to the utmost ridicule and opprobrium—his brilliant satire and humor would carry all before it—and he, Snawley-Grubbs, would be still more utterly routed and humiliated. Weighing all these considerations carefully in his mind, the shrinking editor decided to sit down under his horsewhipping in silence and resignation.
It was not a very lofty mode of action—still, it was the safest. Of course Violet Vere would spread the story all through her particular "set"—it made him furious to think of this yet there was no help for it. He would play the martyr, he thought—the martyr to the cause of truth,—the injured innocent entrapped by false information—he might possibly gain new supporters and sympathizers in this way if he played his cards carefully. He turned to the daily paper, and saw there chronicled the death of Sir Francis Lennox. It was true, then. Well! he was not at all affected by it—he merely committed the dead man in the briefest and strongest language to the very lowest of those low and sulphurous regions over which Satan is supposed to have full sway. Not a soul regretted Sir Francis—not even the Vere, whom he had kept and surrounded with every luxury for five years. Only one person, a fair, weary faced woman away in Germany shed a few tears over the lawyer's black-bordered letter that announced his death to her—and this was the deserted wife,—who had once loved him. Lady Winsleigh had heard the news,—she shuddered and turned very pale when her husband gently and almost pityingly told her of the sudden and unprepared end that had overtaken her quondam admirer—but she said nothing. She was presiding at the breakfast-table for the first time in many years—she looked somewhat sad and listless, yet lovelier so than in all the usual pride and assertive arrogance of her beauty. Lord Winsleigh read aloud the brief account of the accident in the paper—she listened dreamily, still mute. He watched her with yearning eyes.
"An awful death for such a man, Clara!" he said at last in a low tone.
She dared not look up—she was trembling nervously. How dreadful it was, she thought, to be thankful that a man was dead!—to feel a relief at his being no longer in this world! Presently her husband spoke again more reservedly. "No doubt you are greatly shocked and grieved," he said. "I should not have told you so suddenly—pardon me!"
"I am not grieved," she murmured unsteadily. "It sounds horrible to say so—but I—I am afraid I am glad!"
She rose and came tremblingly towards him. She knelt at his feet, though he strove to prevent her,—she raised her large, dark eyes, full of dull agony, to his.
"I've been a wicked woman, Harry," she said, with a strange, imploring thrill of passion in her voice, "I am down—down in the dust before you! Look at me—don't forgive me—I won't ask that—you can't forgive me,—but pity me!"
He took her hands and laid them round his neck,—he drew her gently, soothingly,—closer, closer, till he pressed her to his heart.
"Down in the dust are you?" he whispered brokenly. "My poor wife! God forbid that I should keep you there!"
THE LAND OF THE LONG SHADOW
"They have the night, who had, like us, the day— We, whom day binds, shall have the night as they— We, from the fetters of the light unbound, Healed of our wound of living, shall sleep sound!" SWINBURNE.
Night on the Altenfjord,—the long, long, changeless night of winter. The sharp snow-covered crests of the mountains rose in white appeal against the darkness of the sky,—the wild north wind tore through the leafless branches of the pine-forests, bringing with it driving pellets of stinging hail. Joyless and songless, the whole landscape lay as though frozen into sculptured stone. The Sun slept,—and the Fjord, black with brooding shadows, seemed silently to ask—where? Where was the great king of Light?—the glorious god of the golden hair and ruddy countenance?—the glittering warrior with the flaming shield and spear invincible? Where had he found his rest? By what strange enchantment had he fallen into so deep and long a drowsiness. The wind that had rioted across the mountains, rooting up great trees in its shrieking career northwards, grew hushed as it approached the Altenfjord—there a weird stillness reigned, broken only by the sullen and monotonous plash of the invisible waves upon the scarcely visible shore.
A few tiny, twinkling lights showed the irregular outline of Bosekop, and now and then one or two fishing-boats with sable sails and small colored lamps at mast and prow would flit across the inky water like dark messengers from another world bound on some mournful errand. Human figures, more shadowy than real, were to be seen occasionally moving on the pier, and to the left of the little town, as the eye grew accustomed to the moveless gloom, a group of persons, like ghosts in a dream, could be dimly perceived, working busily at the mending of nets.
Suddenly a strange, unearthly glow flashed over the sombre scene,—a rosy radiance deepening to brilliant streaks of fire. The dark heavens were torn asunder, and through them streamed flaring pennons of light,—waving, trembling, dancing, luminous ribbons of red, blue, green, and a delicious amber, like the flowing of golden wine,—wider, higher, more dazzlingly lustrous, the wondrous glory shone aloft, rising upward from the horizon—thrusting long spears of lambent flame among the murky retreating clouds, till in one magnificent coruscation of resplendent beams a blazing arch of gold leaped from east to west, spanning the visible breath of the Fjord, and casting towards the white peaks above, vivid sparkles and reflections of jewel-like brightness and color. Here was surely the Rainbow Bridge of Odin—the glittering pathway leading to Valhalla! Long filmy threads of emerald and azure trailed downwards from it, like ropes of fairy flowers, binding it to the earth—above it hung a fleece-like nebulous whiteness,—a canopy through which palpitated sudden flashes of amethyst. Then, as though the arch were a bent bow for the hand of some heavenly hunter, crimson beams darted across it in swift succession, like arrows shot at the dark target of the world. Round and round swept the varying circles of color—now advancing—now retreating—now turning the sullen waters beneath into a quivering mass of steely green—now beating against the snow-covered hills till they seemed pinnacles of heaped-up pearls and diamonds. The whole landscape was transformed,—and the shadowy cluster of men and women on the shore paused in their toil, and turned their pale faces towards the rippling splendor,—the heavy fishing-nets drooping from their hands like dark webs woven by giant spiders.
"'Tis the first time we have seen the Arch of Death this year," said one in awed accents.
"Ay, ay!" returned another, with a sigh. "And some one is bound to cross it, whether he will or no. 'Tis a sure sign!"
"Sure!" they all agreed, in hushed voices as faint and far-off as the breaking of the tide against the rocks on the opposite coast.
As they spoke, the fairy-like bridge in the sky parted asunder and vanished! The brilliant aurora borealis faded by swift degrees—a few moments, and the land was again enveloped in gloom.
It might have been midnight—yet by the clock it was but four in the afternoon. Dreary indeed was the Altenfjord,—yet the neighboring village of Talvag was even drearier. There, desolation reigned supreme—it was a frozen region of bitter, shelterless cold, where the poverty-stricken inhabitants, smitten by the physical torpor and mental stupefaction engendered by the long, dark season, scarcely stirred out of their miserable homes, save to gather extra fuel. This is a time in Norway, when beyond the Arctic Circle, the old gods yet have sway—when in spite of their persistent, sometimes fanatical, adherence to the strictest forms of Christianity, the people almost unconsciously revert to the superstitions of their ancestors. Gathering round the blazing pine-logs, they recount to one another in low voices the ancient legends of dead and gone heroes,—and listening to the yell of the storm-wind round their huts, they still fancy they hear the wild war-cries of the Valkyries rushing past air full gallop on their coal-black steeds, with their long hair floating behind them.
On this particular afternoon the appearance of the "Death-Arch," as they called that special form of the aurora, had impressed the Talvig folk greatly. Some of them were at the doors, and, regardless of the piercing cold, occupied themselves in staring languidly at a reindeer sledge which stood outside one of the more distant huts, evidently waiting for some person within. The hoofs of the animals made no impression on the hardened snow—now and again they gently shook the tinkling bells on their harness, but otherwise were very patient. The sledge was in charge of a youthful Laplander—a hideous, stunted specimen of humanity, who appeared to be literally sewed up from head to foot in skins.
This cortege was evidently an object of curiosity,—the on-lookers eyed it askance, and with a sort of fear. For did it not belong to the terrible bonde, Olaf Gueldmar?—and would not the Laplander,—a useful boy, well known in Talvig,—come to some fatal harm by watching, even for a few minutes, the property of an acknowledged pagan? Who could tell? The very reindeer might be possessed by evil spirits,—they were certainly much sleeker and finer than the ordinary run of such animals. There was something uncanny in the very look of them! Thus the stupefied, unreasoning Talvig folk muttered, one to another, leaning drowsily out of their half-open doors.
"'Tis a strange thing," said one man, "that woman as strong in the fear of the Lord as Lovisa Elsland should call for one of the wicked to visit her on her death-bed."
"Strange enough!" answered his neighbor, blinking over his pipe, and knocking down some of the icicles pendent from his roof. "But maybe it is to curse him with the undying curse of the godly."
"She's done that all her life," said the first speaker.
"That's true! She's been a faithful servant of the Gospel. All's right with her in the next world—she'll die easily."
"Was it for her the Death-Arch shone?" asked an old woman, suddenly thrusting her head, wrapped in a red woollen hood, out of a low doorway, through which the light of a fire sparkled from the background, sending vivid flashes across the snow.
The man who had spoken last shook his head solemnly.
"The Death-Arch never shone for a Christian yet," he said gravely. "No! There's something else in the wind. We can't see it—but it will come—it must come! That sign never fails."
And presently, tired of watching the waiting sledge and the passive Laplander, he retreated within his house, shutting his door against the darkness and the bitter wind. His neighbors followed his example,—and, save for two or three red glimmers of light here and there, the little village looked as though it had been deserted long ago—a picture of frost-bound silence and solitude.
Meanwhile, in Lovisa Elsland's close and comfortless dwelling, stood Olaf Gueldmar. His strong, stately figure, wrapped in furs, seemed almost to fill the little place—he had thrown aside the thick scarf of wadmel in which he had been wrapped to the eyes while driving in the teeth of the wind,—and he now lifted his fur cap, thus displaying his silvery hair, ruddy features, and open, massive brow. At that moment a woman who was busying herself in putting fresh pine-logs on the smouldering fire, turned and regarded him intently.
"Lord, Lord!" she muttered—"'tis a man of men,—he rejoiceth in his strength, even as the lion,—and of what avail shall the curse of the wicked avail against the soul that is firmly established!"
Gueldmar heard her not—he was looking towards a low pallet bed, on which lay, extended at full length, an apparently insensible form.
"Has she been long thus?" he asked, in a low voice.
"Since last night," replied the woman—no other than Mr. Dyceworthy's former servant, Ulrika. "She wakened suddenly, and bade me send for you. To-day she has not spoken."
The bonde sighed somewhat impatiently. He approached the now blazing pine-logs, and as he drew off his thick fur driving-gloves, and warmed his hands at the cheerful blaze, Ulrika again fixed her dull eyes upon him with something of wonder and reluctant admiration. Presently she trimmed an oil-lamp, and set it, burning dimly, on the table. Then she went to the bed and bent over it,—after a pause of several minutes, she turned and made a beckoning sign with her finger. Gueldmar advanced a little,—when a sudden eldritch shriek startled him back, almost curdling the blood in his veins. Out of the deep obscurity, like some gaunt spectre rising from the tomb, started a face, wrinkled, cadaverous, and distorted by suffering,—a face in which the fierce, fevered eyes glittered with a strange and dreadful brilliancy—the face of Lovisa Elsland, stern, forbidding, and already dark with the shadows of approaching death. She stared vacantly at Gueldmar, whose picturesque head was illumined by the ruddy glow of the fire—and feebly shaded her eyes as though she saw something that hurt them. Ulrika raised her on her tumbled pillow, and saying, in cold, unmoved tones—"Speak now, for the time is short," she once more beckoned the bonde imperatively.
He approached slowly.
"Lovisa Elsland," he began in distinct tones, addressing himself to that ghastly countenance still partly shaded by one hand. "I am here—Olaf Gueldmar. Dost thou know me?"
At the sound of his voice, a strange spasm contorted the withered features of the dying woman. She bent her head as though to listen to some far-off echo, and held up her skinny finger as though enjoining silence.
"Know thee!" she babbled whisperingly. "How should I not know the brown-haired Olaf! Olaf of the merry eye—Olaf, the pride of the Norse maiden?" She lifted herself in a more erect attitude, and stretching out her lean arms, went on as though chanting a monotonous recitative. "Olaf, the wanderer over wild seas,—he comes and goes in his ship that sails like a white bird on the sparkling waters—long and silent are the days of his absence—mournful are the Fjelds and Fjords without the smile of Olaf—Olaf the King!"
She paused, and Gueldmar regarded her in pitying wonder. Her face changed to a new expression—one of wrath and fear.
"Stay, stay!" she cried in penetrating accents. "Who comes from the South with Olaf? The clouds drive fast before the wind—clouds rest on the edge of the dark Fjord—sails red as blood flash against the sky—who comes with Olaf? Fair hair ripples against his breast like streaming sunbeams; eyes blue as the glitter of the northern lights, are looking upon him—lips crimson and heavy with kisses for Olaf—ah!" She broke off with a cry, and beat the air with her hands as though to keep some threatening thing away from her. "Back, back! Dead bride of Olaf, torment me no more—back, I say! See,"—and she pointed into the darkness before her—"The pale, pale face—the long glittering hair twisted like a snake of gold,—she glides along the path across the mountains,—the child follows!—the child! Why not kill the child as well—why not?"
She stopped suddenly with a wild laugh. The bonde had listened to her ravings with something of horror, his ruddy cheeks growing paler.
"By the gods, this is strange!" he muttered. "She seems to speak of my wife,—yet what can she know of her?"
For some moments there was silence. Lovisa seemed to have exhausted her strength. Presently, however, she put aside her straggling white hairs from her forehead, and demanded fiercely—
"Where is my grandchild? Where is Britta?"
Neither Gueldmar nor Ulrika made any reply. But Britta's name recalled the old woman to herself, and when she spoke again it was quite collectedly, and in her usual harsh voice. She seemed to forget all that she had just uttered, for she turned her eyes upon the bonde, as though she had but then perceived him.
"So you are come, Olaf Gueldmar!" she said. "It is well—for the hand of Death is upon me."
"It is well, indeed, if I can be of service, Lovisa Elsland," responded Gueldmar, "though I am but a sorry consoler, holding as I do, that death is the chief blessing, and in no way to be regretted at any time. Moreover, when the body grows too weak to support the soul, 'tis as well to escape from it with what speed we may."
"Escape—escape? Where?" asked Lovisa. "From the worm that dieth not? From the devouring fame that is never quenched? From the torturing thirst and heat and darkness of hell, who shall escape?"
"Nay, if that is all the comfort thy creed can give thee," said the bonde, with a half-smile, "'tis but a poor staff to lean on!"
Lovisa looked at him mockingly. "And is thine so strong a prop to thy pride?" she asked disdainfully. "Has Odin so endowed thee that thou shouldst boast of him? Listen to me, Olaf Gueldmar—I have but little strength remaining, and I must speak briefly. Thy wife—"
"What of her?" said the bonde hastily. "Thou knewst her not."
"I knew her," said Lovisa steadily, "as the lightning knows the tree it withers—as the sea knows the frail boat it wrecks for sport on a windy day. Thou haughty Olaf! I knew her well even as the broken heart knows its destroyer!"
Gueldmar looked perplexedly at Ulrika. "Surely she raves again?" he said. Ulrika was silent.
"Rave? Tell him I do not rave!" cried Lovisa rising in her bed to utter her words with more strength and emphasis. "May be I have raved, but that is past! The Lord, who will judge and condemn my soul, bear witness that I speak the truth! Olaf Gueldmar, rememberest thou the days when we were young?"
"'Tis long ago, Lovisa!" replied the bonde with brief gentleness.
"Long ago? It seems but yesterday! But yesterday I saw the world all radiant with hope and joy and love—love that to you was a mere pastime—but with me—" She shuddered and seemed to lose herself in a maze of dreary recollections. "Love!" she presently muttered—"'love is strong as death,—jealousy is cruel as the grave—the coals thereof are coals of fire which hath a most vehement flame!' Even so! You, Olaf Gueldmar, have forgotten what I remember,—that once in that yesterday of youth, you called me fair,—once your lips branded mine! Could I forget that kiss? Think you a Norse woman, bred in a shadow of the constant mountains, forgets the first thrill of passion waked in her soul? Light women of those lands where the sun ever shines on fresh follies, may count their loves by the score,—but with us of the North, one love suffices to fill a lifetime. And was not my life filled? Filled to overflowing with bitterness and misery! For I loved you, proud Olaf!—I loved you—" The bonde uttered an exclamation of incredulous astonishment. Lovisa fixed her eyes on him with a dark scorn. "Yes, I loved you,—scoffer and unbeliever as you were and are!—accursed of God and man! I loved you in spite of all that was said against you—nay, I would have forsaken my creed for yours, and condemned my soul to the everlasting burning for your sake! I loved you as she—that pale, fair, witch-like thing you wedded, could never love—" Her voice died away in a sort of despairing wail, and she paused.
"By my soul!" said the bonde, astounded, and stroking his white beard in some embarrassment. "I never knew of this! It is true that in the hot days of youth, mischief is often done unwittingly. But why trouble yourself with these memories, Lovisa? If it be any comfort,—believe me, I am sorry harm ever came to you through my thoughtless jesting—"
"It matters not!" and Lovisa regarded him with a strange and awful smile. "I have had my revenge!" She stopped abruptly,—then went on—"'Twas a fair bride you chose, Olaf Gueldmar—child of an alien from these shores,—Thelma, with the treacherous laughter and light of the South in her eyes and smile! And I, who had known love, made friends with hate—" She checked herself, and looked full at the bonde with a fiendish joy sparkling in her eyes. "She whom you wedded—she whom you loved so well,—how soon she died!"
There was something so suggestive and dreadful in the expression of her face as she said this, that the stout heart of the old bonde, pulsated more quickly with a sudden vague distrust and dread. She gave him no time to speak, but laying one yellow, claw-like hand on his arm, and raising her voice to a sort of yell, exclaimed triumphantly—
"Yes, yes! how soon she died! Bravely, bravely done! And no one ever guessed the truth—no one ever knew I killed her!"
Gueldmar uttered a sharp cry, and shook himself free from her touch. In the same instant his hand flew to the hilt of the hunting-knife in his girdle.
"Killed her! By the gods—"
Ulrika sprang before him. "Shame!" she cried sternly. "She is dying!"
"Too slowly for me!" exclaimed the bonde furiously.
"Peace—peace!" implored Ulrika. "Let her speak!"
"Strike, Olaf Gueldmar!" said Lovisa, in a deep voice, harsh, but all untremulous—"Strike, pagan, with whom the law of blood is supreme—strike to the very center of my heart—I do not fear you! I killed her, I say—and therein I, the servant of the Lord, was justified! Think you that the Most High hath not commanded His elect to utterly destroy and trample underfoot their enemies?—and is not vengeance mine as well as thine, accursed slave of Odin?"
A spasm of pain here interrupted her—she struggled violently for breath—and Ulrika supported her. Gueldmar stood motionless, white with restrained fury, his eyes blazing. Recovering by slow degrees, Lovisa once more spoke—her voice was weaker, and sounded a long way off.
"Yea, the Lord hath been on my side!" she said, and the hideous blasphemy rattled in her throat as it was uttered. "Listen—and hear how He delivered mine enemy into my hands. I watched her always—I followed her many and many a time, though she never saw me. I knew her favorite path across the mountains,—it led past a rocky chasm. On the edge of that chasm there was a broad, flat stone, and there she would sit often, reading, or watching the fishing-boats on the Fjord, and listening to the prattle of her child. I used to dream of that stone, and wonder if I could loosen it! It was strongly imbedded in the earth—but each day I went to it—each day I moved it! Little by little I worked—till a mere touch would have set it hurling downwards,—yet it looked as firm as ever." Gueldmar uttered a fierce ejaculation of anguish—he put one hand to his throat as though he were stifling. Lovisa, watching him, smiled vindictively, and continued—
"When I had done all I could do, I lay in wait for her, hoping and praying—my hour came at last! It was a bright sunny morning—a little bird had been twittering above the very place—as it flew away, she approached—a book was in her hand,—her child followed her at some little distance off. Fortune favored me—a cluster of pansies had opened their blossoms a few inches below the stone,—she saw them,—and, light as a bird, sprang on it and reached forward to gather them—ah!"—and the wretched woman clapped her hands and broke into malignant laughter—"I can hear her quick shriek now—the crash of the stones and the crackle of branches as she fell down,—down to her death! Presently the child came running,—it was too young to understand—it sat down patiently waiting for its mother. How I longed to kill it! but it sang to itself like the bird that had flown away, and I could not! But she was gone—she was silent for ever—the Lord be praised for all His mercies! Was she smiling, Olaf Gueldmar, when you found her—dead?"
A strange solemnity shadowed the bonde's features. He turned his eyes upon her steadily.
"Blessing and honor be to the gods of my fathers!" he said—"I found her—living!"
The change that came over Lovisa's face at these words was inexpressibly awful—she grew livid and her lips twitched convulsively.
"Living—living!" she gasped.
"Living!" repeated Gueldmar sternly. "Vile hag! Your purpose was frustrated! Your crime destroyed her beauty and shortened her days—but she lived—lived for ten sweet, bitter years, hidden away from all eyes save mine,—mine that never grew tired of looking in her patient, heavenly face! Ten years I held her as one holds a jewel—and, when she died, her death was but falling asleep in these fond arms—"
Lovisa raised herself with a sharp cry, and wrung her hands together—
"Ten years—ten years!" she moaned. "I thought her dead—and she lived on,—beloved and loving all the while. Oh God, God, why hast thou made a mockery of Thy servant!" She rocked herself to and fro—then looked up with an evil smile. "Nay, but she suffered! That was best. It is worse to suffer than to die. Thank God, she suffered!"
"Ay, she suffered!" said Gueldmar fiercely, scarce able to restrain himself from seizing upon the miserable old woman and shaking the sinking life out of her—"And had I but guessed who caused her sufferings, by the sword of Odin, I would have—"
Ulrika laid her hand on his suddenly upraised arm.
"Listen!" she whispered. A low wailing, like the cry of a distressed child, swept round and round the house, followed by a gust of wind and a clattering shower of hailstones. A strange blue light leaped up from the sparkling log fire, and cast an unearthly glow through the room. A deep stillness ensued.
Then—steady and clear and resonant—a single sound echoed through the air, like a long note played on an exceedingly sweet silver trumpet. It began softly—swelled to a crescendo—then died delicately away. Gueldmar raised his head—his face was full of rapt and expectant gravity,—his action, too, was somewhat singular, for he drew the knife from his girdle and kissed the hilt solemnly, returning it immediately to its sheath. At the same moment Lovisa uttered a loud cry, and flinging the coverings from her, strove to rise from her bed. Ulrika held her firmly,—she struggled feebly yet determinedly, gazing the while with straining, eager, glassy eyes into the gloom of the opposite corner.
"Darkness—darkness!" she muttered hoarsely,—"and the white faces of dead things! There—there they lie!—all still, at the foot of the black chasm—their mouths move without sound—what—what are they saying? I cannot hear—ask them to speak louder—louder! Ah!" and she uttered a terrified scream that made the rafters ring. "They move!—they stretch out their hands—cold, cold hands!—they are drawing me down to them—down—down—to that darkness! Hold me—hold me! don't let me go to them—Lord, Lord be merciful to me—let me live—live—" Suddenly she drew back in deadly horror, gesticulating with her tremulous lean hands as though it shut away the sight of some loathsome thing unveiled to her view. "Who is it"—she asked in an awful, shuddering whisper—"who is it that says there is no hell? I see it!" Still retreating backwards, backwards—the clammy dew of death darkening her affrighted countenance,—she turned her glazing eyes for the last time on Gueldmar. Her lips twitched into a smile of dreadful mockery.
"May—thy gods—reward thee—Olaf Gueldmar—even—as mine—are—rewarding—me!"
And with these words, her head dropped heavily on her breast. Ulrika laid her back on her pillow, a corpse. The stern, cruel smile froze slowly on her dead features—gradually she became, as it were, a sort of ancient cenotaph, carved to resemble old age combined with unrepenting evil—the straggling white hair that rested on her wrinkled forehead looking merely like snow fallen on sculptured stone.
"Good Lord, have mercy on her soul!" murmured Ulrika piously, as she closed the upward staring eyes, and crossed the withered hands.
"Good devil, claim thine own!" said Gueldmar, with proudly lifted arm and quivering, disdainful lips. "Thou foolish woman! Thinkest thou thy Lord makes place for murderers in His heaven? If so, 'tis well I am not bound there! Only the just can tread the pathway to Valhalla,—'tis a better creed!"
Ulrika looked at his superb, erect figure and lofty head, and a strangely anxious expression flitted across her dull countenance.
"Nay, bonde, we do not believe that the Lord accepteth murderers, without they repent themselves of their backslidings,—but if with penitence they turn to Him even at the eleventh hour, haply they may be numbered among the elect."
Gueldmar's eyes flashed. "I know not thy creed, woman, nor care to learn it! But, all the same, thou art deceived in thy vain imaginings. The Eternal Justice cannot err—call that justice Christ or Odin as thou wilt. I tell you, the soul of the innocent bird that perishes in the drifting snow is near and dear to its Creator—but the tainted soul that had yonder vile body for its tenement, was but a flame of the evil one, and accursed from the beginning,—it must return to him from whom it came. A heaven for such as she? Nay—rather the lowest circle of the furthest and fiercest everlasting fires—and thither do I commend her! Farewell!"
Rapidly muffling himself up in his wraps, he strode out of the house. He sprang into his sledge, throwing a generous gratuity to the small Laplander who had taken charge of it, and who now ventured to inquire—
"Has the good Lovisa left us?"
Gueldmar burst into a hard laugh. "Good! By my soul! The folks of Talvig take up murderers for saints and criminals for guides! 'Tis a wild world! Yes—she has gone—where all such blessed ones go—to—heaven!" He shook his clenched fist in the air—then hastily gathering up the reins, prepared to start.
The Lapp, after the manner of his race, was easily frightened, and cowered back, terrified at the bonde's menacing gesture and fierce tone,—but quickly bethinking himself of the liberal fee he clutched in his palm, he volunteered a warning to this kingly old man with the streaming white hair and beard, and his keen eyes that were already fixed on the dark sweep of the rough, uneven road winding towards the Altenfjord.
"There is a storm coming, Jarl Gueldmar!" he stammered.
Gueldmar turned his head. "Why call me Jarl?" he demanded half angrily. "'Tis a name I wear not."
He touched the reindeer lightly with his long whip—the sensitive beast started and sprang forward.
Once more the Lapp exclaimed, with increased excitement and uncouth gestures—
"Storm is coming!—wide—dark, deep! See how the sky stoops with the hidden snow!"
He pointed to the north, and there, low on the horizon, was a lurid red gleam like a smouldering fire, while just above it a greenish blackness of cloud hung heavy and motionless. Towards the central part of the heaven two or three stars shone with frosty brightness, and through a few fleecy ribbons of greyish mist limmered the uncertain promise of a faint moon.
Gueldmar smiled slightly. "Storm coming?" he answered almost gaily. "That is well! Storm and I are old friends, my lad! Good night!"
Once more he touched his horned steeds, and with a jingle-jangle of musical bells and a scudding, slippery hissing across the hard snow, the sledge sped off with fairy-like rapidity, and in a few moments its one little guiding lantern disappeared in the darkness like a suddenly extinguished candle.
The Lapp stood pondering and gazing after it, with the bonde's money in his palm, till the cold began to penetrate even his thick skin-clothing and his fat little body, well anointed with whale-oil though it was,—and becoming speedily conscious of this, he scampered with extraordinary agility, considering the dimensions of his snow-shoes, into the hut where he had his dwelling, relating to all who choose to hear, the news of old Lovisa Elsland's death, and the account of his brief interview with the dreaded but generous pagan.
Ulrika, watching by the corpse of her aged friend, was soon joined by others bent on sharing her vigil, and the house was presently filled with woman's religious wailings and prayers for the departed. To all the curious inquiries that were made concerning the cause of Lovisa's desire to see the bonde before she died, Ulrika vouchsafed no reply,—and the villagers, who stood somewhat in awe of her as a woman of singular godliness and discreet reputation, soon refrained from asking any more questions. An ambitious young Lutheran preacher came, and, addressing himself to all assembled, loudly extolled the superhuman virtues of the dead "Mother of the village," as Lovisa had been called,—amid the hysterical weeping and moaning of the mourners, he begged them to look upon her "venerated face" and observe "the smile of God's own peace engraven there,"—and amid all his eloquence, and the shrieking excitement of his fanatical hearers, Ulrika alone was silent.
She sat stern and absorbed, with set lips and lowered eyelids at the head of the bed whereon the corpse was now laid out, grimly rigid,—with bound-up jaws, and clasped fingers like stiff, dried bones. Her thoughts dwelt gloomily and intently on Gueldmar's words—"The Eternal Justice cannot err." Eternal Justice! What sentence would Eternal Justice pass upon the crime of murder?—or attempt to murder? "I am guilty," the unhappy woman reflected, with a strong shudder chilling her veins, "guilty even as Lovisa! I tried to kill my child—I thought, I hoped it was dead! It was not my meaning that it should live. And this Eternal Justice, may be, will judge the intention more than the crime. O Lord, Lord! save my soul! Teach me how to escape from the condemning fires of Thine anger!" Thus she prayed and wrestled with, her accusing self in secret—despair and fear raging in her heart, though not a flicker of her inward agitation betrayed itself outwardly on her stolid, expressionless features.
Meanwhile the wind rose to a tearing, thunderous gale, and the night, already so dark, darkened yet more visibly. Olaf Gueldmar, driving swiftly homewards, caught the first furious gust of the storm that came rushing onward from the North Cape, and as it swooped sideways against his light sledge, he was nearly hurled from his seat by the sudden violence of the shock. He settled himself more firmly, encouraging with a cheery word the startled reindeer, who stopped short,—stretching out their necks and sniffing the air, their hairy sides heaving with the strain of trotting against the blast, and the smoke of their breath steaming upwards in the frosty air like white vapor. The way lay now through a narrow defile bordered with tall pines,—and as the terrified animals, recovering, shook the tinkling bells on their harness, and once more resumed their journey, the road was comparatively sheltered, and the wind seemed to sink as suddenly as it rose. There was a hush—an almost ominous silence.
The sledge glided more slowly between the even lines of upright giant trees, crowned with icicles and draped in snow,—the bonde involuntarily loosened the reins of his elfin steeds, and again returned to those painful and solemn musings, from which the stinging blow of the tempest had for a moment roused him. The proud heart of the old man ached bitterly. What! All these years had passed, and he, the descendant of a hundred Vikings, had been cheated of justice! He had seen his wife,—the treasured darling of his days, suffering,—dying, inch by inch, year by year, with all her radiant beauty withered,—and he had never known her destroyer! Her fall from the edge of the chasm had been deemed by them both an accident, and yet—this wretched Lovisa Elsland—mad with misplaced, disappointed passion, jealousy, and revenge,—had lived on to the extreme of life, triumphant and unsuspected.
"I swear the gods have played me false in this!" he muttered, lifting his eyes in a sort of fierce appeal to the motionless pinetops stiff with frost. The mystery of the old hag's hatred of his daughter was now made clear—she resembled her mother too closely to escape Lovisa's malice. He remembered the curse she had called down upon the innocent girl,—how it was she who had untiringly spread abroad the report among the superstitious people of the place, that Thelma was a witch whose presence was a blight upon the land,—how she had decoyed her into the power of Mr. Dyceworthy—all was plain—and, notwithstanding her deliberate wickedness, she had lived her life without punishment! This was what made Gueldmar's blood burn, and pulses thrill. He could not understand why the Higher Powers had permitted this error of justice, and, like many of his daring ancestors, he was ready to fling defiance in the very face of Odin, and demand—"Why,—O thou drowsy god, nodding over thy wine-cups,—why didst thou do this thing?"
Utter fearlessness,—bodily and spiritual,—fearlessness of past, present, or future, life or death,—was Gueldmar's creed. The true Norse warrior spirit was in him—had he been told, on heavenly authority, that the lowest range of the "Nastrond" or Scandinavian Hell, awaited him, he would have accepted his fate with unflinching firmness. The indestructibility of the soul, and the certainty that it must outlive even centuries of torture, and triumph gloriously in the end, was the core of the faith he professed. As he glanced upwards, the frozen tree-tops, till then rigidly erect, swayed slightly from side to side with a crackling sound—but he paid no heed to this slight warning of a fresh attack from the combative storm that was gathering together and renewing its scattered forces. He began to think of his daughter, and the grave lines on his face relaxed and softened.
"'Tis all fair sailing for the child," he mused. "For that I should be grateful! The world has been made a soft nest for my bird,—I should not complain,—my own time is short." His former anger calmed a little—the brooding irritation of his mind became gradually soothed.
"Rose of my heart!" he whispered, tenderly apostrophizing the memory of his wife,—that lost jewel of love, whose fair body lay enshrined in the king's tomb by the Fjord. "Wrongfully done to death as thou wert, and brief time as we had for loving;—in spite of thy differing creed, I feel that I shall meet thee soon! Yes—in the world beyond the stars, they will bring thee to me in Valhalla,—wheresoever thou art, thou wilt not refuse to come! The gods themselves cannot unfasten the ties of love between us!"
As he half thought, half uttered, these words, the reindeer again stopped abruptly, rearing their antlered heads and panting heavily. Hark! what was that? A clear, far-reaching note of music seemingly wakened from the waters of the Fjord and rising upwards, upwards, with bell-like distinctness! Gueldmar leaned from his motionless sledge and listened in awe—it was the same sound he had before heard as he stood by Lovisa Elsland's death-bed—and was in truth nothing but a strong current of wind blowing through the arched and honeycombed rocks by the sea, towards the higher land,—creating the same effect as though one should breathe forcibly through a pipe-like instrument of dried and hollow reeds,—and being rendered more resonant by the intense cold, it bore a striking similarity to the full blast of a war-trumpet. For the worshipper of Odin, it had a significant and supernatural meaning,—and he repeated his former action—that of drawing the knife from his girdle and kissing the hilt. "If Death is near me," he said in a loud voice, "I bid it welcome! The gods know that I am ready!"
He waited as though expecting some answer—but there was a brief, absolute silence. Then, with a wild shriek and riotous uproar, the circling tempest,—before uncertain and vacillating in its wrath,—pounced, eagle-like, downward and grasped the mountains in its talons,—the strong pines rocked backwards and forwards as though bent by Herculean hands, crashing their frosted branches madly together:—the massive clouds in the sky opened and let fall their burden of snow. Down came the large fleecy flakes, twisting dizzily round and round in a white waltz to the whirl of the wind—faster—faster—heavier and thicker, till there seemed no clear space in the air. Gueldmar urged on the reindeer, more anxious for their safety than his own—the poor beasts were fatigued, and the blinding snow confused them, but they struggled on patiently, encouraged by their master's voice and the consciousness that they were nearing home. The storm increased in fury—and a fierce gust of frozen sleet struck the sledge like a strong hammer-stroke as it advanced through the rapidly deepening snow-drifts—its guiding lantern was extinguished. Gueldmar did not stop to relight it—he knew he was approaching his farm, and he trusted to the instinct and sagacity of his steeds.
There was indeed but a short distance to go,—the narrow wooded defile opened out on two roads, one leading direct to Bosekop—the other, steep and tortuous, winding down to the shore of the Fjord—this latter passed the bonde's gate. Once out of the shadow of the pines, the way would be more distinctly seen,—the very reindeer seemed to be conscious of this, for they trotted more steadily, shaking their bells in even and rhythmical measure. As they neared the end of the long dark vista, a sudden bright blue glare quivered and sprang wave-like across the snow—a fantastic storm-aurora that flashed and played among the feathery falling flakes of white till they looked like knots and closters of sparkling jewels. The extreme point of the close defile was reached at last, and here the landscape opened up wide, rocky and desolate—a weird picture,—with the heavy clouds above repeatedly stabbed through and through by the needle-pointed beams of the aurora borealis,—and the blank whiteness of the ground below. Just as the heads of the reindeer were turned into the homeward road, half of the aurora suddenly faded, leaving the other half still beating out its azure brilliance against the horizon. At the same instant, with abrupt swiftness, a dark shadow,—so dark as to seem almost palpable,—descended and fell directly in front of the advancing sledge—a sort of mist that appeared to block the way.
Gueldmar leaned forward and gazed with eager, straining eyes into that drooping gloom—a shadow?—a mere vapor, with the Northern Lights glimmering through its murky folds? Ah no—no! For him it was something very different,—a heavenly phantasm, beautiful and grand, with solemn meaning! He saw a Maiden, majestically tall, of earnest visage and imperial mien,—her long black hair streamed loose upon the wind—in one hand she held a shining shield—in the other a lifted spear! On her white brow rested a glittering helmet,—her bosom heaved beneath a corslet of pale gold—she fixed her divine, dark eyes full upon his face and smiled! With a cry of wonder and ecstacy the old man fell back in his sledge,—the reins dropped from his hands,—"The Valkyrie! the Valkyrie!" he exclaimed.