He meditated long,—with fast-closed eyes and open mouth, while the earnestness of his inward thoughts was clearly demonstrated now and then by an irrepressible,—almost triumphant,—cornet-blast from that trifling elevation of his countenance called by courtesy a nose, when his blissful reverie was suddenly broken in upon by the sound of several footsteps crunching slowly along the garden path, and, starting up from his chair, he perceived four individuals clad in white flannel costumes and wearing light straw hats trimmed with fluttering blue ribbons, who were leisurely sauntering up to his door, and stopping occasionally to admire the flowers on their way. Mr. Dyceworthy's face reddened visibly with excitement.
"The gentlemen from the yacht," he murmured to himself, hastily settling his collar and cravat, and pushing up his cherubic wings of hair more prominently behind his ears. "I never thought they would come. Dear me! Sir Philip Errington himself, too! I must have refreshments instantly."
And he hurried from the room, calling his orders to Ulrika as he went, and before the visitors had time to ring, he had thrown open the door to them himself, and stood smiling urbanely on the threshold, welcoming them with enthusiasm,—and assuring Sir Philip especially how much honored he felt, by his thus visiting, familiarly and unannounced, his humble dwelling. Errington waved his many compliments good-humoredly aside, and allowed himself and his friends to be marshalled into the best parlor, the drawing-room of the house, a pretty little apartment whose window looked out upon a tangled yet graceful wilderness of flowers.
"Nice, cosy place this," remarked Lorimer, as he seated himself negligently on the arm of the sofa. "You must be pretty comfortable here?"
Their perspiring and affable host rubbed his soft white hands together gently.
"I thank Heaven it suits my simple needs," he answered meekly. "Luxuries do not become a poor servant of God."
"Ah, then you are different to many others who profess to serve the same Master," said Duprez with a sourire fin that had the devil's own mockery in it. "Monsieur le bon Dieu is very impartial! Some serve Him by constant over-feeding, others by constant over-starving; it is all one to Him apparently! How do you know which among His servants He likes best, the fat or the lean?"
Sandy Macfarlane, though slightly a bigot for his own form of doctrine, broke into a low chuckle of irrepressible laughter at Duprez's levity, but Mr. Dyceworthy's flabby face betokened the utmost horror.
"Sir," he said gravely, "there are subjects concerning which it is not seemly to speak without due reverence. He knoweth His own elect. He hath chosen them out from the beginning. He summoned forth from the million, the glorious apostle of reform, Martin Luther—"
"Le bon gaillard!" laughed Duprez. "Tempted by a pretty nun! What man could resist! Myself, I would try to upset all the creeds of this world if I saw a pretty nun worth my trouble. Yes, truly! A pity though, that the poor Luther died of over-eating; his exit from life so undignified!"
"Shut up, Duprez," said Errington severely. "You displease Mr. Dyceworthy by your fooling."
"Oh, pray do not mention it, Sir Philip," murmured the reverend gentleman with a mild patience. "We must accustom ourselves to hear with forbearance the opinions of all men, howsoever contradictory, otherwise our vocation is of no avail. Yet is it sorely grievous to me to consider that there should be any person or persons existent who lack the necessary faith requisite for the performance of God's promises."
"Ye must understand, Mr. Dyceworthy," said Macfarlane in his slow, deliberate manner, "that ye have before ye a young Frenchman who doesna believe in onything except himsel'—and even as to whether he himsel' is a mon or a myth, he has his doots—vera grave doots."
Duprez nodded delightedly. "That is so!" he exclaimed. "Our dear Sandy puts it so charmingly! To be a myth seems original,—to be a mere man, quite ordinary. I believe it is possible to find some good scientific professor who would prove me to be a myth—the moving shadow of a dream—imagine!—how perfectly poetical!"
"You talk too much to be a dream, my boy," laughed Errington, and turning to Mr. Dyceworthy, he added, "I'm afraid you must think us a shocking set. We are really none of us very religious, I fear, though," and he tried to look serious; "if it had not been for Mr. Lorimer, we should have come to church last Sunday. Mr. Lorimer was, unfortunately, rather indisposed."
"Ya-as!" drawled that gentleman, turning from the little window where he had been gathering a rose for his button-hole. "I was knocked up; had fits, and all that sort of thing; took these three fellows all their time on Sunday to hold me down!"
"Dear me!" and Mr. Dyceworthy was about to make further inquiries concerning Mr. Lorimer's present state of health, when the door opened, and Ulrika entered, bearing a large tray laden with wine and other refreshments. As she set it down, she gave a keen, covert glance round the room, as though rapidly taking note of the appearance and faces of all the young men, then, with a sort of stiff curtsey, she departed as noiselessly as she had come,—not, however, without leaving a disagreeable impression on Errington's mind.
"Rather a stern Phyllis, that waiting-maid of yours," he remarked, watching his host, who was carefully drawing the cork from one of the bottles of wine.
Mr. Dyceworthy smiled. "Oh, no, no! not stern at all," he answered sweetly. "On the contrary, most affable and kind-hearted. Her only fault is that she is a little zealous,—over-zealous for the purity of the faith; and she has suffered much; but she is an excellent woman, really excellent! Sir Philip, will you try this Lacrima Christi?"
"Lacrima Christi!" exclaimed Duprez. "You do not surely get that in Norway?"
"It seems strange, certainly," replied Mr. Dyceworthy, "but it is a fact that the Italian or Papist wines are often used here. The minister whose place I humbly endeavor to fill has his cellar stocked with them. The matter is easy of comprehension when once explained. The benighted inhabitants of Italy, a land, lost in the darkness of error, still persist in their fasts, notwithstanding the evident folly of their ways—and the Norwegian sailors provide them with large quantities of fish for their idolatrous customs, bringing back their wines in exchange."
"A very good idea," said Lorimer, sipping the Lacrima with evident approval—"Phil, I doubt if your brands on board the Eulalie are better than this."
"Hardly so good," replied Errington with some surprise, as he tasted the wine and noted its delicious flavor. "The minister must be a fine connoisseur. Are there many other families about here, Mr. Dyceworthy, who know how to choose their wines so well?"
Mr. Dyceworthy smiled with a dubious air.
"There is one other household that in the matter of choice liquids is almost profanely particular," he said. "But they are people who are ejected with good reason from respectable society, and,—it behooves me not to speak of their names."
"Oh, indeed!" said Errington, while a sudden and inexplicable thrill of indignation fired his blood and sent it in a wave of color up to his forehead—"May I ask—"
But he was interrupted by Lorimer, who, nudging him slyly on one side, muttered, "Keep cool, old fellow! You can't tell whether he's talking about the Gueldmar folk! Be quiet—you don't want every one to know your little game."
Thus adjured, Philip swallowed a large gulp of wine, to keep down his feelings, and strove to appear interested in the habits and caprices of bees, a subject into which Mr. Dyceworthy had just inveigled Duprez and Macfarlane.
"Come and see my bees," said the Reverend Charles almost pathetically. "They are emblems of ever-working and patient industry,—storing up honey for others to partake thereof."
"They wudna store it up at a', perhaps, if they knew that," observed Sandy significantly.
Mr. Dyceworthy positively shone all over with beneficence.
"They would store it up, sir; yes, they would, even if they knew! It is God's will that they should store it up; it is God's will that they should show an example of unselfishness, that they should flit from flower to flower sucking therefrom the sweetness to impart into strange palates unlike their own. It is a beautiful lesson; it teaches us who are the ministers of the Lord to likewise suck the sweetness from the flowers of the living gospel, and impart it gladly to the unbelievers who shall find it sweeter than the sweetest honey!"
And he shook his head piously several times, while the pores of his fat visage exuded holy oil. Duprez sniggered secretly. Macfarlane looked preternaturally solemn.
"Come," repeated the reverend gentleman, with an inviting smile. "Come and see my bees,—also my strawberries! I shall be delighted to send a basket of the fruit to the yacht, if Sir Philip will permit me?"
Errington expressed his thanks with due courtesy, and hastened to seize the opportunity that presented itself for breaking away from the party.
"If you will excuse us for twenty minutes or so, Mr. Dyceworthy," he said, "Lorimer and I want to consult a fellow here in Bosekop about some new fishing tackle. We shan't be gone long. Mac, you and Duprez wait for us here. Don't commit too many depredations on Mr. Dyceworthy's strawberries."
The reason for their departure was so simply and naturally given, that it was accepted without any opposing remarks. Duprez was delighted to have the chance of amusing himself by harassing the Reverend Charles with open professions of utter atheism, and Macfarlane, who loved an argument more than he loved whiskey, looked forward to a sharp discussion presently concerning the superiority of John Knox, morally and physically, over Martin Luther. So that when the others went their way, their departure excited no suspicion in the minds of their friends, and most unsuspecting of all was the placid Mr. Dyceworthy, who, had he imagined for an instant the direction which they were going, would certainly not have discoursed on the pleasures of bee-keeping with the calmness and placid conviction, that always distinguished him when holding forth on any subject that was attractive to his mind. Leading the way through his dewy, rose-grown garden, and conversing amicably as he went, he escorted Macfarlane and Duprez to what he called with a gentle humor his "Bee-Metropolis," while Errington and Lorimer returned to the shore of the Fjord, where they had left their boat moored to a small, clumsily constructed pier,—and entering it, they set themselves to the oars and pulled away together with the long, steady, sweeping stroke rendered famous by the exploits of the Oxford and Cambridge men. After some twenty minutes' rowing, Lorimer looked up and spoke as he drew his blade swiftly through the bright green water.
"I feel as though I were aiding and abetting you in some crime, Phil. You know, my first impression of this business remains the same. You had much better leave it alone."
"Why?" asked Errington coolly.
"Well, 'pon my life I don't know why. Except that, from long experience, I have proved that it's always dangerous and troublesome to run after a woman. Leave her to run after you—she'll do it fast enough."
"Wait till you see her. Besides, I'm not running after any woman," averred Philip with some heat.
"Oh, I beg your pardon—I forgot. She's not a woman; she's a Sun-angel. You are rowing, not running, after a Sun-angel. Is that correct? I say, don't drive through the water like that; you'll pull the boat round."
Errington slackened his speed and laughed. "It's only curiosity," he said, lifting his hat, and pushing back the clustering dark-brown curls from his brow. "I bet you that sleek Dyceworthy fellow meant the old bonde and his daughter, when he spoke of persons who were 'ejected' from the social circles of Bosekop. Fancy Bosekop society presuming to be particular—what an absurd idea!"
"My good fellow, don't pretend to be so deplorably ignorant! Surely you know that a trumpery village or a two-penny town is much more choice and exclusive in its 'sets' than a great city? I wouldn't live in a small place for the world. Every inhabitant would know the cut of my clothes by heart, and the number of buttons on my waistcoat. The grocer would copy the pattern of my trousers,—the butcher would carry a cane like mine. It would be simply insufferable. To change the subject, may I ask you if you know which way you are going, for it seems to me we're bound straight for a smash on that uncomfortable-looking rock, where there is certainly no landing-place."
Errington stopped pulling, and, standing up in the boat, began to examine the surroundings with keen interest. They were close to the great crag "shaped like a giant's helmet," as Valdemar Svensen had said. It rose sheer out of the water, and its sides were almost perpendicular. Some beautiful star-shaped sea anemones clung to it in a vari-colored cluster on one projection, and the running ripple of the small waves broke on its jagged corners with a musical splash, and sparkle of white foam. Below them, in the emerald mirror of the Fjord, it was so clear that they could see the fine white sand lying at the bottom, sprinkled thick with shells and lithe moving creatures of all shapes, while every now and then, there streamed past them, brilliantly tinted specimens of the Medusae, with their long feelers or tendrils, looking like torn skins of crimson and azure floss silk.
The place was very silent; only the sea-gulls circled round and round the summit of the great rock, some of them occasionally swooping down on the unwary fishes, their keen eyes perceived in the waters beneath, then up again they soared, swaying their graceful wings and uttering at intervals that peculiar wild cry that in solitary haunts sounds so intensely mournful. Errington gazed about him in doubt for some minutes, then suddenly his face brightened. He sat down again in the boat and resumed his oar.
"Row quietly, George," he said in a subdued tone "Quietly—round to the left."
The oars dipped noiselessly, and the boat shot forward,—then swerved sharply round in the direction,—and there before them lay a small sandy creek, white and shining as though sprinkled with powdered silver. From this, a small but strongly-built wooden pier ran out into the sea. It was carved all over with fantastic figures, and in it at equal distances, were fastened iron rings, such as are used for the safe mooring of boats. One boat was there already, and Errington recognized it with delight. It was that in which he had seen the mysterious maiden disappear. High and dry on the sand, out of reach of the tides, was a neat sailing-vessel; its name was painted round the stern—The Valkyrie.
As the two friends ran their boat on shore, and fastened it to the furthest ring of the convenient pier, they caught the distant sound of the plaintiff "coo-cooing" of turtle doves.
"You've done it this time, old boy," said Lorimer, speaking in a whisper, though he knew not why. "This is the old bonde's own private landing-place evidently, and here's a footpath leading somewhere. Shall we follow it?"
Philip emphatically assented, and, treading softly, like the trespassers they felt themselves to be, they climbed the ascending narrow way that guided them up from the seashore, round through a close thicket of pines, where their footsteps fell noiselessly on a thick carpet of velvety green moss, dotted prettily here and there with the red gleam of ripening wild strawberries. Everything was intensely still, and as yet there seemed no sign of human habitation. Suddenly a low whirring sound broke upon their ears, and Errington, who was a little in advance of his companion, paused abruptly with a smothered exclamation, and drew back on tip-toe, catching Lorimer by the arm.
"By Jove!" he whispered excitedly, "we've come right up to the very windows of the house. Look!"
Lorimer obeyed, and for once, the light jest died upon his tips. Surprise and admiration held him absolutely silent.
"Elle filait et souriait—et je crois qu'elle enveloppa mon coeur avec son fil."—HEINE.
Before them, close enough for their outstretched hands to have touched it, was what appeared to be a framed picture, exquisitely painted,—a picture perfect in outline matchless in color, faultless in detail,—but which was in reality nothing but a large latticed window thrown wide open to admit the air. They could now see distinctly through the shadows cast by the stately pines, a long, low, rambling house, built roughly, but strongly, of wooden rafters, all overgrown with green and blossoming creepers; but they scarcely glanced at the actual building, so strongly was their attention riveted on the one window before them. It was surrounded by an unusually broad framework, curiously and elaborately carved, and black as polished ebony. Flowers grew all about it,—sweet peas, mignonette, and large purple pansies—while red and white climbing roses rioted in untrained profusion over its wide sill. Above it was a quaintly built dovecote, where some of the strutting fan-tailed inhabitants were perched, swelling out their snowy breasts, and discoursing of their domestic trials in notes of dulcet melancholy; while lower down, three or four ring-doves nestled on the roof in a patch of sunlight, spreading up their pinions like miniature sails, to catch the warmth and lustre.
Within the deep, shadowy embrasure, like a jewel placed on dark velvet, was seated a girl spinning,—no other than the mysterious maiden of the shell cavern. She was attired in a plain, straight gown, of some soft white woolen stuff, cut squarely at her throat; her round, graceful arms were partially bare, and as the wheel turned swiftly, and her slender hands busied themselves with the flax, she smiled, as though some pleasing thought had touched her mind. Her smile had the effect of sudden sunshine in the dark room where she sat and span,—it was radiant and mirthful as the smile of a happy child. Yet her dark blue eyes remained pensive and earnest, and the smile soon faded, leaving her fair face absorbed and almost dreamy. The whirr-whirring of the wheel grew less and less rapid,—it slackened,—it stopped altogether,—and, as though startled by some unexpected sound, the girl paused and listened, pushing away the clustering masses of her rich hair from her brow. Then rising slowly from her seat, she advanced to the window, put aside the roses with one hand, and looked out,—thus forming another picture as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than the first.
Lorimer drew his breath hard. "I say, old fellow," he whispered; but Errington pressed his arm with vice-like firmness, as a warning to him to be silent, while they both stepped farther back into the dusky gloom of the pine boughs.
The girl, meanwhile, stood motionless, in a half-expectant attitude, and, seeing her there, some of the doves on the roof flew down and strutted on the ground before her, coo-cooing proudly, as though desirous of attracting her attention. One of them boldly perched on the window-sill; she glanced at the bird musingly, and softly stroked its opaline wings and shining head without terrifying it. It seemed delighted to be noticed, and almost lay down under her hand in order to be more conveniently caressed. Still gently smoothing its feathers, she leaned further out among the clambering wealth of blossoms, and called in a low, penetrating tone, "Father! father! is that you?"
There was no answer; and, after waited a minute or two, she moved and resumed her former seat, the stray doves flew back to their customary promenade on the roof, and the drowsy whirr-whirr of the spinning-wheel murmured again its monotonous hum upon the air.
"Come on, Phil," whispered Lorimer, determined not to be checked this time; "I feel perfectly wretched! It's mean of us to be skulking about here, as if we were a couple of low thieves waiting to trap some of those birds for a pigeon-pie. Come away,—you've seen her; that's enough."
Errington did not move. Holding back a branch of pine, he watched the movements of the girl at her wheel with absorbed fascination.
Suddenly her sweet lips parted, and she sang a weird, wild melody, that seemed, like a running torrent, to have fallen from the crests of the mountains, bringing with it echoes from the furthest summits, mingled with soft wailings of a mournful wind.
Her voice was pure as the ring of fine crystal—deep, liquid, and tender, with a restrained passion in it that stirred Errington's heart and filled it with a strange unrest and feverish yearning,—emotions which were new to him, and which, while he realized their existence, moved him to a sort of ashamed impatience. He would have willingly left his post of observation now, if only for the sake of shaking off his unwonted sensations; and he took a step or two backwards for that purpose, when Lorimer, in his turn, laid a detaining hand on his shoulder.
"For Heaven's sake, let us hear the song through!" he said in subdued tones. "What a voice! A positive golden flute!"
His rapt face betokened his enjoyment, and Errington, nothing loth, still lingered, his eyes fixed on the white-robed slim figure framed in the dark old rose-wreathed window—the figure that swayed softly with the motion of the wheel and the rhythm of the song,—while flickering sunbeams sparkled now and then on the maiden's dusky gold hair, or touched up a warmer tint on her tenderly flushed cheeks, and fair neck, more snowy than the gown she wore. Music poured from her lips as from the throat of a nightingale. The words she sang were Norwegian, and her listeners understood nothing of them; but the melody,—the pathetic appealing melody,—soul-moving as all true melody must be, touched the very core of their hearts, and entangled them in a web of delicious reveries.
"Talk of Ary Scheffer's Gretchen!" murmured Lorimer with a sigh. "What a miserable, pasty, milk-and-watery young person she is beside that magnificent, unconscious beauty! I give in, Phil! I admit your taste. I'm willing to swear that she's a Sun-Angel if you like. Her voice has convinced me of that."
At that instant the song ceased. Errington turned and regarded him steadfastly.
"Are you hit, George?" he said softly, with a forced smile.
Lorimer's face flushed, but he met his friend's eyes frankly.
"I am no poacher, old fellow," he answered in the same quiet accents; "I think you know that. If that girl's mind is as lovely as her face, I say, go in and win!"
Sir Philip smiled. His brow cleared and an expression of relief settled there. The look of gladness was unconscious; but Lorimer saw it at once and noted it.
"Nonsense!" he said in a mirthful undertone. "How can I go in and win, as you say? What am I to do? I can't go up to that window and speak to her,—she might take me for a thief."
"You look like a thief," replied Lorimer, surveying his friend's athletic figure, clad in its loose but well-cut yachting suit of white flannel, ornamented with silver anchor buttons, and taking a comprehensive glance from the easy pose of the fine head and handsome face, down to the trim foot with the high and well-arched instep, "very much like a thief? I wonder I haven't noticed it before. Any London policeman would arrest you on the mere fact of your suspicious appearance."
Errington laughed. "Well, my boy, whatever my looks may testify, I am at this moment an undoubted trespasser on private property,—and so are you for that matter. What shall we do?"
"Find the front door and ring the bell," suggested George promptly. "Say we are benighted travellers and have lost our way. The bonde can but flay us. The operation, I believe, is painful, but it cannot last long."
"George, you are incorrigible! Suppose we go back and try the other side of this pine-wood? That might lead us to the front of the house."
"I don't see why we shouldn't walk coolly past that window," said Lorimer. "If any observation is made by the fair 'Marguerite' yonder, we can boldly say we have come to see the bonde."
Unconsciously they had both raised their voices a little during the latter part of their hasty dialogue, and at the instant when Lorimer uttered the last words, a heavy hand was laid on each of their shoulders,—a hand that turned them round forcibly away from the window they had been gazing at, and a deep, resonant voice addressed them.
"The bonde? Truly, young men, you need seek no further,—I am Olaf Gueldmar!"
Had he said, "I am an Emperor!" he could not have spoken with more pride.
Errington and his friend were for a moment speechless,—partly from displeasure at the summary manner in which they had been seized and twisted round like young uprooted saplings, and partly from surprise and involuntary admiration for the personage who had treated them with such scant courtesy. They saw before them a man somewhat above the middle height, who might have served an aspiring sculptor as a perfect model for a chieftain of old Gaul, or a dauntless Viking. His frame was firmly and powerfully built, and seemed to be exceptionally strong and muscular; yet an air of almost courtly grace pervaded his movements, making each attitude he assumed more or less picturesque. He was broad-shouldered and deep-chested; his face was full and healthily colored, while his head was truly magnificent. Well-poised and shapely, it indicated power, will, and wisdom; and was furthermore adorned by a rough, thick mass of snow-white hair that shone in the sunlight like spun silver. His beard was short and curly, trimmed after the fashion of the warriors of old Rome; and, from under his fierce, fuzzy, grey eyebrows, a pair of sentinel eyes, that were keen, clear, and bold as an eagle's, looked out with a watchful steadiness—steadiness that like the sharp edge of a diamond, seemed warranted to cut through the brittle glass of a lie. Judging by his outward appearance, his age might have been guessed at as between fifty-eight and sixty, but he was, in truth, seventy-two, and more strong, active, and daring than many another man whose years are not counted past the thirties. He was curiously attired, after something of the fashion of the Highlander, and something yet more of the ancient Greek, in a tunic, vest, and loose jacket all made of reindeer skin, thickly embroidered with curious designs worked in coarse thread and colored beads; while thrown carelessly over his shoulders and knotted at his waist, was a broad scarf of white woollen stuff, or wadmel, very soft-looking and warm. In his belt he carried a formidable hunting-knife, and as he faced the two intruders on his ground, he rested one hand lightly yet suggestively on a weighty staff of pine, which was notched all over with quaint letters and figures, and terminated in a curved handle at the top. He waited for the young man to speak, and finding they remained silent, he glanced at them half angrily and again repeated his words—
"I am the bonde,—Olaf Gueldmar. Speak your business and take your departure; my time is brief!"
Lorimer looked up with his usual nonchalance,—a faint smile playing about his lips. He saw at once that the old farmer was not a man to be trifled with, and he raised his cap with a ready grace as he spoke.
"Fact is," he said frankly, "we've no business here at all—not the least in the world. We are perfectly aware of it! We are trespassers, and we know it. Pray don't be hard on us, Mr.—Mr. Gueldmar!"
The bonde glanced him over with a quick lightening of the eyes, and the suspicion of a smile in the depths of his curly beard. He turned to Errington.
"Is this true? You came here on purpose, knowing the ground was private property?"
Errington, in his turn, lifted his cap from his clustering brown curls with that serene and stately court manner which was to him second nature.
"We did," he confessed, quietly following Lorimer's cue, and seeing also that it was best to be straightforward. "We heard you spoken of in Bosekop, and we came to see if you would permit us the honor of your acquaintance."
The old man struck his pine-staff violently into the ground, and his face flushed wrathfully.
"Bosekop!" he exclaimed. "Talk to me of a wasp's nest! Bosekop! You shall hear of me there enough to satisfy your appetite for news. Bosekop! In the days when my race ruled the land, such people as they that dwell there would have been put to sharpen my sword on the grindstone, or to wait, hungry and humble, for the refuse of the food left from my table!"
He spoke with extraordinary heat and passion,—it was evidently necessary to soothe him. Lorimer took a covert glance backward over his shoulder towards the lattice window, and saw that the white figure at the spinning-wheel had disappeared.
"My dear Mr. Gueldmar," he then said with polite fervor, "I assure you I think the Bosekop folk by no means deserve to sharpen your sword on the grindstone, or to enjoy the remains of your dinner! Myself, I despise them! My friend here, Sir Philip Errington, despises them—don't you, Phil?"
Errington nodded demurely.
"What my friend said just now is perfectly true," continued Lorimer. "We desire the honor of your acquaintance,—it will charm and delight us above all things!"
And his face beamed with a candid, winning, boyish smile, which was very captivating in its own way, and which certainly had its effect on the old bonde, for his tone softened, though he said gravely—
"My acquaintance, young men, is never sought by any. Those who are wise, keep away from me. I love not strangers, it is best you should know it. I freely pardon your trespass; take your leave, and go in peace."
The two friends exchanged disconsolate looks. There really seemed nothing for it, but to obey this unpleasing command. Errington made one more venture.
"May I hope, Mr. Gueldmar," he said with persuasive courtesy, "that you will break through your apparent rule of seclusion for once and visit me on board my yacht? You have no doubt seen her—the Eulalie—she lies at anchor in the Fjord."
The bonde looked him straight in the eyes. "I have seen her. A fair toy vessel to amuse an idle young man's leisure! You are he that in that fool's hole of a Bosekop, is known as the 'rich Englishman,'—an idle trifler with time,—an aimless wanderer from those dull shores where they eat gold till they die of surfeit! I have heard of you,—a mushroom knight, a fungus of nobility,—an ephemeral growth on a grand decaying old tree, whose roots lie buried in the annals of a far forgotten past."
The rich, deep voice of the old man quivered as he spoke, and a shadow of melancholy flitted across his brow. Errington listened with unruffled patience. He heard himself, his pleasures, his wealth, his rank, thus made light of, without the least offense. He met the steady gaze of the bonde quietly, and slightly bent his head as though in deference to his remarks.
"You are quite right," he said simply. "We modern men are but pigmies compared with the giants of old time. Royal blood itself is tainted nowadays. But, for myself, I attach no importance to the mere appurtenances of life,—the baggage that accompanies one on that brief journey. Life itself is quite enough for me."
"And for me too," averred Lorimer, delighted that his friend had taken the old farmer's scornful observations so good-naturedly. "But, do you know, Mr. Gueldmar, you are making life unpleasant for us just now, by turning us out? The conversation is becoming interesting! Why not prolong it? We have no friends in Bosekop, and we are to anchor here for some days. Surely you will allow us to come and see you again?"
Olaf Gueldmar was silent. He advanced a step nearer, and studied them both with such earnest and searching scrutiny, that as they remembered the real attraction that had drawn them thither, the conscious blood mounted to their faces, flushing Errington's forehead to the very roots of his curly brown hair. Still the old man gazed as though he sought to read their very souls. He muttered something to himself in Norwegian, and, finally, to their utter astonishment, he drew his hunting-knife from its sheath, and with a rapid, wild gesture, threw it on the ground and placed his foot upon it.
"Be it so!" he said briefly. "I cover the blade! You are men; like men you speak truth. As such, I receive you! Had you told me a lie concerning your coming here,—had you made pretense of having lost your way, or other such shifty evasion, your path would never have again crossed mine. As it is,—welcome!"
And he held out his hand with a sort of royal dignity, still resting one foot on the fallen weapon. The young men, struck by his action and gratified by his change of manner and the genial expression that now softened his rugged features, were quick to respond to his friendly greeting, and the bonde, picking up and re-sheathing his hunting-knife as if he had done nothing at all out of the common, motioned them towards the very window on which their eyes had been so long and so ardently fixed.
"Come!" he said. "You must drain a cup of wine with me before you leave. Your unguided footsteps led you by the wrong path,—I saw your boat moored to my pier, and wondered who had been venturesome enough to trample through my woodland. I might have guessed that only a couple of idle boys like yourselves, knowing no better, would have pushed their way to a spot that all worthy dwellers in Bosekop, and all true followers of the Lutheran devilry, avoid as though the plague were settled in it."
And the old man laughed, a splendid, mellow laugh, with the ring of true jollity in it,—a laugh that was infectious, for Errington and Lorimer joined in it heartily without precisely knowing why. Lorimer, however, thought it seemly to protest against the appellation "idle boys."
"What do you take us for, sir?" he said with lazy good-nature. "I carry upon my shoulders the sorrowful burden of twenty-six years,—Philip, there, is painfully conscious of being thirty,—may we not therefore dispute the word 'boys' as being derogatory to our dignity? You called us 'men' a while ago,—remember that!"
Olaf Gueldmar laughed again. His suspicious gravity had entirely disappeared, leaving his face a beaming mirror of beneficence and good-humor.
"So you are men," he said cheerily, "men in the bud, like leaves on a tree. But you seem boys to a tough old stump of humanity such as I am. That is my way,—my child Thelma, though they tell me she is a woman grown, is always a babe to me. 'Tis one of the many privileges of the old, to see the world about them always young and full of children."
And he led the way past the wide-open lattice, where they could dimly perceive the spinning-wheel standing alone, as though thinking deeply of the fair hands that had lately left it idle, and so round to the actual front of the house, which was exceedingly picturesque, and literally overgrown with roses from ground to roof. The entrance door stood open;—it was surrounded by a wide, deep porch richly carved and grotesquely ornamented, having two comfortable seats within it, one on each side. Through this they went, involuntarily brushing down as they passed, a shower of pink and white rose-leaves, and stepped into a wide passage, where upon walls of dark, polished pine, hung a large collection of curiously shaped weapons, all of primitive manufacture, such as stone darts and rough axes, together with bows and arrows and two-handled swords, huge as the fabled weapon of William Wallace.
Opening a door to the right the bonde stood courteously aside and bade them enter, and they found themselves in the very apartment where they had seen the maiden spinning.
"Sit down, sit down!" said their host hospitably. "We will have wine directly, and Thelma shall come hither. Thelma! Thelma! Where is the child? She wanders hither and thither like a mountain sprite. Wait here, my lads, I shall return directly."
And he strode away, leaving Errington and Lorimer delighted at the success of their plans, yet somewhat abashed too. There was a peace and gentle simplicity about the little room in which they were, that touched the chivalrous sentiment in their natures and kept them silent. On one side of it, half a dozen broad shelves supported a goodly row of well-bound volumes, among which the time-honored golden names of Shakespeare and Scott glittered invitingly, together with such works as Chapman's Homer, Byron's "Childe Harold," the Poems of John Keats, Gibbon's Rome, and Plutarch; while mingled with these were the devotional works in French of Alphonse de Liguori, the "Imitation," also in French,—and a number of books with titles in Norwegian,—altogether an heterogenous collection of literature, yet not without interest as displaying taste and culture on the part of those to whom it belonged. Errington, himself learned in books, was surprised to see so many standard works in the library of one who professed to be nothing but a Norwegian farmer, and his respect for the sturdy old bonde increased. There were no pictures in the room,—the wide lattice window on one hand, looking out on the roses and pine-wood, and the other smaller one, close to the entrance door, from which the Fjord was distinctly visible, were sufficient pictures in themselves, to need no others. The furniture was roughly made of pine, and seemed to have been carved by hand,—some of the chairs were very quaint and pretty and would have sold in a bric-a-brac shop for more than a sovereign apiece. On the wide mantle-shelf was a quantity of curious old china that seemed to have been picked up from all parts of the world,—most of it was undoubtedly valuable. In one dark corner stood an ancient harp; then there was the spinning-wheel,—itself a curiosity fit for a museum,—testifying dumbly of the mistress of all these surroundings, and on the floor there was something else,—something that both the young men were strongly inclined to take possession of. It was only a bunch of tiny meadow daisies, fastened together with a bit of blue silk. It had fallen,—they guessed by whom it had been worn,—but neither made any remark, and both, by some strange instinct, avoided looking at it, as though the innocent little blossoms carried within them some terrible temptation. They were conscious of a certain embarrassment, and making an effort to break through it, Lorimer remarked softly—
"By Jove, Phil, if this old Gueldmar really knew what you are up to, I believe he would bundle you out of this place like a tramp! Didn't you feel a sneak when he said we had told the truth like men?"
Philip smiled dreamily. He was seated in one of the quaintly carved chairs, half absorbed in what was evidently a pleasing reverie.
"No; not exactly," he replied. "Because we did tell him the truth; we did want to know him, and he's worth knowing too! He is a magnificent-looking fellow; don't you think so?"
"Rather!" assented Lorimer, with emphasis. "I wish there were any hope of my becoming such a fine old buffer in my decadence,—it would be worth living for if only to look at myself in the glass now and then. He rather startled me when he threw down that knife, though. I suppose it is some old Norwegian custom?"
"I suppose so," Errington answered, and then was silent, for at that moment the door opened and the old farmer returned, followed by a girl bearing a tray glittering with flasks of Italian wine, and long graceful glasses shaped like round goblets, set on particularly slender stems. The sight of the girl disappointed the eager visitors, for though she was undeniably pretty, she was not Thelma. She was short and plump, with rebellious nut-brown locks, that rippled about her face and from under her close white cap with persistent untidiness. Her cheeks were as round and red as lore-apples, and she had dancing blue eyes that appeared for ever engaged in good-natured efforts to outsparkle each other. She wore a spotless apron, lavishly trimmed with coquettish little starched frills,—her hands were, unfortunately, rather large and coarse,—but her smile, as she set down the tray and curtsied respectfully to the young men, was charming, disclosing as it did, tiny teeth as even and white as a double row of small pearls.
"That is well, Britta," said Gueldmar, speaking in English, and assisting her to place the glasses. "Now, quick! . . . run after thy mistress to the shore,—her boat cannot yet have left the creek,—bid her return and come to me,—tell her there are friends here who will be glad of her presence."
Britta hurried away at once, but Errington's heart sank. Thelma had gone!—gone, most probably, for one of those erratic journeys across the Fjord to the cave where he had first seen her. She would not come back, he felt certain; not even at her father's request would that beautiful, proud maiden consent to alter her plans. What an unlucky destiny was his! Absorbed in disappointed reflections, he scarcely heard the enthusiastic praises Lorimer was diplomatically bestowing on the bonde's wine. He hardly felt its mellow flavor on his own palate, though it was in truth delicious, and fit for the table of a monarch. Gueldmar noticed the young baronet's abstraction, and addressed him with genial kindness.
"Are you thinking, Sir Philip, of my rough speeches to you yonder? No offense was meant, no offense! . . ." the old fellow paused, and laughed over his wine-glass. "Yet I may as well be honest about it! Offense was meant; but when I found that none was taken, my humor changed."
A slight, half-weary smile played on Errington's lips. "I assure you, sir," he said, "I agreed with you then and agree with you now in every word you uttered. You took my measure very correctly, and allow me to add that no one can be more conscious of my own insignificance that I am myself. The days we live in are insignificant; the chronicle of our paltry doings will be skipped by future readers of the country's history. Among a society of particularly useless men, I feel myself to be one of the most useless. If you could show me any way to make my life valuable—"
He paused abruptly, and his heart beat with inexplicable rapidity. A light step and the rustle of a dress was heard coming through the porch; another perfumed shower of rose-leaves fell softly on the garden path; the door of the room opened, and a tall, fair, white-robed figure shone forth from the dark background of the outer passage; a figure that hesitated on the threshold, and then advanced noiselessly and with a reluctant shyness. The old bonde turned round in his chair with a smile.
"Ah, here she is!" he said fondly. "Where hast thou been, my Thelma?"
"And Sigurd the Bishop said, 'The old gods are not dead, For the great Thor still reigns, And among the Jarls and Thanes The old witchcraft is spread.'" LONGFELLOW'S Saga of King Olaf.
The girl stood silent, and a faint blush crimsoned her cheeks. The young men had risen at her entrance, and in one fleeting glance she recognized Errington, though she gave no sign to that effect.
"See, my darling," continued her father, "here are English visitors to Norway. This is Sir Philip Errington, who travels through our wild waters in the great steam yacht now at anchor in the Fjord; and this is his friend, Mr.—Mr.—Lorimer,—have I caught your name rightly, my lad?" he continued, turning to George Lorimer with a kindly smile.
"You have, sir," answered that gentleman promptly, and then he was mute, feeling curiously abashed in the presence of this royal-looking young lady, who, encircled by her father's arm, raised her deep, dazzling blue eyes, and serenely bent her stately head to him as his name was mentioned.
The old farmer went on, "Welcome them, Thelma mine!—friends are scarce in these days, and we must not be ungrateful for good company. What! what! I know honest lads when I see them! Smile on them, my Thelma!—and then we will warm their hearts with another cup of wine."
As he spoke, the maiden advanced with a graceful, even noble air, and extending both her hands to each of the visitors in turn, she said—
"I am your servant, friends; in entering this house you do possess it. Peace and heart's greeting!"
The words were a literal translation of a salutation perfectly common in many parts of Norway—a mere ordinary expression of politeness; but, uttered in the tender, penetrating tones, of the most musical voice they had ever heard, and accompanied by the warm, frank, double handclasp of those soft, small, daintily shaped hands, the effect on the minds of the generally self-possessed, fashionably bred young men of the world, was to confuse and bewilder them to the last degree. What could they answer to this poetical, quaint formula of welcome? The usual latitudes, such as "Delighted, I'm sure;" or, "Most happy—am charmed to meet you?" No; these remarks, deemed intelligent by the lady rulers of London drawing-rooms, would, they felt, never do here. As well put a gentleman in modern evening dress en face with a half-nude scornfully beautiful statue of Apollo, as trot out threadbare, insincere commonplaces in the hearing of this clear-eyed child of nature, whose pure, perfect face seemed to silently repel the very passing shadow of a falsehood.
Philip's brain whirled round and about in search of some suitable reply, but could find none; and Lorimer felt himself blushing like a schoolboy, as he stammered out something incoherent and eminently foolish, though he had sense enough left to appreciate the pressure of those lovely hands as long as it lasted.
Thelma, however, appeared not to notice their deep embarrassment—she had not yet done with them. Taking the largest goblet on the table, she filled it to the brim with wine, and touched it with her lips,—then with a smile in which a thousand radiating sunbeams seemed to quiver and sparkle, she lifted it towards Errington. The grace of her attitude and action wakened him out of his state of dreamy bewilderment—in his soul he devoutly blessed these ancient family customs, and arose to the occasion like a man. Clasping with a tender reverence the hands that upheld the goblet, he bent his handsome head and drank a deep draught, while his dark curls almost touched her fair ones,—and then an insane jealousy possessed him for a moment, as he watched her go through the same ceremony with Lorimer.
She next carried the now more than half-emptied cup to the bonde, and said as she held it, laughing softly—
"Drink it all, father!—if you leave a drop, you know these gentlemen will quarrel with us, or you with them."
"That is true!" said Olaf Gueldmar with great gravity; "but it will not be my fault, child, nor the fault of wasted wine."
And he drained the glass to its dregs and set it upside down on the table with a deep sigh of satisfaction and refreshment. The ceremony concluded, it was evident the ice of reserve was considered broken, for Thelma seated herself like a young queen, and motioned her visitors to do the same with a gesture of gracious condescension.
"How did you find your way here?" she asked with sweet, yet direct abruptness, giving Sir Philip a quick glance, in which there was a sparkle of mirth, though her long lashes veiled it almost instantly.
Her entire lack of stiffness and reserve set the young men at their ease, and they fell into conversation freely, though Errington allowed Lorimer to tell the story of their trespass in his own fashion without interference. He instinctively felt that the young lady who listened with so demure a smile to that plausible narrative, knew well enough the real motive that had brought them thither though she apparently had her own reasons for keeping silence on the point, as whatever she may have thought, she said nothing.
Lorimer skillfully avoided betraying the fact that they had watched her through the window, and had listened to her singing. And Thelma heard all the explanations patiently till Bosekop was mentioned, and then her fair face grew cold and stern.
"From whom did you hear of us there?" she inquired. "We do not mix with the people,—why should they speak of us?"
"The truth is," interposed Errington, resting his eyes with a sense of deep delight on the beautiful rounded figure and lovely features that were turned towards him, "I heard of you first through my pilot—one Valdemar Svensen."
"Ha, ha!" cried old Gueldmar with some excitement, "there is a fellow who cannot hold his tongue! What have I said to thee, child? A bachelor is no better than a gossiping old woman. He that is always alone must talk, if it be only to woods and waves. It is the married men who know best how excellent it is to keep silence!"
They all laughed, though Thelma's eyes had a way of looking pensive even when she smiled.
"You would not blame poor Svensen because he is alone, father?" she said. "Is he not to be pitied? Surely it is a cruel fate to have none to love in all the wide world. Nothing can be more cruel!"
Gueldmar surveyed her humorously. "Hear her!" he said. "She talks as if she knew all about such things; and if ever a child was ignorant of sorrow, surely it is my Thelma! Every flower and bird in the place loves her. Yes; I have thought sometimes the very sea loves her. It must; she is so much upon it. And as for her old father"—he laughed a little, though a suspicious moisture softened his keen eyes—"why, he doesn't love her at all. Ask her! She knows it."
Thelma rose quickly and kissed him. How deliciously those sweet lips pouted, thought Errington, and what an unreasonable and extraordinary grudge he seemed to bear towards the venerable bonde for accepting that kiss with so little apparent emotion!
"Hush, father!" she said. "These friends can see too plainly how much you spoil me. Tell me,"—and she turned with a sudden pretty imperiousness to Lorimer, who started at her voice as a racehorse starts at its rider's touch,—"what person in Bosekop spoke of us?"
Lorimer was rather at a loss, inasmuch as no one in the small town had actually spoken of them, and Mr. Dyceworthy's remarks concerning those who were "ejected with good reason from respectable society," might not, after all, have applied to the Gueldmar family. Indeed, it now seemed an absurd and improbable supposition. Therefore he replied cautiously—
"The Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy, I think, has some knowledge of you. Is he not a friend of yours?"
These simple words had a most unexpected effect. Olaf Gueldmar sprang up from his seat flaming with wrath. It was in vain that his daughter laid a restraining hand upon his arm. The name of the Lutheran divine had sufficed to put him in a towering passion, and he turned furiously upon the astonished Errington.
"Had I known you came from the devil, sir, you should have returned to him speedily, with hot words to hasten your departure! I would have split that glass to atoms before I would have drained it after you! The friends of a false heart are no friends for me,—the followers of a pretended sanctity find no welcome under my roof! Why not have told me at once that you came as spies, hounded on by the liar Dyceworthy? Why not have confessed it openly? .. . . and not have played the thief's trick on an old fool, who, for once, misled by your manly and upright bearing, consented to lay aside the rightful suspicions he at first entertained of your purpose? Shame on you, young men! shame!"
The words coursed impetuously from his lips; his face burned with indignation. He had broken away from his daughter's hold, while she, pale and very still, stood leaning one hand upon the table. His white hair was tossed back from his brow; his eyes flashed; his attitude though vengeful and threatening, was at the same time so bold and commanding that Lorimer caught himself lazily admiring the contour of his figure, and wondering how he would look in marble as an infuriated Viking.
One excellent thing in the dispositions of both Errington and Lorimer was that they never lost temper. Either they were too lazy or too well-bred. Undoubtedly they both considered it "bad form." This indifference stood them in good stead now. They showed no sign whatever of offense, though the old farmer's outbreak of wrath was so sudden and unlooked for, that they remained for a moment silent out of sheer surprise. Then rising with unruffled serenity, they took up their caps preparatory to departure. Errington's gentle, refined voice broke the silence.
"You are in error, Mr. Gueldmar," he said in chilly but perfectly polite tones. "I regret you should be so hasty in your judgment of us. If you accepted us as 'men' when you first met us, I cannot imagine why you should now take us for spies. The two terms are by no means synonymous. I know nothing of Mr. Dyceworthy beyond that he called upon me, and that I, as in duty bound, returned his call. I am ignorant of his character and disposition. I may add that I have no desire to be enlightened respecting them. I do not often take a dislike to anybody, but it so happens that I have done so in the case of Mr. Dyceworthy. I know Lorimer doesn't care for him, and I don't think my other two friends are particularly attached to him. I have nothing more to say, except that I fear we have outstayed our welcome. Permit us now to wish you good evening. And you,"—he hesitated, and turned with a low bow to Thelma, who had listened to his words with a gradually dawning brightness on her face—"you will, I trust, exonerate us from any intentional offense towards your father or yourself? Our visit has proved unlucky, but—"
Thelma interrupted him by laying her fair little hand on his arm with a wistful, detaining gesture, which, though seemingly familiar, was yet perfectly sweet and natural. The light touch thrilled his blood, and sent it coursing through his veins at more than customary speed.
"Ah, then, you also will be foolish!" she said, with a naive protecting air of superior dignity. "Do you not see my father is sorry? Have we all kissed the cup for nothing, or was the wine wasted? Not a drop was spilt; how then, if we are friends should we part in coldness? Father, it is you to be ashamed,—not these gentleman, who are strangers to the Altenfjord, and know nothing of Mr. Dyceworthy, or an other person dwelling here. And when their vessel sails away again over the wide seas to their own shores, how will you have them think of you? As one whose heart was all kindness, and who helped to make their days pass pleasantly? or as one who, in unreasonable anger, forgot the duties of sworn hospitality?"
The bonde listened to her full, sweet, reproachful voice as a tough old lion might listen to the voice of its tamer, uncertain whether to yield or spring. He wiped his heated brow and stared around him shamefacedly. Finally, as though swallowing his pride with a gulp, he drew a long breath, took a couple of determined strides forward, and held out his hands, one to Errington and the other to Lorimer, by whom they were warmly grasped.
"There, my lads," he said rapidly. "I'm sorry I spoke! Forgive and forget! That is the worst of me—my blood is up in a minute, and old though I am, I'm not old enough yet to be patient. And when I hear the name of that sneak Dyceworthy—by the gates of Valhalla, I feel as if my own house would not hold me! No, no; don't go yet! Nearly ten? Well, no matter, the night is like the day here, you see—it doesn't matter when one goes to bed. Come and sit in the porch awhile; I shall get cool out there. Ah, Thelma, child! I see thee laughing at thy old father's temper! Never mind, never mind; is it not for thy sake after all?"
And, holding Errington by the arm, he led the way into the fine old porch, Lorimer following with rather a flushed face, for he, as he passed out of the room, had managed to pick up and secrete the neglected little bunch of daisies, before noticed as having fallen on the floor. He put them quickly in his breast pocket with a curious sense of satisfaction, though he had no intention of keeping them, and leaned idly against the clambering roses, watching Thelma, as she drew a low stool to her father's feet and sat there. A balmy wind blew in from the Fjord, and rustled mysteriously among the pines; the sky was flecked here and there with fleecy clouds, and a number of birds were singing in full chorus. Old Gueldmar heaved a sigh of relief, as though his recent outburst of passion had done him good.
"I will tell you, Sir Philip," he said, ruffling his daughter's curls as he spoke,—"I will tell you why I detest the villain Dyceworthy. It is but fair you should know it. Now, Thelma!—why that push to my knee? You fear I may offend our friends again? Nay, I will take good care. And so, first of all, I ask you, what is your religion? Though I know you cannot be Lutherans."
Errington was somewhat taken aback by the question. He smiled.
"My dear sir," he replied at last; "to be frank with you, I really do not think I have any religion. If I had, I suppose I should call myself a Christian, though, judging from the behavior of Christians in general, I cannot be one of them after all,—for I belong to no sect, I go to no church, and I have never read a tract in my life. I have a profound reverence and admiration for the character and doctrine of Christ, and I believe if I had had the privilege of knowing and conversing with Him, I should not have deserted Him in extremity as his timorous disciples did. I believe in an all-wise Creator; so you see I am not an atheist. My mother was an Austrian and a Catholic, and I have a notion that, as a small child, I was brought up in that creed; but I'm afraid I don't know much about it now."
The bonde nodded gravely. "Thelma, here," he said, "is a Catholic, as her mother was—" he stopped abruptly, and a deep shadow of pain darkened his features. Thelma looked up,—her large blue eyes filled with sudden tears, and she pressed her father's hand between her own, as though in sympathy with some undeclared grief; then she looked at Errington with a sort of wistful appeal. Philip's heart leaped as he met that soft beseeching glance, which seemed to entreat his patience with the old man for her sake—he felt himself drawn into a bond of union with her thoughts, and in his innermost soul he swore as knightly a vow of chivalry and reverence for the fair maiden, who thus took him into her silent confidence, as though he were some gallant Crusader of old time, pledged to defend his lady's honor unto death. Olaf Gueldmar, after a long and apparently sorrowful pause, resumed his conversation.
"Yes," he said, "Thelma is a Catholic, though here she has scarcely any opportunity for performing the duties of her religion. It is a pretty and a graceful creed,—well fitted for women. As for me, I am made of sterner stuff, and the maxims of that gentle creature, Christ, find no echo in my soul. But you, young sir," he added, turning suddenly on Lorimer, who was engaged in meditatively smoothing out on his palm one of the fallen rose-petals—"you have not spoken. What faith do you profess? It is no curiosity that prompts me to ask,—I only seek not to offend."
Lorimer laughed languidly. "Upon my life, Mr. Gueldmar, you really ask too much of me. I haven't any faith at all; not a shred! It's been all knocked out of me. I tried to hold on to a last remaining bit of Christian rope in the universal ship-wreck, but that was torn out of my hands by a scientific professor, who ought to know what he is about, and—and—now I drift along anyhow!"
Gueldmar smiled dubiously; but Thelma looked at the speaker with astonished, regretful eyes.
"I am sorry," she said simply. "You must be often unhappy."
Lorimer was not disconcerted, though her evident pity caused an unwanted flush on his face.
"Oh no," he said in answer to her, "I am not a miserable sort of fellow by any means. For instance, I'm not afraid of death,—lots of very religious people are horribly afraid of it, though they all the time declare it's the only path to heaven. They're not consistent at all. You see I believe in nothing,—I came from nothing,—I am nothing,—I shall be nothing. That being plain, I am all right."
Gueldmar laughed. "You are an odd lad," he said good-humoredly. "You are in the morning of life; there are always mists in the morning as there are in the evening. In the light of your full manhood you will see these things differently. Your creed of Nothing provides no moral law,—no hold on the conscience, no restraint on the passions,—don't you see that?"
Lorimer smiled with a very winning and boyish candor. "You are exceedingly good, sir, to credit me with a conscience! I don't think I have one,—I'm sure I have no passions. I have always been too lazy to encourage them, and as for moral law,—I adhere to morality with the greatest strictness, because if a fellow is immoral, he ceases to be a gentleman. Now, as there are very few gentlemen nowadays, I fancy I'd like to be one as long as I can."
Errington here interposed. "You mustn't take him seriously. Mr. Gueldmar," he said; "he's never serious himself, I'll give you his character in a few words. He belongs to no religious party, it's true,—but he's a first-rate fellow,—the best fellow I know!"
Lorimer glanced at him quietly with a gratified expression on his face. But he said nothing, for Thelma was regarding him with a most bewitching smile.
"Ah!" she said, shaking a reproachful finger at him, "you do love all nonsense, that I can see! You would make every person laugh, if you could,—is it not so?"
"Well, yes," admitted George, "I think I would! But it's a herculean task sometimes. If you had ever been to London, Miss Gueldmar, you would understand how difficult it is to make people even smile,—and when they do, the smile is not a very natural one."
"Why?" she exclaimed. "Are they all so miserable?"
"They pretend to be, if they're not," said Lorimer; "it is the fashion there to find fault with everything and everybody."
"That is so," said Gueldmar thoughtfully. "I visited London once and thought I was in hell. Nothing but rows of hard, hideously built houses, long streets, and dirty alleys, and the people had weary faces all, as though Nature had refused to bless them. A pitiful city,—doubly pitiful to the eyes of a man like myself, whose life has been passed among fjords and mountains such as these. Well, now, as neither of you are Lutherans,—in fact, as neither of you seem to know what you are," and he laughed, "I can be frank, and speak out as to my own belief. I am proud to say I have never deserted the faith of my fathers, the faith that makes a man's soul strong and fearless, and defiant of evil,—the faith that is supposed to be crushed out among us, but that is still alive and rooted in the hearts of many who can trace back their lineage to the ancient Vikings as I can,—yes!—rooted firm and fast,—and however much some of the more timorous feign to conceal it, in the tacit acceptance of another creed, there are those who can never shake it off, and who never desire to forsake it. I am one of these few. Shame must fall on the man who willfully deserts the faith of his warrior-ancestry! Sacred to me for ever be the names of Odin and Thor!"
He raised his hand aloft with a proud gesture, and his eyes flashed. Errington was interested, but not surprised: the old bonde's declaration of his creed seemed eminently fitted to his character. Lorimer's face brightened,—here was a novelty—a man, who in all the conflicting storms of modern opinion, sturdily clung to the traditions of his forefathers.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed eagerly, "I think the worship of Odin would suit me perfectly! It's a rousing, fighting sort of religion,—I'm positive it would make a man of me. Will you initiate me into the mysteries, Mr. Gueldmar? There's a fellow in London who writes poetry on Indian subjects, and who, it is said, thinks Buddhism might satisfy his pious yearnings,—but I think Odin would be a personage to command more respect than Buddha,—at any rate, I should like to try him. Will you give me a chance?"
Olaf Gueldmar smiled gravely, and rising from his seat, pointed to the western sky.
"See yonder threads of filmy white," he said, "that stretch across the wide expanse of blue! They are the lingering, fading marks of light clouds,—and even while we watch them, they shall pass and be no more. Such is the emblem of your life, young man—you that would, for an idle jest or pastime, presume to search into the mysteries of Odin! For you they are not,—your spirit is not of the stern mould that waits for death as gladly as the bridegroom waits for the bride! The Christian heaven is an abode for girls and babes,—Valhalla is the place for men! I tell you, my creed is as divine in its origin as any that ever existed on the earth! The Rainbow Bridge is a fairer pathway from death to life than the doleful Cross,—and better far the dark summoning eyes of a beauteous Valkyrie, than the grinning skull and cross-bones, the Christian emblem of mortality. Thelma thinks,—and her mother before her thought also,—that different as my way of belief is to the accepted new creeds of to-day, it will be all right with me in the next world—that I shall have as good a place in heaven as any Christian. It may be so,—I care not! But see you,—the key-note of all the civilization of to-day is discontent, while I,—thanks to the gods of my fathers, am happy, and desire nothing that I have not."
He paused and seemed absorbed. The young men watched his fine inspired features with lively interest. Thelma's head was turned away from them so that her face was hidden. By-and-by he resumed in quieter tones—
"Now, my lads, you know what we are—both of us accursed in the opinion of the Lutheran community. My child belongs to the so-called idolatrous Church of Rome. I am one of the very last of the 'heathen barbarians,'"—and the old fellow smiled sarcastically, "though, truth to tell, for a barbarian, I am not such a fool as some folks would have you think. If the snuffling Dyceworthy and I competed at a spelling examination, I'm pretty sure 'tis I would have the prize! But, as I said,—you know us,—and if our ways are likely to offend you, then let us part good friends before the swords are fairly drawn."
"No sword will be drawn on my side, I assure you, sir," said Errington, advancing and laying one hand on the bonde's shoulder. "I hope you will believe me when I say I shall esteem it an honor and a privilege to know more of you."
"And though you won't accept me as a servant of Odin," added Lorimer, "you really cannot prevent me from trying to make myself agreeable to you. I warn you, Mr. Gueldmar, I shall visit you pretty frequently! Such men as you are not often met with."
Olaf Gueldmar looked surprised. "You really mean it?" he said. "Nothing that I have told you affects you? You still seek our friendship?"
They both earnestly assured him that they did, and as they spoke Thelma rose from her low seat and faced them with a bright smile.
"Do you know," she said, "that you are the first people who, on visiting us once, have ever cared to come again? Ah, you look surprised, but it is so, is it not, father?"
Gueldmar nodded a grave assent.
"Yes," she continued demurely, counting on her little white fingers, "we are three things—first, we are accursed; secondly, we have the evil eye; thirdly, we are not respectable!"
And she broke into a peal of laughter, ringing and sweet as a chime of bells. The young men joined her in it; and, still with an amused expression on her lovely face, leaning her head back against a cluster of pale roses, she went on—
"My father dislikes Mr. Dyceworthy so much, because he wants to—to—oh, what is it they do to savages, father? Yes, I know,—to convert us,—to make us Lutherans. And when he finds it all no use, he is angry; and, though he is so religious, if he hears any one telling some untruth about us in Bosekop, he will add another thing equally untrue, and so it grows and grows, and—why! what is the matter with you?" she exclaimed in surprise as Errington scowled and clenched his fist in a peculiarly threatening manner.
"I should like to knock him down!" he said briefly under his breath.
Old Gueldmar laughed and looked at the young baronet approvingly.
"Who knows, who knows!" he said cheerfully. "You may do it some day! It will be a good deed! I will do it myself if he troubles me much more. And now let us make some arrangement with you. When will you come and see, us again?"
"You must visit me first," said Sir Philip quickly. "If you and your daughter will honor me with your company to-morrow, I shall be proud and pleased. Consider the yacht at your service."
Thelma, resting among the roses, looked across at him with serious, questioning eyes—eyes that seemed to be asking his intentions towards both her and her father.
Gueldmar accepted the invitation at once, and, the hour for their visit next day being fixed and agreed upon, the young men began to take their leave. As Errington clasped Thelma's hand in farewell, he made a bold venture. He touched a rose that hung just above her head almost dropping on her hair.
"May I have it?" he asked in a low tone.
Their eyes met. The girl flushed deeply, and then grew pale. She broke off the flower and gave it to him,—then turned to Lorimer to say good-bye. They left her then, standing under the porch, shading her brow with one hand from the glittering sunlight, as she watched them descending the winding path to the shore, accompanied by her lather, who hospitably insisted on seeing them into their boat. They looked back once or twice, always to see the slender, tall white figure standing there like an angel resting in a bower of roses, with the sunshine flashing on a golden crown of hair. At the last in the pathway Philip raised his hat and waved it, but whether she condescended to wave her hand in answer he could not see.
Left alone, she sighed, and went slowly into the house to resume her spinning. Hearing the whirr of the wheel, the servant Britta entered.
"You are not going in the boat, Froeken?" she asked in a tone of mingled deference and affection.
Thelma looked up, smiled faintly, and shook her head in the negative.
"It is late, Britta, and I am tired."
And the deep blue eyes had an intense dreamy light within them as they wandered from the wheel to the wide-open window, and rested on the majestic darkness of the overshadowing, solemn pines.
"In mezzo del mio core c' e una spina; Non c' e barbier che la possa levare,— Solo il mio amore colla sua manina" Rime Popolari.
Errington and Lorimer pulled away across the Fjord in a silence that lasted for many minutes. Old Gueldmar stood on the edge of his little pier to watch them out of sight. So, till their boat turned the sharp corner of the protecting rock, that hid the landing-place from view, they saw his picturesque figure and gleaming silvery hair outlined clearly against the background of the sky—a sky now tenderly flushed with pink like the inside of a delicate shell. When they could no longer perceive him they still rowed on speaking no word,—the measured, musical plash of the oars through the smooth, dark olive-green water alone breaking the stillness around them. There was a curious sort of hushed breathlessness in the air; fantastic, dream-like lights and shadows played on the little wrinkling waves; sudden flushes of crimson came and went in the western horizon, and over the high summits of the surrounding mountains mysterious shapes, formed of purple and grey mist, rose up and crept softly downwards, winding in and out deep valleys and dark ravines, like wandering spirits sent on some secret and sorrowful errand. After a while Errington said almost vexedly—
"Are you struck dumb, George? Haven't you a word to say to a fellow?"
"Just what I was about to ask you," replied Lorimer carelessly; "and I was also going to remark that we hadn't seen your mad friend up at the Gueldmar residence."
"No. Yet I can't help thinking he has something to do with them, all the same," returned Errington meditatively. "I tell you, he swore at me by some old Norwegian infernal place or other. I dare say he's an Odin worshipper, too. But never mind him. What do you think of her?"
Lorimer turned lazily round in the boat, so that he faced his companion.
"Well, old fellow, if you ask me frankly, I think she is the most beautiful woman I ever saw, or, for that matter, ever heard of. And I am an impartial critic—perfectly impartial."
And, resting on his oar, he dipped the blade musingly in and out of the water, watching the bright drops fall with an oil-like smoothness as they trickled from the polished wood and glittered in the late sunshine like vari-colored jewels. Then he glanced curiously at Philip, who sat silent, but whose face was very grave and earnest,—even noble, with that shade of profound thought upon it. He looked like one who had suddenly accepted a high trust, in which there was not only pride, but tenderness. Lorimer shook himself together, as he himself would have expressed it, and touched his friend's arm half-playfully.
"You've met the king's daughter of Norroway after all, Phil;" and his light accents had a touch of sadness in them; "and you'll have to bring her home, as the old song says. I believe the 'eligible' is caught at last. The 'woman' of the piece has turned up, and your chum must play second fiddle—eh, old boy?"
Errington flushed hotly, but caught Lorimer's hand and pressed it with tremendous fervor.
"By Jove, I'll wring it off your wrist if you talk in that fashion, George!" he said, with a laugh. "You'll always be the same to me, and you know it. I tell you," and he pulled his moustache doubtfully, "I don't know quite what's the matter with me. That girl fascinates me! I feel a fool in her presence. Is that a sign of being in love I wonder?"
"Certainly not!" returned George promptly; "for I feel a fool in her presence, and I'm not in love."
"How do you know that?" And Errington glanced at him keenly and inquiringly.
"How do I know? Come, I like that! Have I studied myself all these years for nothing? Look here,"—and he carefully drew out the little withering bunch of daisies he had purloined—"these are for you. I knew you wanted them, though you hadn't the impudence to pick them up, and I had. I thought you might like to put them under your pillow, and all that sort of thing, because if one is resolved to become love-lunatic, one may as well do the thing properly out and out,—I hate all half-measures. Now, if the remotest thrill of sentiment were in me, you can understand, I hope, that wild horses would not have torn this adorable posy from my possession! I should have kept it, and you would never have known of it," and he laughed softly. "Take it, old fellow! You're rich now, with the rose she gave you besides. What is all your wealth compared with the sacred preciousness of such blossoms! There, don't look so awfully estactic, or I shall be called upon to ridicule you in the interests of common sense. So you're in love with the girl at once, and have done with it. Don't beat about the bush!"
"I'm not sure about it," said Philip, taking the daisies gratefully, however, and pressing them in his pocket-book. "I don't believe in love at first sight!"
"I do," returned Lorimer decidedly. "Love is electricity. Two telegrams are enough to settle the business,—one from the eyes of the man, the other from those of the woman. You and Miss Gueldmar must have exchanged a dozen such messages at least."
"And you?" inquired Errington persistently. "You had the same chance as myself."
George shrugged his shoulders. "My dear boy, there are no wires of communication between the Sun-angel and myself; nothing but a blank, innocent landscape, over which perhaps some day, the mild lustre of friendship may beam. The girl is beautiful—extraordinarily so; but I'm not a 'man o' wax,' as Juliet's gabbling old nurse says—not in the least impressionable."
And forthwith he resumed his oar, saying briskly as he did so—
"Phil, do you know those other fellows must be swearing at us pretty forcibly for leaving them so long with Dyceworthy. We've been away two hours!"
"Not possible!" cried Errington, amazed, and wielding his oar vigorously. "They'll think me horribly rude. By Jove, they must be bored to death!"
And, stimulated by the thought of the penance their friends were enduring, they sent the boat spinning swiftly through the water, and rowed as though they were trying for a race, when they were suddenly pulled up by a loud "Halloo!" and the sight of another boat coming slowly out from Bosekop, wherein two individuals were standing up, gesticulating violently.
"There they are!" exclaimed Lorimer. "I say, Phil, they've hired a special tub, and are coming out to us."
So it proved. Duprez and Macfarlane had grown tired of waiting for their truant companions, and had taken the first clumsy wherry that presented itself, rowed by an even clumsier Norwegian boatman, whom they had been compelled to engage also, as he would not let his ugly punt out of his sight, for fear some harm might chance to befall it. Thus attended, they were on their way back to the yacht. With a few long, elegant strokes, Errington and Lorimer soon brought their boat alongside, and their friends gladly jumped into it, delighted to be free of the company of the wooden-faced mariner they had so reluctantly hired, and who now, on receiving his fee, paddled awkwardly away in his ill-constructed craft, without either a word of thanks or salutation. Errington began to apologize at once for his long absence, giving as a reason for it, the necessity he found himself under of making a call on some persons of importance in the neighborhood, whom he had, till now, forgotten.
"My good Phil-eep!" cried Duprez, in his cheery sing song accent, "why apologize? We have amused ourselves! Our dear Sandy has a vein of humor that is astonishing! We have not wasted our time. No! We have made Mr. Dyceworthy our slave; we have conquered him; we have abased him! He is what we please,—he is for all gods or for no god,—just as we pull the string! In plain words, mon cher, that amiable religious is drunk!"
"Drunk!" cried Errington and Lorimer together. "Jove! you don't mean it?"
Macfarlane looked up with a twinkle of satirical humor in his deep-set grey eyes.
"Ye see," he said seriously, "the Lacrima, or Papist wine as he calls it, was strong—we got him to take a good dose o't—a vera feir dose indeed. Then, doun he sat, an' fell to convairsing vera pheelosophically o' mony things,—it wad hae done ye gude to hear him,—he was fair lost in the mazes o' his metapheesics, for twa flies took a bit saunter through the pleasant dewy lanes o' his forehead, an' he never raised a finger to send them awa' aboot their beeziness. Then I thoet I wad try him wi' the whusky—I had ma pocket flask wi' me—an' O mon! he was sairly glad and gratefu' for the first snack o't! He said it was deevilish fine stuff, an' so he took ane drappikie, an' anither drappikie, and yet anither drappikie,"—Sandy's accent got more and more pronounced as he went on—"an' after a bit, his heed dropt doun, an' he took a wee snoozle of a minute or twa,—then he woke up in a' his strength an' just grappit the flask in his twa hands an' took the hale o't off at a grand, rousin' gulp! Ma certes! after it ye shuld ha' seen him laughin' like a feckless fule, an' rubbin' an' rubbin' his heed, till his hair was like the straw kicked roond by a mad coo!"
Lorimer lay back in the stern of the boat and laughed uproariously at this extraordinary picture, as did the others.
"But that is not all," said Duprez, with delighted mischief sparkling in his wicked little dark eyes; "the dear religious opened his heart to us. He spoke thickly, but we could understand him. He was very impressive! He is quite of my opinion. He says all religion is nonsense, fable, imposture,—Man is the only god, Woman his creature and subject. Again,—man and woman conjoined, make up divinity, necessity, law. He was quite clear on that point. Why did he preach what he did not believe, we asked? He almost wept! He replied that the children of this world liked fairy-stories and he was paid to tell them. It was his bread and butter,—would we wish him to have no bread and butter? We assured him so cruel a thought had no place in our hearts! Then he is amorous—yes! the good fat man is amorous! He would have become a priest, but on close examination of the confessionals he saw there was no possibility of seeing, much less kissing a lady penitent through the grating. So he gave up that idea! In his form of faith he can kiss, he says,—he does kiss!—always a holy kiss, of course! He is so ingenuous,—so delightfully frank, it is quite charming!"
They laughed again. Sir Philip looked somewhat disgusted.
"What an old brute he must be!" he said. "Somebody ought to kick him—a holy kick, of course, and therefore more intense and forcible than other kicks."
"You begin, Phil," laughed Lorimer, "and we'll all follow suit. He'll be like that Indian in 'Vathek' who rolled himself into a ball; no one could resist kicking as long as the ball bounded before them,—we, similarly, shall not be able to resist, if Dyceworthy's fat person is once left at our mercy."
"That was a grand bit he told us, Errington," resumed Macfarlane. "Ye should ha' heard him talk aboot his love-affair! . . . the saft jelly of a man that he is, to be making up to ony woman."
At that moment they ran alongside of the Eulalie and threw up their oars.
"Stop a bit," said Errington. "Tell us the rest on board."
The ladder was lowered; they mounted it, and their boat was hauled up to its place.
"Go on!" said Lorimer, throwing himself lazily into a deck arm-chair and lighting a cigar, while the others leaned against the yacht rails and followed his example. "Go on, Sandy—this is fun! Dyceworthy's amours must be amusing. I suppose he's after that ugly wooden block of a woman we saw at his house who is so zealous for the 'true gospel'?"
"Not a bit of it," replied Sandy, with immense gravity. "The auld Silenus has better taste. He says there's a young lass running after him, fit to break her heart aboot him,—puir thing, she must have vera little choice o' men! He hasna quite made up his mind, though he admeets she's as fine a lass as ony man need require. He's sorely afraid she has set herself to catch him, as he says she's an eye like a warlock for a really strong good-looking fellow like himself," and Macfarlane chuckled audibly. "Maybe he'll take pity on her, maybe he wont; the misguided lassie will be sairly teazed by him from a' he tauld us in his cups. He gave us her name,—the oddest in a' the warld for sure,—I canna just remember it."
"I can," said Duprez glibly. "It struck me as quaint and pretty—Thelma Gueldmar."
Errington started so violently, and flushed so deeply, that Lorimer was afraid of some rash outbreak of wrath on his part. But he restrained himself by a strong effort. He merely took his cigar from his mouth and puffed a light cloud of smoke into the air before replying, then he said coldly—
"I should say Mr. Dyceworthy, besides being a drunkard, is a most consummate liar. It so happens that the Gueldmars are the very people I have just visited,—highly superior in every way to anybody we have yet met in Norway. In fact, Mr. and Miss Gueldmar will come on board to-morrow. I have invited them to dine with us; you will then be able to judge for yourselves whether the young lady is at all of the description Mr. Dyceworthy gives of her."
Duprez and Macfarlane exchanged astonished looks.
"Are ye quite sure," the latter ventured to remark cautiously, "that ye're prudent in what ye have done? Remember ye have asked no pairson at a' to dine with ye as yet,—it's a vera sudden an' exceptional freak o' hospitality."
Errington smoked on peacefully and made no answer. Duprez hummed a verse of a French chansonnette under his breath and smiled. Lorimer glanced at him with a lazy amusement.
"Unburden yourself, Pierre, for heaven's sake!" he said. "Your mind is as uncomfortable as a loaded camel. Let it lie down, while you take off its packages, one by one, and reveal their contents. In short, what's up?"
Duprez made a rapid, expressive gesture with his hands.
"Mon cher, I fear to displease Phil-eep! He has invited these people; they are coming,—bien! there is no more to say."
"I disagree with ye," interposed Macfarlane "I think Errington should hear what we ha' heard; it's fair an' just to a mon that he should understand what sort o' folk are gaun to pairtake wi' him at his table. Ye see, Errington, ye should ha' thought a wee, before inviting pairsons o' unsettled an' dootful chairacter—"
"Who says they are?" demanded Errington half-angrily. "The drunken Dyceworthy?"
"He was no sae drunk at the time he tauld us." persisted Macfarlane in his most obstinate, most dictatorial manner. "Ye see, it's just this way—"
"Ah, pardon!" interrupted Duprez briskly. "Our dear Sandy is an excellent talker, but he is a little slow. Thus it is, mon cher Errington. This gentleman named Gueldmar had a most lovely wife—a mysterious lady, with an evident secret. The beautiful one was never seen in the church or in any town or village; she was met sometimes on hills, by rivers, in valleys, carrying her child in her arms. The people grew afraid of her; but, now, see what happens! Suddenly, she appears no more; some one ventures to ask this Monsieur Gueldmar, 'What has become of Madame?' His answer is brief. 'She is dead!' Satisfactory so far, yet not quite; for, Madame being dead, then what has become of the corpse of Madame? It was never seen,—no coffin was ever ordered,—and apparently it was never buried! Bien! What follows? The good people of Bosekop draw the only conclusion possible—Monsieur Gueldmar, who is said to have a terrific temper, killed Madame and made away with her body. Voila!"
And Duprez waved his hand with an air of entire satisfaction.
Errington's brow grew sombre. "This is the story, is it?" he asked at last.
"It is enough, is it not?" laughed Duprez. "But, after all, what matter? It will be novel to dine with a mur—"
"Stop!" said Philip fiercely, with so much authority that the sparkling Pierre was startled. "Call no man by such a name till you know he deserves it. If Gueldmar was suspected, as you say, why didn't somebody arrest him on the charge?"
"Because, ye see," replied Macfarlane, "there was not sufficient proof to warrant such a proceeding. Moreover, the actual meenister of the parish declared it was a' richt, an' said this Gueldmar was a mon o' vera queer notions, an' maybe, had buried his wife wi' certain ceremonies peculiar to himself—What's wrong wi' ye now?"
For a light had flashed on Errington's mind, and with the quick comprehension it gave him, his countenance cleared. He laughed.
"That's very likely," he said; "Mr. Gueldmar is a character. He follows the faith of Odin, and not even Dyceworthy can convert him to Christianity."
Macfarlane stared with a sort of stupefied solemnity.
"Mon!" he exclaimed, "ye never mean to say there's an actual puir human creature that in this blessed, enlightened nineteenth century of ours, is so far misguidit as to worship the fearfu' gods o' the Scandinavian meethology?"
"Ah!" yawned Lorimer, "you may wonder away, Sandy, but it's true enough! Old Gueldmar is an Odinite. In this blessed, enlightened nineteenth century of ours, when Christians amuse themselves by despising and condemning each other, and thus upsetting all the precepts of the Master they profess to follow, there is actually a man who sticks to the traditions of his ancestors. Odd, isn't it? In this delightful, intellectual age, when more than half of us are discontented with life and yet don't want to die, there is a fine old gentleman, living beyond the Arctic circle, who is perfectly satisfied with his existence—not only that, he thinks death the greatest glory that can befall him. Comfortable state of things altogether! I'm half inclined to be an Odinite too."
Sandy still remained lost in astonishment. "Then ye don't believe that he made awa' wi' his wife?" he inquired slowly.
"Not in the least!" returned Lorimer decidedly; "neither will you, to-morrow, when you see him. He's a great deal better up in literature than you are, my boy, I'd swear, judging from the books he has. And when he mentioned his wife, as he did once, you could see in his face he had never done her any harm. Besides, his daughter—"
"Ah! but I forgot," interposed Duprez again. "The daughter, Thelma, was the child the mysteriously vanished lady carried in her arms, wandering with it all about the woods and hills. After her disappearance, another thing extraordinary happens. The child also disappears, and Monsieur Gueldmar lives alone, avoided carefully by every respectable person. Suddenly the child returns, grown to be nearly a woman—and they say, lovely to an almost impossible extreme. She lives with her father. She, like her strange mother, never enters a church, town, or village—nowhere, in fact, where persons are in any numbers. Three years ago, it appears, she vanished again, but came back at the end of ten months, lovelier than ever. Since then she has remained quiet—composed—but always apart,—she may disappear at any moment. Droll, is it not, Errington? and the reputation she has is natural!"
"Pray state it," said Philip, with freezing coldness. "The reputation of a woman is nothing nowadays. Fair game—go on!"
But his face was pale, and his eyes blazed dangerously. Almost unconsciously his hand toyed with the rose Thelma had given him, that still ornamented his button-hole.
"Mon Dieu!" cried Duprez in amazement. "But look not at me like that! It seems to displease you, to put you en fureur, what I say! It is not my story,—it is not I,—I know not Mademoiselle Gueldmar. But as her beauty is considered superhuman, they say it is the devil who is her parfumeur, her coiffeur, and who sees after her complexion; in brief, she is thought to be a witch in full practice, dangerous to life and limb."
Errington laughed loudly, he was so much relieved.
"Is that all?" he said with light contempt. "By Jove! what a pack of fools there must be about here,—ugly fools too, if they think beauty is a sign of witchcraft. I wonder Dyceworthy isn't scared out of his skin if he positively thinks the so-called witch is setting her cap at him."
"Ah, but he means to convairt her," said Macfarlane seriously. "To draw the evil oot o' her, as it were. He said he wad do't by fair means or foul."
Something in these latter words struck Lorimer, for, raising himself in his seat, he asked, "Surely Mr. Dyceworthy, with all his stupidity, doesn't carry it so far as to believe in witchcraft?"
"Oh, indeed he does," exclaimed Duprez; "he believes in it a la lettre! He has Bible authority for his belief. He is very firm—firmest when drunk!" And he laughed gaily.
Errington muttered something not very flattering to Mr. Dyceworthy's intelligence, which escaped the hearing of his friends; then he said—
"Come along, all of you, down into the saloon. We want something to eat. Let the Gueldmars alone; I'm not a bit sorry I've asked them to come to-morrow. I believe you'll all like them immensely."
They all descended the stair-way leading to the lower part of the yacht, and Macfarlane asked as he followed his host—
"Is the lass vera bonnie did ye say?"
"Bonnie's not the word for it this time," said Lorimer, coolly answering instead of Errington. "Miss Gueldmar is a magnificent woman. You never saw such a one, Sandy, my boy; she'll make you sing small with one look; she'll wither you up into a kippered herring! And as for you, Duprez," and he regarded the little Frenchman critically, "let me see,—you may possibly reach up to her shoulder,—certainly not beyond it."
"Pas possible!" cried Duprez. "Mademoiselle is a giantess."
"She needn't be a giantess to overtop you, mon ami," laughed Lorimer with a lazy shrug. "By Jove, I am sleepy, Errington, old boy; are we never going to bed? It's no good waiting till it's dark here, you know."
"Have something first," said Sir Philip, seating himself at the saloon table, where his steward had laid out a tasty cold collation. "We've had a good deal of climbing about and rowing; it's taken it out of us a little."
Thus hospitably adjured, they took their places, and managed to dispose of an excellent supper. The meal concluded, Duprez helped himself to a tiny liqueur glass of Chartreuse, as a wind-up to the exertions of the day, a mild luxury in which the others joined him, with the exception of Macfarlane, who was wont to declare that a "mon without his whusky was nae mon at a'," and who, therefore, persisted in burning up his interior mechanism with alcohol in spite of the doctrines of hygiene, and was now absorbed in the work of mixing his lemon, sugar, hot water, and poison—his usual preparation for a night's rest.
Lorimer, usually conversational, watched him in abstracted silence. Rallied on this morose humor, he rose, shook himself like a retriever, yawned, and sauntered to the piano that occupied a dim corner of the saloon, and began to play with that delicate, subtle touch, which, though it does not always mark the brilliant pianist, distinguishes the true lover of music, to whose ears a rough thump on the instrument, or a false note would be most exquisite agony. Lorimer had no pretense to musical talent; asked, he confessed he could "strum a little," and he seemed to see the evident wonder and admiration he awakened in the minds of many to whom such "strumming" as his was infinitely more delightful than more practiced, finished playing. Just now he seemed undecided,—he commenced a dainty little prelude of Chopin's, then broke suddenly off, and wandered into another strain, wild, pleading, pitiful, and passionate,—a melody so weird and dreamy that even the stolid Macfarlane paused in his toddy-sipping, and Duprez looked round in some wonderment.
"Comme c'est beau, ca!" he murmured.
Errington said nothing; he recognized the tune as that which Thelma had sung at her spinning-wheel, and his bold bright eyes grew pensive and soft, as the picture of the fair face and form rose up again before his mind. Absorbed in a reverie, he almost started when Lorimer ceased playing, and said lightly—
"By-bye, boys! I'm off to bed! Phil, don't wake me so abominably early as you did this morning. If you do, friendship can hold out no longer—we must part!"
"All right!" laughed Errington good-humoredly, watching his friend as he sauntered out of the saloon; then seeing Duprez and Macfarlane rise from the table, he added courteously, "Don't hurry away on Lorimer's account, you two. I'm not in the least sleepy,—I'll sit up with you to any hour."
"It is droll to go to bed in broad daylight," said Duprez. "But it must be done. Cher Philippe, your eyes are heavy. 'To bed, to bed,' as the excellent Madame Macbeth says. Ah! quelle femme! What an exciting wife she was for a man? Come, let us follow our dear Lorimer,—his music was delicious. Good night or good morning? . . . I know not which it is in this strange land where the sun shines always! It is confusing!"
They shook hands and separated. Errington, however, unable to compose his mind to rest, went into his cabin merely to come out of it again and betake himself to the deck, where he decided to walk up and down till he felt sleepy. He wished to be alone with his own thoughts for awhile—to try and resolve the meaning of this strange new emotion that possessed him,—a feeling that was half pleasing, half painful, and that certainly moved him to a sort of shame. A man, if he be strong and healthy, is always more or less ashamed when Love, with a single effort, proves him to be weaker than a blade of grass swaying in the wind. What! all his dignity, all his resoluteness, all his authority swept down by the light touch of a mere willow wand? for the very sake of his own manhood and self-respect, he cannot help but be ashamed! It is as though a little nude, laughing child mocked at a lion's strength, and made him a helpless prisoner with a fragile daisy chain. So the god Eros begins his battles, which end in perpetual victory,—first fear and shame,—then desire and passion,—then conquest and possession. And afterwards? ah! . . . afterwards the pagan deity is powerless,—a higher God, a grander force, a nobler creed must carry Love to its supreme and best fulfillment.
"Le vent qui vient a travers la montagne M'a rendu fou!" VICTOR HUGO.
It was half an hour past midnight. Sir Philip was left in absolute solitude to enjoy his meditative stroll on deck, for the full radiance of light that streamed over the sea and land was too clear and brilliant to necessitate the attendance of any of the sailors for the purpose of guarding the Eulalie. She was safely anchored and distinctly visible to all boats or fishing craft crossing the Fjord, so that unless a sudden gale should blow, which did not seem probable in the present state of the weather, there was nothing for the men to do that need deprive them of their lawful repose. Errington paced up and down slowly, his yachting shoes making no noise, even as they left no scratch on the spotless white deck, that shone in the night sunshine like polished silver. The Fjord was very calm,—on one side it gleamed like a pool of golden oil in which the outline of the Eulalie was precisely traced, her delicate masts and spars and drooping flag being drawn in black lines on the yellow water as though with a finely pointed pencil. There was a curious light in the western sky; a thick bank of clouds, dusky brown in color, were swept together and piled one above the other in mountainous ridges, that rose up perpendicularly from the very edge of the sea-line, while over their dark summits a glimpse of the sun, like a giant's eye, looked forth, darting dazzling descending rays through the sullen smoke-like masses, tinging them with metallic green and copper hues as brilliant and shifting as the bristling points of lifted spears. Away to the south, a solitary wreath of purple vapor floated slowly as though lost from some great mountain height; and through its faint, half disguising veil the pale moon peered sorrowfully, like a dying prisoner lamenting joy long past, but unforgotten.