A mere breathing space, and the shadow vanished,—the aurora came out again in unbroken splendor—and the reindeer, feeling no restraint upon them, and terrified by something in the air, or the ceaseless glitter, of the lights in the sky, started off precipitately at full gallop. The long reins trailed loosely over their backs, lashing their sides as they ran—Gueldmar, recovering from his momentary awe and bewilderment, strove to seize them, but in vain. He called, he shouted,—the frightened animals were utterly beyond control, and dashed madly down the steep road, swinging the sledge from side to side, and entangling themselves more and more with the loose reins, till, irritated beyond endurance, confused and blinded by the flash of the aurora and the dizzy whirl of the swiftly falling snow, they made straight for a steep bank,—and before the bonde had time to realize the situation and jump from the sledge—crash! down they went with a discordant jangle of bells, their hoofs splitting a thin, sharp shelf of ice as they leaped forward,—dragging the light vehicle after them, and twisting it over and over till it was a mere wreck,—and throwing out its occupant head foremost against a jagged stone.
Then more scared than ever, they strove to clamber out of the gully into which they had recklessly sprung, but, foiled in these attempts, they kicked, plunged, and reared,—trampling heedlessly over the human form lying helpless among the shattered fragments of the sledge,—till tired out at last, they stood motionless, panting with terror. Their antlered heads cast fantastic patterns on the snow in the varying rose and azure radiance that rippled from the waving ribbons of the aurora,—and close to them, his slowly trickling life-blood staining the white ground,—his hair and beard glittering in the light like frosted silver,—his eyes fast closed as though he slept,—lay Olaf Gueldmar unconscious—dying. The spear of the Valkyrie had fallen!
"Bury me not when I am dead— Lay me not down in a dusty bed; I could not bear the life down there, With the wet worms crawling about my hair!" ERIC MACKAY.
Long hours passed, and the next day dawned, if the dim twilight that glimmered faintly across the Altenfjord could be called a dawn. The snow-fall had ceased,—the wind had sunk—there was a frost-bound, monotonous calm. The picturesque dwelling of the bonde was white in every part, and fringed with long icicles,—icicles drooped from its sheltering porch and gabled windows—the deserted dove-cote on the roof was a miniature ice-palace, curiously festooned with thin threads and crested pinnacles of frozen snow. Within the house there was silence,—the silence of approaching desolation. In the room where Thelma used to sit and spin, a blazing fire of pine sparkled on the walls, casting ruddy outward flashes through the frost-covered lattice-windows,—and here, towards the obscure noon, Olaf Gueldmar awoke from his long trance of insensibility. He found himself at home, stretched on his own bed, and looked about him vacantly. In the earnest and watchful countenance that bent above his pillow, he slowly recognized his friend, companion, and servant, Valdemar Svensen, and though returning consciousness brought with it throbs of agonizing pain, he strove to smile, and feebly stretched out his hand. Valdemar grasped it—kissed it—and in spite of his efforts to restrain his emotion, a sigh, that was almost a groan, escaped him. The bonde smiled again,—then lay quiet for a few moments as though endeavoring to collect his thought. Presently he spoke—his voice was faint yet distinct.
"What has happened, Valdemar?" he asked. "How is it that the strength has departed from me?"
Svensen dropped on his knees by the bedside. "An accident, my Lord Olaf," he began falteringly.
Gueldmar's eyes suddenly lightened. "Ah, I remember!" he said. "The rush down the valley—I remember all!" He paused, then added gently, "And so the end has come, Valdemar!"
Svensen uttered a passionate exclamation of distress.
"Let not my lord say so!" he murmured appealingly, with the air of a subject entreating favor from a king. "Or, if it must be, let me also travel with thee wherever thou goest!"
Olaf Gueldmar's gaze rested on him with a musing tenderness.
"'Tis a far journey," he said simply. "And thou art not summoned." He raised his arm to test its force—for one second it was uplifted,—then it fell powerless at his side. "I am conquered!" he went on with a cheerful air. "The fight is over, Valdemar! Surely I have had a long battle, and the time for rest and reward is welcome." He was silent for a little, then continued, "Tell me—how—where didst thou find me? It seems I had a dream, strange, and glorious—then came a rushing sound of wheels and clanging bells,—and after that, a long deep silence."
Speaking in low tones, Valdemar briefly related the events of the past night. How he had heard the reindeer's gallop down the road, and the quick jangling of the bells on their harness, and had concluded that the bonde was returning home at extraordinary speed—how these sounds had suddenly and unaccountably ceased,—how, after waiting for some time, and hearing nothing more, he had become greatly alarmed, and, taking a pine-torch, had gone out to see what had occurred,—how he had found the reindeer standing by the broken sledge in the gully, and how, after some search, he had finally discovered his master, lying half-covered by the snow, and grievously injured. How he had lifted him and carried him into the house, . . .
"By my soul!" interrupted the bonde cheerfully, "thou must have found me no light weight, Valdemar! See what a good thing it is to be a man—with iron muscles, and strong limbs, and hardy nerve! By the Hammer of Thor! the glorious gift of strong manhood is never half appreciated! As for me—I am a man no longer!"
He sighed a little, and, passing his sinewy hand across his brow, lay back exhausted. He was racked by bodily torture, but,—unflinching old hero as he was,—gave no sign of the agonizing pain he suffered. Valdemar Svensen had risen from his knees, and now stood gazing at him with yearning, miserable eyes, his brown, weather-beaten visage heavily marked with lines of grief and despair. He knew that he was utterly powerless—that nothing could save the noble life that was ebbing slowly away before him. His long and varied experience as a sailor, pilot, and traveller in many countries had given him some useful knowledge of medicine and surgery, and if anything was possible to be done, he could do it. But in this case no medical skill would have been availing—the old man's ribs were crushed in and his spine injured,—his death was a question of but a few hours at the utmost, if so long.
"Olaf the King!" muttered the bonde presently, "True! They make no mistakes yonder,—they know each warrior by name and rank—'tis only in this world we are subject to error. This world! By the gods! . . . 'tis but a puff of thistle-down—or a light mist floating from the sunset to the sea!"
He made a vigorous attempt to raise himself from his pillow—though the excruciating anguish caused by his movement, made him wince a little and grow paler.
"Wine, Valdemar! Fill the horn cup to the brim and bring it to me—I must have strength to speak—before I depart—on the last great journey."
Obediently and in haste, Svensen filled the cup he asked for with old Lacrima Christi, of which there was always a supply in this far Northern abode, and gave it to him, watching him with a sort of superstitious reverence as he drained off its contents and returned it empty.
"Ah! That warms this freezing blood of mine," he said, the lustre flashing back into his eyes. "'Twill find fresh force to flow a brief while longer. Valdemar—I have little time to spend with thee—I feel death here"—and he slightly touched his chest—"cold—cold and heavy. 'Tis nothing—a passing, chilly touch that sweeps away the world! But the warmth of a new, strong life awaits me—a life of never-ending triumph! The doors of Valhalla stand wide open—I heard the trumpet-call last night—I saw the dark-haired Valkyrie! All is well—and my soul is full of rejoicing. Valdemar—there is but one thing now thou hast to do for me,—the one great service thou hast sworn to render. Fulfill thine oath!"
Valdemar's brown cheek blanched,—his lips quivered,—he flung up his hands in wild appeal. The picturesque flow of his native speech gained new fervor and eloquence as he spoke.
"Not yet—not yet, my lord!" he cried passionately. "Wait but a little—there is time. Think for one moment—think! Would it not be well for my lord to sleep the last sleep by the side of his beloved Thelma—the star of the dark mountains—the moonbeam of the night of his life? Would not peace enwrap him there as with a soft garment, and would not his rest be lulled by the placid murmur of the sea? For the days of old time and storm and victory are past—and the dead slumber as stones in the silent pathways—why would my lord depart in haste as though he were wrathful, from the land he has loved?—from the vassal who implores his pardon for pleading against a deed he dares not do!"
"Dares not—dares not!" cried the bonde, springing up half-erect from his couch, in spite of pain, and looking like some enraged old lion with his tossed, streaming hair and glittering eyes. "Serf as thou art and coward! Thinkest thou an oath such as thine is but a thread of hair, to be snapped at thy pleasure? Wilt thou brave the wrath of the gods and the teeth of the Wolf of Nastrond? As surely as the seven stars shine on the white brow of Thor, evil shall be upon thee if thou refusest to perform the vow thou hast sworn! And shall a slave have strength to resist the dying curse of a King?"
The pride, the supreme authority,—the magnified strength of command that flushed the old man's features, were extraordinary and almost terrible in their impressive grandeur. If he indeed believed himself by blood a king and a descendant of kings,—he could not have shown a more forcible display of personal sovereignty. The effect of his manner on Valdemar was instantaneous,—the superstitious fears of that bronzed sea-wanderer were easily aroused. His head drooped—he stretched out his hands imploringly.
"Let not my lord curse his servant," he faltered. "It was but a tremor of the heart that caused my tongue to speak foolishly. I am ready—I have sworn—the oath shall be kept to its utmost end!"
Olaf Gueldmar's threatening countenance relaxed, and he fell back on his pillows.
"It is well!" he said feebly and somewhat indistinctly. "Thy want of will maddened me—I spoke and lived in times that are no more—days of battle—and—glory—that are gone—from men—for ever. More wine, Valdemar!—I must keep a grip on this slippery life—and yet—I wander—wander into the—night—"
His voice ceased, and he sank into a swoon—a swoon that was like death. His breathing was scarcely perceptible, and Svensen, alarmed at his appearance, forced some drops of wine between his set lips, and chafed his cold hands with anxious solicitude. Slowly and very gradually he recovered consciousness and intelligence, and presently asked for a pencil and paper to write a few farewell words to his daughter. In the grief and bewilderment of the time, Valdemar entirely forgot to tell him that a letter from Thelma had arrived for him on the previous afternoon while he was away at Talvig,—and was even now on the shelf above the chimney, awaiting perusal. Gueldmar, ignorant of this, began to write slowly and with firmness, disregarding his rapidly sinking strength. Scarcely had he begun the letter, however, than he looked up meaningly at Svensen, who stood waiting beside him.
"The time grows very short," he said imperatively. "Prepare everything quickly—go! Fear not—I shall live to see thee return—and to bless thee for thy faithful service."
As he uttered these words he smiled;—and with one wistful, yearning look at him, Valdemar obediently and instantly departed. He left the house, carrying with him a huge pile of dry brushwood, and with the air of a man strung up to prompt action, rapidly descended the sloping path, thick with hardened snow, that led downwards to the Fjord. On reaching the shore, he looked anxiously about him. There was nothing in sight but the distant, twinkling lights of Bosekop—the Fjord itself was like a black pool,—so still that even the faintest murmur of its rippling against the bonde's own private pier could be heard,—the tide was full up.
Out of the reach of the encroaching waters, high and dry on the beach, was Gueldmar's brig, the Valkyrie, transformed by the fingers of the frost into a white ship, fantastically draped with threads of frozen snow and pendent icicles. She was placed on a descending plank, to which she was attached by a chain and rope pulley,—so that at any time of the weather or tide she could be moved glidingly downwards into deep water—and this was what Valdemar occupied himself in doing. It was a hard task. The chains were stiff with the frost,—but, after some patient and arduous striving, they yielded to his efforts, and, with slow clank and much creaking complaint, the vessel slid reluctantly down and plunged forward, afloat at last. Holding her ropes, Valdemar sprang to the extreme edge of the pier and fastened her there, and then getting on board, he untied and began to hoist the sails. This was a matter of the greatest difficulty, but it was gradually and successfully accomplished; and a strange sight the Valkyrie then presented, resting nearly motionless on the black Fjord,—her stretched and frosted canvas looking like sheeted pearl fringed with silver,—her masts white with encrusted snow, and topped with pointed icicles. Leaving her for a moment, Valdemar quickly returned, carrying the pile of dry brushwood he had brought,—he descended with this into the hold of the ship, and returned without it. Glancing once more nervously about him, he jumped from the deck to the pier—thence to the shore—and as he did so a long dark wave rolled up and broke at his feet. The capricious wind had suddenly arisen,—and a moaning whisper coming from the adjacent hills gave warning of another storm.
Valdemar hurriedly retraced his steps back to the house,—his work with the Valkyrie had occupied him more than an hour—the bonde, his friend and master, might have died during his absence! There was a cold sickness at his heart—his feet seemed heavy as lead, and scarcely able to carry him along quickly enough—to his credulous and visionary mind, the hovering shadow of death seemed everywhere,—in every crackling twig he brushed against,—in every sough of the wakening gale that rustled among the bare pines. To his intense relief he found Gueldmar lying calmly back among his pillows,—his eyes well open and clear, and an expression of perfect peace upon his features. He smiled as he saw his servant enter.
"All is in readiness?" he asked.
Valdemar bent his head in silent assent.
The bonde's face lightened with extraordinary rapture.
"I thank thee, old friend!" he said in low but glad accents. "Thou knowest I could not be at peace in any other grave. I have suffered in thine absence,—the sufferings of the body that, being yet strong in spite of age, is reluctant to take leave of life. But it is past! I am as one numbed with everlasting frost,—and now I feel no pain. And my mind is like a bird that poises for a while over past and present, ere soaring into the far future. There are things I must yet say to thee, Valdemar,—give me thy close hearing, for my voice is weak."
Svensen drew closer, and stood in the humble attitude of one who waits a command from some supreme chief.
"This letter," went on the old man, giving him a folded paper, "is to the child of my heart, my Thelma. Send it to her—when—I am gone. It will not grieve her, I hope—for, as far as I could find words, I have expressed therein nothing but joy—the joy of a prisoner set free. Tell her, that with all the strength of my perishing body and escaping soul, I blessed her! . . . her and the husband in whose arms she rests in safety." He raised his trembling hands solemnly—"The gods of my fathers and their attendant spirits have her young life in their glorious keeping!—the joy of love and purity and peace be on her innocent head for ever!"
He paused,—the wind wailed mournfully round the house and shook the lattice with a sort of stealthy clatter, like a forlorn wanderer striving to creep in to warmth and shelter.
"Here, Valdemar," continued the bonde presently, in fainter accents, at the same time handing him another paper. "Here are some scrawled lines—they are plainly set forth and signed—which make thee master of this poor place and all that it contains."
A low, choked sob broke from Valdemar's broad breast—he covered his face with his hands.
"Of what avail?" he murmured brokenly. "When my lord departs, I am alone and friendless!"
The bonde regarded him with kindly pity.
"Tears from the stout heart?" he inquired with a sort of grave wonder. "Weep for life, Valdemar—not for death! Alone and friendless? Not while the gods are in heaven! Cheer thee—thou art strong and in vigorous pride of manhood—why should not bright days come for thee—" He broke off with a gasp—a sudden access of pain convulsed him and rendered his breathing difficult. By sheer force of will he mastered the cruel agony, though great drops of sweat stood on his brow when he at last found voice to continue—
"I thought all suffering was past," he said with a heroic smile. "This foolish flesh and blood of mine dies hard! But, as I was saying to thee, Valdemar—the farm is thine, and all it holds—save some few trifles I have set down to be given to my child. There is little worth in what I leave thee—the soil—is hard and ungrateful—the harvest uncertain, and the cattle few. Even the reindeer—didst thou say they were injured by their fall last night?—I—I forget, . . ."
"No harm has come to them," said Svensen hastily, seeing that the very effort of thinking was becoming too much for the old man. "They are safe and unhurt. Trouble not about these things!"
A strange, unearthly radiance transfigured Gueldmar's visage.
"Trouble is departing swiftly from me," he murmured.
"Trouble and I shall know each other no more!" His voice died away inarticulately, and he was silent a little space. Suddenly, and with a rush of vigor—that seemed superhuman, he raised himself nearly erect, and pointed outwards with a commanding gesture.
"Bear me hence!" he cried in ringing tones. "Hence to the mountains and the sea!"
With a sort of mechanical, swift obedience, Valdemar threw open the door—the wind rushed coldly into the house, bringing with it large feathery flakes of snow. A hand sledge stood outside the porch,—it was always there during the winter, being much used for visiting the outlying grounds of the farm,—and to this, Valdemar prepared to carry the bonde in his herculean arms. But, on being lifted from his couch, the old man, filled with strange, almost delirious force, declared himself able to stand,—and, though suffering deadly anguish at every step, did in truth manage to reach and enter the sledge, strongly supported by Valdemar. There, however, he fainted—and his faithful servant, covering his insensible form with, furs, thought he was dead. But there was now no time for hesitation,—dead or living, Olaf Gueldmar's will was law to his vassal,—an oath had been made and must be kept. To propel the sledge down to the Fjord was an easy matter—how the rest of his duty was accomplished he never knew.
He was conscious of staggering blindly onward, weighted with a heavy, helpless burden,—he felt the slippery pier beneath his feet—the driving snow and the icy wind on his face,—but he was as one in a dream, realizing nothing plainly, till with a wild start, he seemed to awake—and lo! he stood on the glassy deck of the Valkyrie with the body of his "King" stretched senseless before him! Had he brought him there? He could not remember what he had done during the past few mad minutes,—the earth and sky whirled dizzily around him,—he could grasp nothing tangible in thought or memory. But there, most certainly, Olaf Gueldmar lay,—his pallid face upturned, his hair and beard as white as the snow that clung to the masts of his vessel—his hand clenched on the fur garment that enwrapped him as with a robe of royalty.
Dropping on his knees beside him, Valdemar felt his heart—it still throbbed fitfully and feebly. Watching the intense calm of the grand, rugged face, this stern, weather-worn sailor—this man of superstitious and heathen imaginations—gave way to womanish tears—tears that were the outcome of sincere and passionate grief. His love was of an exceptional type,—something like that of a faithful dog that refuses to leave the grave of its master,—he could contemplate death for himself with absolute indifference,—but not for the bonde, whose sturdy strength and splendid physique had seemed to defy all danger.
As he knelt and wept unrestrainedly, a soft change, a delicate transparency, swept over the dark bosom of the sky. Pale pink streaks glittered on the dusky horizon—darts of light began to climb upward into the clouds, and to plunge downward into the water,—the radiance spread, and gradually formed into a broad band of deep crimson, which burned with a fixed and intense glow—topaz-like rays flickered and streamed about it, as though uncertain what fantastic shape they should take to best display their brilliancy. This tremulous hesitation of varying color did not last long; the whole jewel-like mass swept together, expanding and contracting with extraordinary swiftness for a few seconds—then, suddenly and clearly defined in the sky, a Kingly Crown blazed forth—a Crown of perfect shape, its five points distinctly and separately outlined and flashing as with a million rubies and diamonds. The red lustre warmly tinged the pale features of the dying man, and startled Valdemar, who sprang to his feet and gazed at that mystic aureola with a cry of wonder. At the same moment Olaf Gueldmar stirred, and began to speak drowsily without opening his eyes.
"Dawn on the sea!" he murmured—"The white waves gleam and sparkle beneath the prow, and the ship makes swift way through the water! It is dawn in my heart—the dawn of love for thee and me, my Thelma—fear not! The rose of passion is a hardy flower that can bloom in the north as well as in the south, believe me! Thelma—Thelma!"
He suddenly opened his eyes, and realizing his surroundings, raised himself half-erect.
"Set sail!" he cried, pointing with a majestic motion of his arm to the diadem glittering in the sky. "Why do we linger? The wind favors us, and the tide sweeps forward—forward! See how the lights beckon from the harbor!"
He bent his brows and looked almost angrily at Svensen. "Do what thou hast to do!" and his tones were sharp and imperious. "I must press on!"
An expression of terror, pain, and pity passed over the sailor's countenance—for one instant he hesitated—the next, he descended into the hold of the vessel. He was absent for a very little space,—but when he returned his eyes were wild as though he had been engaged in some dark and criminal deed. Olaf Gueldmar was still gazing at the brilliancy in the heavens, which seemed to increase in size and lustre as the wind rose higher. Svensen took his hand—it was icy cold, and damp with the dew of death.
"Let me go with thee!" he implored, in broken accent. "I fear nothing! Why should I not venture also on the last voyage?"
Gueldmar made a faint but decided sign of rejection.
"The Viking sails alone to the grave of his fathers!" he with a serene and proud smile. "Alone—alone! Neither wife, nor child, nor vassal may have place with him in his ship—even so have the gods willed it. Farewell, Valdemar! Loosen the ropes and let me go!—thou servest me ill—hasten—hasten—I am weary of waiting—"
His head fell back,—that mysterious shadow which darkens the face of the dying a moment before dissolution, was on him now.
Just then a strange, suffocating odor began to permeate the air—little wreaths of pale smoke made their slow way through the boards of the deck—and a fierce gust of wind, blowing seawards from the mountains, swayed the Valkyrie uneasily to and fro. Slowly, and with evident reluctance, Svensen commenced the work of detaching her from the pier—feeling instinctively all the while that his master's dying eyes were fixed upon him. When but one slender rope remained to be cast off, he knelt by the old man's side said whispered tremblingly that all was done. At the same moment a small, stealthy tongue of red flame curled up through the deck from the hold,—and Gueldmar, observing this, smiled.
"I see thou hast redeemed thine oath," he said, gratefully pressing Svensen's hand. "'Tis the last act of thine allegiance,—may the gods reward thy faithfulness! Peace be with thee!—we shall meet hereafter. Already the light shines from the Rainbow Bridge,—there,—there are the golden peaks of the hills and the stretch of the wide sea! Go, Valdemar!—delay no longer, for my soul is impatient—it burns, it struggles to be free! Go!—and—farewell!"
Stricken to the heart, and full Of anguish,—yet serf-like in his submission and resignation to the inevitable,—Svensen kissed his master's hand for the last time. Then, with a sort of fierce sobbing groan, wrung from the very depths of his despairing grief, he turned resolutely away, and sprang off the vessel. Standing at the extreme edge of the pier, he let slip the last rope that bound her,—her sails filled and bulged outward,—her cordage creaked, she shuddered on the water—lurched a little—then paused.
In that brief moment a loud triumphant cry rang through the air. Olaf Gueldmar leaped upright on the deck as though lifted by some invisible hand, and confronted his terrified servants, who gazed at him in fascinated amazement and awe. His white hair gleamed like spun silver—his face was transfigured, and wore a strange, rapt look of pale yet splendid majesty—the dark furs that clung about him trailed in regal folds to his feet.
"Hark!" he cried, and his voice vibrated with deep and mellow clearness. "Hark to the thunder of the galloping hoofs!—see—see the glitter of the shield and spear! She comes-ah! Thelma! Thelma!" He raised his arms as though in ecstacy. "Glory!—joy!—Victory!"
And, like a noble tree struck down by lightning, he fell—dead!
Even as he fell, the Valkyrie plunged forward, driven forcibly by a swooping gust of wind, and scudded out to the Fjord like a wild bird flying before a tempest,—and, while she thus fled, a sheet of flame burst through her sides and blazed upwards, mingling a lurid, smoky glow with the clear crimson radiance of the still brilliant and crown-like aurora. Following the current, she made swift way across the dark water in the direction of the island of Seiland, and presently became a wondrous Ship of Fire! Fire flashed from her masts—fire folded up her spars and sails in a devouring embrace,—fire, that leaped and played and sent forth a million showering sparks hissingly into the waves beneath.
With beating heart and straining eyes, Valdemar Svensen crouched on the pier-head, watching, in mute agony, the burning vessel. He had fulfilled his oath!—that strange vow that had so sternly bound him,—a vow that was the outcome of his peculiar traditions and pagan creed.
Long ago, in the days of his youth,—full of enthusiasm for the worship of Odin and the past splendors of the race of the great Norse warriors,—he had chosen to recognize in Olaf Gueldmar a true descendant of kings, who was by blood and birth, though not in power, himself a king,—and tracing his legendary history back to old and half-forgotten sources, he had proved, satisfactorily, to his own mind, that he, Svensen, must lawfully, and according to old feudal system, be this king's serf or vassal. And, growing more and more convinced of this in his dreamy and imaginative mind,—he had sworn a sort of mystic friendship and allegiance, which Gueldmar had accepted, imposing on him, however, only one absolute command. This was that he should be given the "crimson shroud" and sea-tomb of his war-like ancestors,—for the idea that his body might be touched by strange hands, shut in a close coffin, and laid in the earth to moulder away to wormy corruption,—had been the one fantastic dread of the sturdy old pagan's life. And he had taken advantage of Svensen's devotion and obedience to impress on him the paramount importance of his solitary behest.
"Let no hypocritical prayers be chanted over my dumb corpse," he had said. "My blood would ooze from me at every pore were I touched by the fingers of a Lutheran! Save this goodly body that has served me so well from the inferior dust,—let the bright fire wither it, and the glad sea drown it,—and my soul, beholding its end afar off, shall rejoice and be satisfied. Swear by the wrath and thunder of the gods!—swear by the unflinching Hammer of Thor,—swear by the gates of Valhalla, and in the name of Odin!—and having sworn, the curse of all these be upon thee if thou fail to keep thy vow!"
And Valdemar had sworn. Now that the oath was kept—now that his promised obedience had been carried out to the extremest letter, he was as one stupefied. Shivering, yet regardless of the snow that began to fall thickly, he kept his post, staring, staring in drear fascination across the Fjord, where the Valkyrie drifted, now a mass of flame blown fiercely by the wind, and gleaming red through the flaky snow-storm.
The aurora borealis faded by gradual degrees, and the flaming ship was more than ever distinctly visible. She was seen from the shore of Bosekop, by a group of the inhabitants, who, rubbing their dull eyes, could not decide Whether what they beheld was fire, or a new phase of the capricious, ever-changing Northern Lights,—the rapidly descending snow rendering their vision bewildered and uncertain. Any way, they thought very little about it,—they had had excitement of another kind in the arrival of Ulrika from Talvig, bringing accounts of the godly Lovisa Elsland's death.
Moreover, an English steam cargo-boat, bound for the North Cape, had, just an hour previously, touched at their harbor, to land a passenger,—a mysterious woman closely veiled, who immediately on arrival had hired a sledge, and had bidden the driver to take her to the house of Olaf Gueldmar, an eight miles journey through the drifted snow. All this was intensely interesting to the good, stupid, gossiping fisher-folks of Bosekop,—so much so, indeed, that they scarcely paid any heed to the spectacle of the fiery ship swaying suggestively on the heaving water, and drifting rapidly away—away towards the frosted peaks of Seiland.
Further and further she receded,—the flames around her waving like banners in a battle—further and further still—till Valdemar Svensen, from his station on the pier, began to lose sight of her blazing timbers,—and, starting from his reverie, he ran rapidly from the shore, up through the garden paths to the farm-house, in order to gain the summit, and from that point of vantage, watch the last glimmering spark of the Viking's burial. As he reached the house, he stopped short and uttered a wild exclamation. There,—under the porch hung with sparkling icicles,—stood Thelma! . . . Thelma,—her face pale and weary, yet smiling faintly,—Thelma with the glint of her wondrous gold hair escaping from under her hat, and glittering on the folds of her dark fur mantle.
"I have come home, Valdemar!" said the sweet, rich, penetrating voice. "Where is my father?"
As a man distraught, or in some dreadful dream, Valdemar approached her—the strangeness of his look and manner filled her with sudden fear,—he caught her hand and pointed to the dark Fjord—to the spot where gleamed a lurid waving wreath of flames.
"Froeken Thelma—he is there!" he gasped in choked, hoarse tones. "there—where the gods have called him!"
With a faint shriek of terror, Thelma's blue eyes turned toward the shadowy water,—as she looked, a long up-twisting snake of fire appeared to leap from the perishing Valkyrie,—a snake that twined its glittering coils rapidly round and round on the wind, and as rapidly sank—down—down—to one glimmering spark which glowed redly like a floating lamp for a brief space,—and was then quenched for ever! The ship had vanished! Thelma needed no explanation,—she knew her father's creed—she understood all. Breaking loose from Valdemar's grasp, she rushed a few steps forward with arms outstretched on the bitter, snowy air.
"Father! father!" she cried aloud and sobbingly. "Wait for me!—it is I Thelma!—I am coming—Father!"
The white world around her grew black—and, shuddering like a shot bird, she fell senseless.
Instantly Valdemar raised her from the ground, and holding her tenderly and reverently in his strong arms, carried her, as though she were a child, into the house . . . clouds darkened—the snow-storm thickened—the mountain-peaks, stern giants, frowned through their sleety veils at the arctic desolation of the land below them,—and over the charred and sunken corpse of the departed servant of Odin, sounded the solemn De Profundis of the sea.
"The body is the storm; The soul the star beyond it, in the deep Of Nature's calm. And, yonder, on the steep, The Sun of Faith, quiescent, round, and warm!"
Late on that same night, the pious Ulrika was engaged in prayer. Prayer with her was a sort of fanatical wrestling of the body as well as of the soul,—she was never contented unless by means of groans and contortions she could manage to work up by degrees into a condition of hysteria resembling a mild epileptic attack, in which state alone she considered herself worthy to approach the Deity. On this Occasion she had some difficulty to attain the desired result—her soul, as she herself expressed it, was "dry"—and her thoughts wandered,—though she pinched her neck and arms with the hard resoluteness of a sworn flagellant, and groaned, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!" with indefatigable earnestness. She was considerably startled in the midst of these energetic devotions by a sudden jangling of sledge—bells, and aloud knocking—a knocking which threatened to break down the door of the small and humble house she inhabited. Hastily donning the coarse gown and bodice she had recently taken off in order to administer chastisement to her own flesh more thoroughly, she unfastened her bolts and bars, and, lifting the latch, was confronted by Valdemar Svensen, who, nearly breathless with swift driving through the snow-storm, cried out in quick gasps—
"Come with me—come! She is dying!"
"God help the man!" exclaimed Ulrika startled. "Who is dying?"
"She—the Froeken Thelma—Lady Errington—she is all alone up there," and he pointed distractedly in the direction from whence he had come. "I can get no one in Bosekop,—the women are cowards all,—all afraid to go near her," and he wrung his hands in passionate distress.
Ulrika pulled a thick shawl from the nail where it hung and wrapped it round her.
"I am ready," she said, and without more delay, stepped into the waiting sledge, while Valdemar, with an exclamation of gratitude and relief, took his place beside her. "But how is it?" she asked, as the reindeer started off at full speed, "how is it that the bonde's daughter is again at the Altenfjord?"
"I know not!" answered Svensen despairingly. "I would have given my life not to have told her of her father's death."
"Death!" cried Ulrika. "Olaf Gueldmar dead! Impossible! Only last night I saw him in the pride of his strength,—and thought I never had beheld so goodly a man. Lord, Lord! That he should be dead!"
In a few words Svensen related all that had happened, with the exception of the fire-burial in the Fjord.
But Ulrika immediately asked, "Is his body still in the house?"
Svensen looked at her darkly. "Hast thou never heard Ulrika," he said solemnly, "that the bodies of men who follow Olaf Gueldmar's creed, disappear as soon as the life departs from them? It is a mystery—strange and terrible! But this is true—my master's sailing-ship has gone, and his body with it—and I know not where!"
Ulrika surveyed him steadily with a slow, incredulous smile. After a pause, she said—
"Fidelity in a servant is good, Valdemar Svensen! I know you well—I also know that a pagan shrinks from Christian burial. Enough said—I will ask no more—but if Olaf Gueldmar's ship's has gone, and he with it,—I warn you, the village will wonder."
"I cannot help it," said Svensen with cold brevity. "I have spoken truth—he has gone! I saw him die—and then vanish. Believe it or not as you will, I care not!"
And he drove on in silence. Ulrika was silent too.
She had known Valdemar Svensen for many years—he was a man universally liked and respected at all the harbors and different fishing-stations of Norway, and his life was an open book to everybody, with the exception of one page, which was turned down and sealed,—this was the question of his religious belief. No one knew what form of faith he followed,—it was only when he went to live with the bonde, after Thelma's marriage,—that the nature of his creed was dimly suspected. But Ulrika had no dislike for him on this account,—her opinions had changed very much during the past few months. As devout a Lutheran as ever, she began to entertain a little more of the true spirit of Christianity—that spirit of gentle and patient tolerance which, full of forbearance towards all humanity, is willing to admit the possibility of a little good in everything, even in the blind tenets of a heathen creed. Part of this alteration in her was due to the gratitude she secretly felt towards the Gueldmar family, for having saved from destruction,—albeit unconscious of his parentage,—Sigurd, the child she had attempted to murder. The hideous malevolence of Lovisa Elsland's nature had shown her that there may be bad Lutherans,—the invariable tenderness displayed by the Gueldmars for her unrecognized, helpless and distraught son,—had proved to her that there may be good heathens. Hearing thus suddenly of the bonde's death, she was strangely affected—she could almost have wept. She felt perfectly convinced that Svensen had made away with his master's body by some mysterious rite connected with pagan belief,—she knew that Gueldmar himself, according to rumor, had buried his own wife in some unknown spot, with strange and weird ceremonials, but she was inclined to be tolerant,—and glancing at Svensen's grave, pained face from time to time as she sat beside him in the sledge, she resolved to ask him no more questions on the subject, but to accept and support, if necessary, the theory he had so emphatically set forth,—namely, the mystical evanishment of the corpse by some supernatural agency.
As they neared their destination, she began to think of Thelma, the beautiful, proud girl whom she remembered best as standing on a little green-tufted hillock with a cluster of pansies in her hand, and Sigurd—Sigurd clinging fondly to her white skirts, with a wealth of passionate devotion in his upturned, melancholy, blue eyes. Ulrika had seen her but once since then,—and that was on the occasion when, at the threat of Lovisa Elsland, and the command of the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy, she had given her Sir Philip Errington's card, with the false message written on it that had decoyed her for a time into the wily minister's power. She felt a thrill of shame as she remembered the part she had played in that cruel trick,—and reverting once more to the memory of Sigurd, whose tragic end at the Fall of Njedegorze she had learned through Valdemar, she resolved to make amends now that she had the chance, and to do her best for Thelma in her suffering and trouble.
"For who knows," mused Ulrika, "Whether it is not the Lord's hand that is extended towards me,—and that in the ministering to the wants of her whom I wronged, and whom my son so greatly loved, I may not thereby cancel the past sin, and work out my own redemption!"
And her dull eyes brightened with hope, and her heart warmed,—she began to feel almost humane and sympathetic,—and was so eager to commence her office of nurse and consoler to Thelma that she jumped out of the sledge almost before it had stopped at the farm gate. Disregarding Valdemar's assistance, she clambered sturdily over the drifted heaps of slippery snow that blocked the deserted pathways, and made for the house,—Valdemar following her as soon as he had safely fastened up the sledge, which was not his own, he having in emergency borrowed it from a neighbor. As they approached, a sound came floating to meet them—a sound which made them pause and look at each other in surprise and anxiety. Some one was singing,—a voice full and clear, though with a strange, uncertain quiver in it, rippled out in wild strains of minor melody on the snow-laden air. For one moment Ulrika listened doubtedly, and then without more delay ran hastily forward and entered the house. Thelma was there,—sitting at the lattice window which she had thrown wide open to the icy blast,—she had taken off her cloak and hat, and her hair, unbound, fell about her in a great, glittering tangle of gold,—her hands were busy manipulating an imaginary spinning-wheel—her eyes were brilliant as jewels, but full of pain, terror, and pathos. She smiled a piteous smile as she became hazily conscious that there were others in the room—but she went on with her song—a mournful, Norwegian ditty,—till a sudden break in her voice caused her to put her hand to her throat and look up perplexedly.
"That song pleases you?" she asked softly, "I am very glad! Has Sigurd come home? He wanders so much, poor boy! Father, dear, you must tell him how wrong it is not to love Philip. Every one loves Philip—and I—I love him too, but he must never know that." She paused and sighed. "That is my secret,—the only one I have!" And she drooped her fair head forlornly.
Moved by intense pity, such as she had never felt in all her life before, Ulrika went up and tried to draw her gently from the window.
"Poor thing, poor thing!" she said kindly. "Come away with me, and lie down! You mustn't sit here,—let me shut the lattice,—it's quite late at night, and too cold for you, my dear."
"Too cold?" and Thelma eyed her wonderingly. "Why, it is summer-time, and the sun never sets! The roses are all about the walls—I gave one to Philip yesterday—a little pale rose with a crimson heart. He wore it, and seemed glad!"
She passed her hand across her forehead with a troubled air, and watched Ulrika, who quietly closed the window against the darkness and desolation of the night. "Are you a friend?" she asked presently in anxious tones. "I know so many that say they are my friends—but I am afraid of them all—and I have left them. Do you know why?" and she laid her hand on Ulrika's rough arm. "Because they tell me my Philip does not love me any more. They are very cruel to say so, and I think it cannot be true. I want to tell my father what they say—because he will know—and if it is true, then I wish to die,—I could not live! Will you take me to my father?"
The plaintive, pleading gentleness of her voice and look brought more tears into Ulrika's eyes than had ever been forced there by her devotional exercises,—and the miserable Valdemar, already broken-hearted by his master's death, turned away and sobbingly cursed his gods for this new and undeserved affliction. As the Italian peasantry fall to abusing their saints in time of trouble, even so will the few remaining believers in Norse legendary lore, upbraid their fierce divinities with the most reckless hardihood when things go wrong. There were times when Valdemar Svensen secretly quailed at the mere thought of the wrath of Odin,—there were others when he was ready to pluck the great god by the beard and beat him with the flat of his own drawn sword. This was his humor at the present moment, as he averted his gaze from the pitiful sight of his "King's" fair daughter all desolate and woe-begone, her lovely face pale with anguish,—her sweet wits wandering, and her whole demeanor that of one who is lost in some dark forest, and is weary unto death. She studied Ulrika's rough visage attentively, and presently noticed the tears on her cheeks.
"You are crying!" she said in a tone of grave surprise. "Why? It is foolish to cry even when the heart aches. I have found that,—no one in the world ever pities you! But perhaps you do not know the world,—ah! it is very hard and cold;—all the people hide their feelings, and pretend to be what they are not. It is difficult to live so,—and I am tired!"
She rose from her chair, and stood up unsteadily, stretching out her little cold white hands to Ulrika, who folded them in her own strong coarse palms. "Yes—I am very tired!" she went on dreamily. "There seems to be nothing that is true—all is false and unreal—I cannot understand! But you seem kind,"—here her swaying figure tottered, and Ulrika drew her more closely to herself—"I think I know you—you came with me in the train, did you not? Yes—and the little baby smiled and slept in my arms nearly all the way." A violent shuddering seized her, and a quiver of agony passed over her face.
"Forgive me," she murmured, "I feel ill—very ill—and cold—but do not mind—I think—I am—dying!" She could scarcely articulate these last words—she sank forward, fainting, on Ulrika's breast, and that devout disciple of Luther, forgetting all her former dread of the "white witch of the Altenfjord"—only remembered that she held in her arms a helpless woman with all the sorrows and pangs of womanhood thick upon her,—and in this act of warm heart-expansion and timely tenderness, it may be that she cleansed her soiled soul in the sight of the God she worshipped, and won a look of pardon from the ever-watchful eyes of Christ.
As far as mundane matters were concerned, she showed herself a woman of prompt energy and decision. Laying Thelma gently down upon the very couch her dead father had so lately occupied, she sent the distracted Valdemar out to gather fresh pine-logs for the fire, and then busied herself in bringing down Thelma's own little bed from the upper floor, airing it with methodical care, and making it as warm and cosy as a bird's-nest. While she was engaged in these preparations, Thelma regained her consciousness, and began to toss and tumble and talk deliriously; but with it all she retained the innate gentleness and patience, and submitted to be undressed, though she began to sob pleadingly when Ulrika would have removed her husband's miniature from where it lay pressed against her bosom,—and taking it in her own hand she kissed and held it fast. One by one, the dainty articles of delicate apparel she wore were loosened and laid aside, Ulrika wondering at the embroidered linen and costly lace, the like of which was never seen in that part of Norway,—but wondering still more at the dazzling skin she thus unveiled, a skin as exquisitely soft and pure as the satiny cup of a Nile lily.
Poor Thelma sat resignedly watching her own attire taken from her, and allowing herself to be wrapped in a comfortable loose garment of white wadmel, as warm as eider-down, which Ulrika had found in a cupboard upstairs, and which, indeed, had once belonged to Thelma, she and Britta having made it together. She examined its texture now with some faint interest—then she asked plaintively—
"Are you going to bury me? You must put me to sleep with my mother—her name was Thelma, too. I think it is an unlucky name."
"Why, my dear?" asked Ulrika kindly, as she swept the rich tumbled hair from the girl's eyes, and began to braid it in one long loose plait, in order to give her greater ease.
Thelma sighed. "There is an old song that says—" She broke off. "Shall I sing it to you?" she asked with a wild look.
"No, no," said Ulrika. "Not now. By-and-by!" And she nodded her head encouragingly. "By-and-by! There'll be plenty of time for singing presently," and she laid her in bed, tucking her up warmly as though she were a very little child, and feeling strongly inclined to kiss her.
"Ah, but I should like to tell you, even if I must not sing—" and Thelma gazed up anxiously from her pillow—"only my head is so heavy, and full of strange noises—I do not know whether I can remember it."
"Don't try to remember it," and Ulrika stroked the soft cheek, with a curious yearning sensation of love tugging at her tough heartstrings. "Try to sleep—that will be better for you!" And she took from the fire a warm, nourishing drink she had prepared, and gave it to her. She was surprised at the eagerness with which the poor girl seized it.
"Lord help us, I believe she is light-headed for want of food!" she thought.
Such indeed was the fact,—Thelma had been several days on her journey from Hull, and during that time had eaten so little that her strength had entirely given way. The provisions on board the Black Polly were extremely limited, and consisted of nothing but dried fish, hard bread, and weak tea, without milk or sugar,—and in her condition of health, her system had rebelled against this daily untempting bill of fare. Ulrika's simple but sustaining beverage seemed more than delicious to her palate,—she drained it to the last drop, and, as she returned the cup, a feint color came back to her cheeks and lips.
"Thank you," she said feebly. "You are very good to me! And now I do quite know what I wished to say. It was long ago—there was a queen, named Thelma, and some one—a great warrior, loved her and found her fair. But presently he grew tired of her face—and raised an army against her, and took her throne by force, and crowned himself king of all her land. And the song says that Queen Thelma wandered on the mountains all alone till she died—it was a sad song—but I forget—the end."
And her voice trailed off into broken murmurs, her eyes closed, and she slept. Ulrika watched her musingly and tenderly—wondering what secret trouble weighed on the girl's mind. When Valdemar Svensen presently looked in, she made him a warning sign—and, hushing his footsteps, he went away again. She followed him out into the kitchen, where he had deposited his load of pine-wood, and began to talk to him in low tones. He listened,—the expression of grief and fear deepened on his countenance as he heard.
"Will she die?" he asked anxiously.
"Let us hope not," returned Ulrika, "But there is no doubt she is very ill, and will be worse. What has brought her here, I wonder? Do you know?"
Valdemar shook his head.
"Where is her husband?" went on Ulrika. "He ought to be here. How could he have let her make such a journey at such a time! Why did he not come with her? There must be something wrong!"
Svensen looked, as he felt, completely perplexed and despairing. He could think of no reason for Thelma's unexpected appearance at the Altenfjord—he had forgotten all about the letter that had come from her to her father,—the letter which was still in the house, unopened.
"Well, well! It is very strange!" Ulrika sighed resignedly. "But it is the Lord's will—and we must do our best for her, that's all." And she began to enumerate a list of things she wanted from Bosekop for her patient's sustenance and comfort. "You must fetch all these," she said, "as soon as the day is fairly advanced." She glanced at the clock—it was just four in the morning. "And at the same time, you had better call at the doctor's house."
"He's away," interrupted Valdemar. "Gone to Christiania."
"Very well," said Ulrika composedly. "Then we must do without him. Doctors are never much use, any way,—maybe the Lord will help me instead."
And she returned to Thelma, who still slept, though her face was now feverishly flushed and her breathing hurried and irregular.
The hours of the new day,—day, though seeming night, passed on and it was verging towards ten o'clock when she woke, raving deliriously. Her father, Sigurd, Philip, the events of her life in, London, the fatigues of her journey, were all jumbled fantastically together in her brain—she talked and sang incessantly, and, like some wild bird suddenly caged, refused to be quieted. Ulrika was all alone with her,—Valdemar having gone to execute his commissions in Bosekop,—and she had enough to do to make her remain in bed. For she became suddenly possessed by a strong desire to go sailing on the Fjord—and occasionally it took all Ulrika's strength to hold and keep her from springing to the window, whose white frosted panes seemed to have some fatal attraction for her wandering eyes.
She spoke of things strange and new to her attendant's ears—frequently she pronounced the names of Violet Vere and Lady Winsleigh with an accent of horror,—then she would talk of George Lorimer and Pierre Duprez,—and she would call for Britta often, sometimes endearingly—sometimes impatiently.
The picture of her home in Warwickshire seemed to haunt her,—she spoke of its great green trees, its roses, its smooth sloping lawns—then she would begin to smile and sing again in such a weak, pitiful fashion that Ulrika,—her stern nature utterly melted at the sight of such innocent helpless distraction and sorrow,—could do nothing but fold the suffering creature in her arms, and rock her to and fro soothingly on her breast, the tears running down her cheeks the while.
And after long hours of bewilderment and anguish, Errington's child, a boy, was born—dead. With a regretful heart, Ulrika laid out the tiny corpse,—the withered blossom of a promised new delight, a miniature form so fair and perfect that it seemed sheer cruelty on the part of nature to deny it breath and motion. Thelma's mind still wandered—she was hardly conscious of anything—and Ulrika was almost glad that this was so. Her anxiety was very great—she could not disguise from herself that Thelma's life was in danger,—and both she and Valdemar wrote to Sir Philip Errington, preparing him for the worst, and urging him to come at once,—little aware that the very night the lifeless child was born, was the same on which he had started from Hull for Christiansund, after his enforced waiting for the required steamer. There was nothing more to be done now, thought Ulrika piously, but to trust in the Lord and hope for the best. And Valdemar Svensen made with his own hands a tiny coffin for the body of the little dead boy who was to have brought such pride and satisfaction to his parents, and one day rowed it across the Fjord to that secret cave where Thelma's mother lay enshrined in stone. There he left it, feeling sure he had done well.
Ulrika asked him no questions—she was entirely absorbed in the duties that devolved upon her, and with an ungrudging devotion strange to see in her, watched and tended Thelma incessantly, scarcely allowing herself a minute's space for rest or food. The idea that her present ministration was to save her soul in the sight of the Lord, had grown upon her, and was now rooted firmly in her mind—she never gave way to fatigue or inattention,—every moan, every restless movement of the suffering girl, obtained her instant and tender solicitude, and when she prayed now, it was not for herself but for Thelma.
"Spare her, good Lord!" she would implore in the hyperbolical language she had drawn from her study of the Scriptures—"As the lily among thorns, so is she among the daughters! Cut her not off root and branch from the land of the living, for her countenance is comely, and as a bunch of myrrh which hath a powerful sweetness, even so must she surely be to the heart of her husband! Stretch forth Thy right hand, O Lord, and scatter healing, for the gates of death shall not prevail against Thy power!"
Day after day she poured out petitions such as these, and with the dogged persistency of a soldier serving Cromwell, believed that they would be granted,—though day after day Thelma seemed to grow weaker and weaker. She was still light-headed—her face grew thin and shadowy,—her hands were almost transparent in their whiteness and delicacy, and her voice was so faint as to be nearly in-audible. Sometimes Ulrika got frightened at her appearance, and heartily wished for medical assistance but this was not to be had. Therefore she was compelled to rely on the efficacy of one simple remedy,—a herbal drink to allay fever,—the virtues of which she had been taught in her youth,—this, and the healing mercies of mother Nature together with the reserved strength of her own constitution, were the threads on which Thelma's life hung.
Time passed on—and yet there was no news from Sir Philip. One night, sitting beside her exhausted patient, Ulrika fancied she saw a change on the wan face—a softer, more, peaceful look than had been there for many days. Half in fear, half in hope, she watched,—Thelma seemed to sleep,—but presently her large blue eyes opened with a calm yet wondering expression in their clear depths. She turned slightly on her pillows, and smiled faintly.
"Have I been ill?" she asked.
"Yes, my dear," returned Ulrika softly, overjoyed, yet afraid at the girl's returning intelligence. "Very ill. But you feel better now, don't you?"
Thelma sighed, and raising her little wasted hand, examined it curiously. Her wedding and betrothal rings were so loose on her finger that they would have fallen off had they been held downwards. She seemed surprised at this, but made no remark. For some time she remained quiet, steadfastly gazing at Ulrika, and evidently trying to make out who she was. Presently she spoke again.
"I remember everything now," she said, slowly. "I am at home, at the Altenfjord—and I know how I came—and also why I came." Here her lips quivered. "And I shall see my father no more, for he has gone—and I am all—all alone in the world!" She paused—then added, "Do you think I am dying? If so, I am very glad!"
"Hush my dear!" said Ulrika. "You mustn't talk in that way. Your husband is coming presently—" she broke off suddenly, startled at the look of utter despair in Thelma's eyes.
"You are wrong," she replied wearily. "He will not come—he cannot! He does not want me any more!"
And two large tears rolled slowly down her pale cheeks. Ulrika wondered, but forebore to pursue the subject further, fearing to excite or distress her,—and contented herself for the present with attending to her patient's bodily needs. She went to the fire, and began to pour out some nourishing soup, which she always had there in readiness,—and while she was thus engaged, Thelma's brain cleared more and more,—till with touching directness, and a new hope flushing her face, she asked softly and beseechingly for her child. "I forgot!" she said simply and sweetly. "Of course I am not alone any more. Do give me my baby—I am much better—nearly well—and I should like to kiss it."
Ulrika stood mute, taken aback by this demand. She dared not tell her the truth—she feared its effect on the sensitive mind that had so lately regained its balance. But while she hesitated, Thelma instinctively guessed all she strove to hide.
"It is dead!" she cried. "Dead!—and I never knew!"
And, burying her golden head in her pillows, she broke into a passion of convulsive sobbing. Ulrika grew positively desperate at the sound,—what was she to do? Everything seemed to go against her—she was inclined to cry herself. She embraced the broken-hearted girl, and tried to soothe her, but in vain. The long delirium and subsequent weakness,—combined with the secret trouble on her mind,—had deprived poor Thelma of all resisting power, and she wept on and on in Ulrika's arms till nature was exhausted, and she could weep no longer. Then she lay motionless, with closed eyes, utterly drained in body and spirit, scarcely breathing, and, save for a shivering moan that now and then escaped her, she seemed almost insensible. Ulrika watched her with darkening, meditative brows,—she listened to the rush of the storm-wind without,—it was past eleven o'clock at night. She began to count on her fingers—it was the sixteenth day since the birth of the child,—sixteen days exactly since she had written to Sir Philip Errington, informing him of his wife's danger—and the danger was not yet past. Thinking over all that had happened, and the apparent hopelessness of the case, she suddenly took a strange idea into her head. Retiring to a distant corner, she dropped on her knees.
"O Lord, God Almighty!" she said in a fierce whisper, "Behold, I have been Thy servant until now! I have wrestled with Thee in prayer till I am past all patience! If Thou wilt not hear my petition, why callest Thou Thyself good? Is it good to crush the already fallen? Is it good to have no mercy on the sorrowful? Wilt Thou condemn the innocent without reason? If so, thou art not the Holy One I imagined! Send forth Thy power now—now, while there is time! Rescue her that is lying under the shadow of death—for how has she offended Thee that she should die? Delay no longer, or how shall I put my trust in Thee? Send help speedily from Thine everlasting habitations—or, behold! I do forsake Thee—and my soul shall seek elsewhere for Eternal Justice!"
As she finished this extraordinary, half-threatening, and entirely blasphemous petition, the boisterous gale roared wildly round the house joining in chorus with the stormy dash of waves upon the coast—a chorus that seemed to Ulrika's ears like the sound of fiendish and derisive laughter.
She stood listening,—a trifle scared—yet with a sort of fanatical defiance written on her face, and she waited in sullen patience evidently expecting an immediate answer to her outrageous prayer. She felt somewhat like a demagogue of the people, who boldly menaces an all-powerful sovereign, even while in dread of instant execution. There was a sharp patter of sleet on the window,—she glanced nervously at Thelma, who, perfectly still on her couch, looked more like a white, recumbent statue than a living woman. The wind shook the doors, and whistled shrilly through the crevices,—then, as though tired of its own wrath, surged away in hoarse murmurs over the tops of the creaking pines towards the Fjord, and there was a short, impressive silence.
Ulrika still waited—almost holding her breath in expectation of some divine manifestation. The brief stillness grew unbearable.. . . Hush! What was that! Jingle—jangle—jingle—jangle!—Bells! Sledge bells tinkling musically and merrily—and approaching swiftly, nearer—nearer! Now the sharp trotting roofs on the hard snow—then a sudden slackening of speed—the little metallic chimes rang slower and yet more slowly, till with a decisive and melodious clash they stopped!
Ulrika's heart beat thickly—her face flushed—she advanced to Thelma's bedside, hoping, fearing,—she knew not what. There was a tread of firm, yet hurried, footsteps without—a murmur of subdued voices—a half-suppressed exclamation of surprise and relief from Valdemar,—and then the door of the room was hastily thrown open, and a man's tall figure, draped in what seemed to be a garment of frozen snowflakes, stood on the threshold. The noise startled Thelma—she opened her beautiful, tired, blue eyes. Ah! what a divine rapture,—what a dazzling wonder and joy flashed into them, giving them back their old lustre of sunlight sparkling on azure sea! She sprang up in her bed and stretched out her arms.
"Philip!" she cried sobbingly. "Philip! oh my darling! Try—try to love me again! . . . just a little!—before I die!"
As she spoke she was clasped to his breast,—folded to his heart in that strong, jealous, passionate embrace with which we who love, would fain shield our nearest and dearest from even the shadow of evil—his lips closed on hers,—and in the sacred stillness that followed, Ulrika slipped from the room, leaving husband and wife alone together.
"I have led her home, my love, my only friend; There is none like her, none! And never yet so warmly ran my blood, And sweetly on and on, Calming itself to the long-wished-for end, Full to the banks, close on the promised good." TENNYSON.
Britta was in the kitchen, dragging off her snow-wet cloak and fur mufflers, and crying heartily all the while. The stalwart Svensen stood looking at her in perplexity, now and then uttering a word of vague sympathy and consolation, to which she paid not the slightest heed. The poor girl was tired out, and half-numb with the piercing cold,—the excitement which had kept her up for days and days, had yielded to the nervous exhaustion, which was its natural result,—and she kept on weeping without exactly knowing why she wept. Throughout the long and fatiguing journey she had maintained unflinching energy and perseverance,—undaunted by storm, sleet, and darkness, she had driven steadily over long miles of trackless snow—her instinct had guided her by the shortest and quickest routes—she seemed to know every station and village on the way,—she always managed to obtain relays of reindeer just when they were needed,—in short, Errington would hardly have been able to reach the Altenfjord without her.
He had never realized to its full extent her strong, indomitable, devoted character, till he saw her hour after hour seated beside him in the pulkha, her hands tightly gripping the reins of the horned animals, whose ways she understood and perfectly controlled,—her bright, bird-like eyes fixed with watchful eagerness on the bewildering white landscape that opened out incessantly before her. Her common sense was never at fault—she forgot nothing—and with gentle but respectful firmness she would insist on Sir Philip's taking proper intervals of rest and refreshment at the different farms they passed on their road, though he, eager to press on, chafed and fretted at every little delay. They were welcomed all along their route with true Norse hospitality, though the good country-folk who entertained them could not refrain from astonishment at the idea of their having undertaken such a journey at such a season, and appeared to doubt the possibility of their reaching their destination at all. And now that they had reached it in safety, Britta's strength gave way. Valdemar Svensen had hastily blurted out the news of the bonde's death even while she and Sir Philip were alighting from their sledge—and in the same breath had told them of Thelma's dangerous illness. What wonder, then, that Britta sobbed hysterically, and refused to be comforted,—what wonder that she turned upon Ulrika as that personage approached, in a burst of unreasonable anger.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" she cried, "to think that the Froeken should be so ill—almost dying! and have nobody but you to attend to her!"
This, with a vindictive toss of the brown curls. Ulrika winced at her words—she was hurt, but she answered gently—
"I have done my best," she said with a sort of grave pathos, "I have been with her night and day—had she been a daughter of my own blood, I know not how I could have served her with more tenderness. And, surely, it has been a sore and anxious time with me also—for I, too, have learned to love her!"
Her set mouth quivered,—and Britta, seeing her emotion, was ashamed of her first hasty speech. She made an act of contrition at once by putting her arms round Ulrika's neck and kissing her—a proceeding which so much astonished that devout servant of Luther, that her dull eyes filled with tears.
"Forgive me!" said the impetuous little maiden. "I was very rude and very unkind! But if you love the Froeken, you will understand how I feel—how I wish I could have helped to take care of her. And oh! the bonde!"—here she gave way to a fresh burst of tears—"the dear, good, kind, brave bonde! That he should be dead!—oh! it is too cruel—too dreadful—I can hardly believe it!"
Ulrika patted her consolingly on the shoulder, but said nothing—and Valdemar sighed. Britta sought for her handkerchief, and dried her eyes—but, after a minute, began to cry again as recklessly as ever.
"And now"—she gasped—"if the Froeken—dies—I will die too. I will—you see if I don't! I w-w-won't live—without her!"
And such a big sob broke from her heaving bosom that it threatened to burst her trimly laced little bodice.
"She will not die," said Ulrika decisively. "I have had my fears—but the crisis is passed. Do not fret, Britta—there is no longer any danger. Her husband's love will lift the trouble from her heart—and strength will return more speedily than it left her."
And turning a little aside on the pretence of throwing more wood on the fire, she muttered inaudibly, "O Lord, verily thou hast done well to grant my just demand! Even for this will I remain Thy servant for ever!" After this parenthesis, she resumed the conversation,—Valdemar Svensen sitting silently apart,—and related all that had happened since Thelma's arrival at the Altenfjord. She also gave an account of Lovisa Elsland's death,—though Britta was not much affected by the loss of her grandmother.
"Dreadful old thing!" she said with a shudder. "I'm glad I wasn't with her! I remember how she cursed the Froeken,—perhaps her curse has brought all the trouble—if so, it's a good thing she's dead, for now everything will come right again. I used to fancy she had some crime to confess,—did she say anything wicked when she was dying?"
Ulrika avoided a direct reply to this question. What was the good of horrifying the girl by telling her that her deceased relative was to all intents and purposes a murderess? She resolved to let the secret of old Lovisa's life remain buried with her. Therefore she simply answered—
"Her mind wandered greatly,—it was difficult to hear her last words. But it should satisfy you, Britta, to know that she passed away in the fear of the Lord."
Britta gave a little half-dubious, half-scornful smile. She had not the slightest belief in the sincerity of her late grandmother's religious principles.
"I don't understand people who are so much afraid of the Lord," she said. "They must have done something wrong. If you always do your best, and try to be good, you needn't fear anything. At least, that's my opinion."
"There is the everlasting burning," began Ulrika solemnly.
"Oh, nonsense!" exclaimed Britta quite impatiently. "I don't believe it!"
Ulrika started back in wonder and dismay. "You don't believe it!" she said in awed accents. "Are you also a heathen?"
"I don't know what you mean by a heathen," replied Britta almost gaily. "But I can't believe that God, who is so good, is going to everlastingly burn anybody. He couldn't, you know! It would hurt Him so much to see poor creatures writhing about in flames for ever—we would not be able to bear it, and I'm quite sure it would make Him miserable even in heaven. Because He is all Love—He says so,—He couldn't be cruel!"
This frank statement of Britta's views presented such a new form of doctrine to Ulrika's heavy mind that she was almost appalled by it. God couldn't burn anybody for ever—He was too good! What a daring idea! And yet so consoling—so wonderful in the infinite prospect of hope it offered, that she smiled,—even while she trembled to contemplate it. Poor soul! She talked of heathens—being herself the worst type of heathen—namely, a Christian heathen. This sounds incongruous—yet it may be taken for granted that those who profess to follow Christianity, and yet make of God, a being malicious, revengeful, and of more evil attributes than they possess themselves,—are as barbarous, as unenlightened, as hopelessly sunken in slavish ignorance as the lowest savage who adores his idols of mud and stone. Britta was quite unconscious of having said anything out of the common—she was addressing herself to Svensen.
"Where is the bonde buried, Valdemar?" she asked in a low tone.
He looked at her with a strange, mysterious smile.
"Buried? Do you suppose his body could mix itself with common earth? No!—he sailed away, Britta—away—yonder!"
And he pointed out through the window to the Fjord now, invisible in the deep darkness.
Britta stared at him with roundly opened, frightened eyes—her face paled.
"Sailed away? You must be dreaming! Sailed away! How could he—if he was dead?"
Valdemar grew suddenly excited. "I tell you, he sailed away!" he repeated in a low, hoarse whisper. "Where is his ship, the Valkyrie? Try if you can find it anywhere—on sea or land! It has gone, and he has gone with it—like a king and warrior—to glory, joy, and victory! Glory—joy—victory!—those were his last words!"
Britta retreated, and caught Ulrika by the arm. "Is he mad?" she asked fearfully.
Valdemar heard her, and rose from his chair, a pained smile on his face.
"I am not mad, Britta," he said gently. "Do not be afraid! If grief for my master could have turned my brain, I had been mad ere this,—but I have all my wits about me, and I have told you the truth." He paused—then added, in a more ordinary tone, "You will need fresh logs of pine—I will go and bring them in."
And he went out. Britta gazed after him in speechless wonder.
"What does he mean?" she asked.
"What he says," returned Ulrika composedly. "You, like others, must have known that Olaf Gueldmar's creed was a strange one—his burial has been strange—that is all!"
And she skillfully turned the conversation, and began to talk of Thelma, her sorrows and sufferings. Britta was most impatient to see her beloved "Froeken," and quite grudged Sir Philip the long time he remained alone with his wife.
"He might call me, if only for a moment," Britta thought plaintively. "I do so want to look at her dear face again! But men are all alike—as long as they've got what they want, they never think of anybody else. Dear me! I wonder how long I shall have to wait!" So she fumed and fretted, and sat by the kitchen-fire, drinking hot tea and talking to Ulrika—all the while straining her ears for the least sound or movement from the adjoining room. But none came—there was the most perfect silence. At last she could endure it no longer—and, regardless of Ulrika's remonstrances, she stole on tip-toe to the closed door that barred her from the sight of her heart's idol, and turning the handle softly, opened it and looked in. Sir Philip saw her, and made a little warning sign, though he smiled.
He was sitting by the bedside, and in his arms, nestled against his shoulder, Thelma rested. She was fast asleep. The lines of pain had disappeared from her sweet face—a smile was on her lips—her breath came and went with peaceful regularity,—and the delicate hue of a pale rose flushed her cheeks. Britta stood gazing on this fair sight till her affectionate little heart overflowed, and the ready tears dropped like diamonds from her curly lashes.
"Oh, my dear—my dear!" she whispered in a sort of rapture when there was a gentle movement,—and two star-like eyes opened like blue flowers outspreading to the sun.
"Is that you, Britta?" asked a tender, wondering voice—and with a smothered cry of ecstacy, Britta sprang to seize the outstretched hand of her beloved Froeken, and cover it with kisses. And while Thelma laughed with pleasure to see her, and stroked her hair. Sir Philip described their long drive through the snow, and so warmly praised Britta's patience, endurance, and constant cheerfulness, that his voice trembled with its own earnestness, while Britta grew rosily red in her deep shyness and embarrassment, vehemently protesting that she had done nothing,—nothing at all to deserve so much commendation. Then, after much glad converse, Ulrika was called, and Sir Philip seizing her hand, shook it with such force and fervor that she was quite overcome.
"I don't know how to thank you!" he said, his eyes sparkling with gratitude. "It's impossible to repay such goodness as yours! My wife tells me how tender and patient and devoted you have been—that even when she knew nothing else, she was aware of your kindness. God bless you for it! You have saved her life—"
"Ah, yes, indeed!" interrupted Thelma gently. "And life has grown so glad for me again! I do owe you so much."
"You owe me nothing," said Ulrika in those harsh, monotonous tones which she had of late learned to modulate. "Nothing. The debt is all on my side." She stopped abruptly—a dull red color flushed her face—her eyes dwelt on Thelma with a musing tenderness.
Sir Philip looked at her in some surprise.
"Yes," she went on. "The debt is all on my side. Hear me out, Sir Philip—and you too,—you 'rose of the northern forest', as Sigurd used to call you! You have not forgotten Sigurd?"
"Forgotten him?" said Thelma softly. "Never! . . . I loved him too well!"
Ulrika's head dropped. "He was my son!" she said.
There was a silence of complete astonishment. Ulrika paused—then, as no one uttered a word, she looked up boldly, and spoke with a sort of desperate determination.
"You see you have nothing to thank me for," she went on, addressing herself to Sir Philip, while Thelma, leaning back on her pillows, and holding Britta's hand, regarded her with a new and amazed interest. "Perhaps, if you had known what sort of a woman I am, you might not have liked me to come near—her." And she motioned towards Thelma. "When I was young—long ago—I loved—" she laughed bitterly. "It seems a strange thing to say, does it not? Let it pass—the story of my love, my sin and shame, need not be told here! But Sigurd was my child—born in an evil hour—and I—I strove to kill him at his birth."
Thelma uttered a faint cry of horror. Ulrika turned an imploring gaze upon her.
"Don't hate me!" she said, her voice trembling. "Don't, for God's sake, hate me! You don't know what I have suffered! I was mad, I think, at the time—I flung the child in the Fjord to drown;—your father, Olaf Gueldmar, rescued him. I never knew that till long after;—for years the crime I had committed weighed upon my soul,—I prayed and strove with the Lord for pardon, but always, always felt that for me there, was no forgiveness. Lovisa Elsland used to call me "murderess;" she was right—I was one, or so I thought—till—till that day I met you, Froeken Thelma, on the hills with Sigurd,—and the lad fought with me." She shuddered,—and her eyes looked wild. "I recognized him—no matter how! . . . he bore my mark upon him—he was my son,—mine!—the deformed, crazy creature who yet had wit enough to love you—you, whom then I hated—but now—"
She stopped and advanced a little closer to Thelma's bedside.
"Now, there is nothing I would not do for you, my dear!" she said very gently. "But you will not need me any more. You understand what you have done for me,—you and your father? You have saved me by saving Sigurd,—saved me from being weighed down to hell with the crime of murder! And you made the boy happy while he lived. All the rest of my days spent in your service could not pay back the worth of that good deed. And most heartily do I thank the Lord that he has mercifully permitted me to tend and comfort you in the hour of trouble—and, moreover, that He has given me strength to speak and confess my sin and unworthiness before you ere I depart. For now the trouble is past, I must remove my shadow from your joy. God bless you!—and—try to think as kindly as you can of me for—for Sigurd's sake!"
Stooping, she kissed Thelma's hand,—and, before any one had time to speak a word, she left the room abruptly.
When, in a few minutes, Britta went to look after her, she was gone. She had departed to her own house in Bosekop, where she obstinately remained. Nothing would induce her to present herself again before Sir Philip or Thelma, and it was not till many days after they had left the Altenfjord that she was once more seen about the village. And then she was a changed being. No longer harsh or forbidding in manner, she became humble and gentle,—she ministered to the sick, and consoled the afflicted—but she was especially famous for her love of children. All the little ones of the place knew her, and were attracted by her,—and the time came when Ulrika, white-haired, and of peaceful countenance, could be seen knitting at her door in the long summer afternoons surrounded by a whole army of laughing, chattering, dimpled youngsters, who would play at hide-and-seek behind her chair, and clamber up to kiss her wrinkled cheeks, putting their chubby arms round her neck with that guileless confidence children show only to those whom they feel can appreciate such flattering attentions. Some of her acquaintance were wont to say that she was no longer the "godly" Ulrika—but however this might be, it is certain she had drifted a little nearer to the Author of all godliness, which—after all,—is the most we dare to strive for in all our differing creeds.
It was not long before Thelma began to recover. The day after her husband arrived, and Ulrika departed, she rose from her bed with Britta's assistance, and sat by the blazing fire, wrapped in her white gown and looking very fragile, though very lovely, Philip had been talking to her for some time, and now he sat at her feet, holding her hand in his, and, watching her face, on which there was an expression of the most plaintive and serious penitence.
"I have been very wicked!" she said, with such a quaint horror of herself that her husband laughed. "Now I look back upon it all, I think I have behaved so very badly! because I ought never to have doubted you, my boy—no—not for all the Lady Winsleighs in the world. And poor Mr. Neville! he must be so unhappy! But it was that letter—that letter in your own writing, Philip!"
"Of course!" he answered soothingly. "No wonder you thought me a dreadful fellow! But you won't do so again, will you, Thelma? You will believe that you are the crown and centre of my life—the joy of all the world to me?"
"Yes, I will!" she said softly and proudly. "Though it is always the same, I never do think myself worthy! But I must try to grow very conceited, and assure myself that I am very valuable! so that then I shall understand everything better, and be wiser."
Philip laughed. "Talking of letters," he said suddenly, "here's one I wrote to you from Hull—it only got here today. Where it has been delayed is a mystery. You needn't read it—you know everything in it already. Then there's a letter on the shelf up there addressed in your writing—it seems never to have been opened."
He reached it down, and gave it to her. As she took it, her face grew very sad.
"It is the one I wrote to my father before I left London," she said. And her eyes filled with tears. "It came too late!"
"Thelma," said Sir Philip then, very gently and gravely, "would you like—can you bear—to read your father's last words to you? He wrote to you on his death-bed, and gave the letter to Valdemar—"
"Oh, let me see it!" she murmured half-sobbingly. "Father,—dear father! I knew he would not leave me without a word!"
Sir Philip reverently opened the folded paper which Svensen had committed to his care that morning, and together they read the bonde's farewell. It ran as follows:—
"THELMA, MY BELOVED,"
"The summons I have waited for has come at last, and the doors of Valhalla are set open to receive my soul. Wonder not that I depart with joy! Old as I am, I long for youth—the everlasting youth of which the strength and savor fails not. I have lived long enough to know the sameness of this world—though there is much therein to please the heart and eye of a man—but with that roving restlessness that was born within me, I desire to sail new seas and gaze on new lands, where a perpetual light shines that knows no fading. Grieve not for me—thou wilt remember that, unlike a Christian, I see in death the chiefest glory of life—and thou must not regret that I am eager to drain this cup of world-oblivion offered by the gods. I leave thee,—not sorrowfully,—for thou art in shelter and safety—the strong protection of thy husband's love defends thee and the safeguard of thine own innocence. My blessing upon him and thee! Serve him, Thelma mine, with full devotion and obedience—even as I have taught thee,—thus drawing from thy womanlife its best measure of sweetness,—keep the bright shield of thy truth untarnished—and live so that at the hour of thine own death-ecstasy thou mayest depart as easily as a song-bird soaring to the sun! I pass hence in happiness—if thou dost shed a tear thou wrongest my memory,—there is naught to weep for. Valdemar will give me the crimson shroud and ocean grave of my ancestors—but question him not concerning this fiery pomp of my last voyage—he is but a serf, and his soul is shaken to its very depths by sorrow. Let him be—he will have his reward hereafter. And now farewell, child of my heart—darling of mine age—clear mirror in which my later life has brightened to content! All partings are brief—we shall meet again—thou and I and Philip—and all who have loved or who love each other,—the journey heavenwards may be made by different roads, but the end—the glory—the immortality is the same! Peace be upon thee and on thy children and on thy children's children!" "Thy father, OLAF GUeLDMAR."
In spite of the brave old pagan's declaration that tears would wrong his memory, they dropped bright and fast from his daughter's eyes as she kissed again and again the words his dying hand had pencilled,—while Errington knew not which feeling gained the greater mastery over him,—grief for a good man's loss, or admiration for the strong, heroic spirit in which that good man had welcomed Death with rejoicing. He could not help comparing the bonde's departure from this life with that of Sir Francis Lennox, the man of false fashion, who had let slip his withered soul with an oath into the land of Nowhere. Presently Thelma grew calmer, and began to speak in hushed, soft tones—
"Poor Valdemar!" she said meditatively. "His heart must ache very much, Philip!"
Philip looked up inquiringly.
"You see, my father speaks of the 'crimson shroud,'" she went on. "That means that he was buried like many of the ancient Norwegian sea kings;—he was taken from his bed while dying and placed on board his own ship to breathe his last; then the ship was set on fire and sent out to sea. I always knew he wished it so. Valdemar must have done it all—for I,—I saw the last glimpse of the flames on the Fjord the night I came home! Oh, Philip!" and her beautiful eyes rested tenderly upon him, "it was all so dreadful—so desolate! I wanted—I prayed to die also! The world was so empty—it seemed as if there was nothing left!"