Lorimer's hand fell heavily on his shoulder, and his voice was very stern.
"What nonsense, Sigurd! You don't know what you are talking about to-day. Errington my foe! Good heavens! Why, he's my best friend! Do you hear?"
Sigurd stared up at him in vacant surprise, but nodded feebly.
"Well, mind you remember it! The spirits tell lies, my boy, if they say that he is my enemy. I would give my life to save his!"
He spoke quietly, and rose from his seat on the moss as he finished his words, and his face had an expression that was both noble and resolute.
Sigurd still gazed upon him. "And you,—you do not love Thelma?" he murmured.
Lorimer started, but controlled himself instantly. His frank English eyes met the feverishly brilliant ones fixed so appealingly upon him.
"Certainly not!" he said calmly, with a serene smile. "What makes you think of such a thing? Quite wrong, Sigurd,—the spirits have made a mistake again! Come along,—let us join the others."
But Sigurd would not accompany him. He sprang away like a frightened animal, in haste, and abruptly plunging into the depths of a wood that bordered on Olaf Gueldmar's grounds, was soon lost to sight. Lorimer looked after him in a little perplexity.
"I wonder if he ever gets dangerous?" he thought. "A fellow with such queer notions might do some serious harm without meaning it. I'll keep an eye on him!"
And once or twice during that same evening, he felt inclined to speak to Errington on the subject, but no suitable opportunity presented itself—and after a while, with his habitual indolence, he partly forgot the circumstance.
On the following Sunday afternoon Thelma sat alone under the wide blossom-covered porch, reading. Her father and Sigurd,—accompanied by Errington and his friends,—had all gone for a mountain ramble, promising to return for supper, a substantial meal which Britta was already busy preparing. The afternoon was very warm,—one of those long, lazy stretches of heat and brilliancy in which Nature seems to have lain down to rest like a child tired of play, sleeping in the sunshine with drooping flowers in her hands. The very ripple of the stream seemed hushed, and Thelma, though her eyes were bent seriously on the book she held, sighed once or twice heavily as though she were tired. There was a change in the girl,—an undefinable something seemed to have passed over her and toned down the redundant brightness of her beauty. She was paler,—and there were darker shadows than usual under the splendor of her eyes. Her very attitude, as she leaned her head against the dark, fantastic carving of the porch, had a touch of listlessness and indifference in it; her sweetly arched lips drooped with a plaintive little line at the corners, and her whole air was indicative of fatigue, mingled with sadness. She looked up now and then from the printed page, and her gaze wandered over the stretch of the scented, flower-filled garden, to the little silvery glimmer of the Fjord from whence arose, like delicate black streaks against the sky, the slender masts of the Eulalie,—and then she would resume her reading with a slight movement of impatience.
The volume she held was Victor Hugo's "Orientales," and though her sensitive imagination delighted in poetry as much as in sunshine, she found it for once hard to rivet her attention as closely as she wished to do, on the exquisite wealth of language, and glow of color, that distinguishes the writings of the Shakespeare of France. Within the house Britta was singing cheerily at her work, and the sound of her song alone disturbed the silence. Two or three pale-blue butterflies danced drowsily in and out a cluster of honeysuckle that trailed downwards, nearly touching Thelma's shoulder, and a diminutive black kitten, with a pink ribbon round its neck, sat gravely on the garden path, washing its face with its tiny velvety paws, in that deliberate and precise fashion, common to the spoiled and petted members of its class. Everything was still and peaceful as became a Sunday afternoon,—so that when the sound of a heavy advancing footstep disturbed the intense calm, the girl was almost nervously startled, and rose from her seat with so much precipitation, that the butterflies, who had possibly been considering whether her hair might not be some new sort of sunflower, took fright and flew far upwards, and the demure kitten scared out of its absurd self-consciousness, scrambled hastily up the nearest little tree. The intruder on the quietude of Gueldmar's domain was the Rev. Mr. Dyceworthy,—and as Thelma, standing erect in the porch, beheld him coming, her face grew stern and resolute, and her eyes flashed disdainfully.
Ignoring the repellant, almost defiant dignity of the girl's attitude, Mr. Dyceworthy advanced, rather out of breath and somewhat heated,—and smiling benevolently, nodded his head by way of greeting, without removing his hat.
"Ah, Froeken Thelma!" he observed condescendingly. "And how are you to-day? You look remarkably well—remarkably so, indeed!" And he eyed her with mild approval.
"I am well, I thank you," she returned quietly. "My father is not in, Mr. Dyceworthy."
The Reverend Charles wiped his hot face, and his smile grew wider.
"What matter?" he inquired blandly. "We shall, no doubt, entertain ourselves excellently without him! It is with you alone, Froeken, that I am desirous to hold converse."
And, without waiting for her permission, he entered the porch, and settled himself comfortably on the bench opposite to her, heaving a sigh of relief as he did so. Thelma remained standing—and the Lutheran minister's covetous eye glanced greedily over the sweeping curves of her queenly figure, the dazzling whiteness of her slim arched throat, and the glitter of her rich hair. She was silent—and there was something in her manner as she confronted him that made it difficult for Mr. Dyceworthy to speak. He hummed and hawed several times, and settled his stiff collar once or twice as though it hurt him; finally he said with an evident effort—
"I have found a—a—trinket of yours—a trifling toy—which, perhaps, you would be glad to have again." And he drew carefully out of his waistcoat pocket, a small parcel wrapped up in tissue paper, which he undid with his fat fingers, thus displaying the little crucifix he had kept so long in his possession. "Concerning this," he went on, holding it up before her, "I am grievously troubled,—and would fain say a few necessary words—"
She interrupted him, reaching out her hand for the cross as she spoke.
"That was my mother's crucifix," she said in solemn, infinitely tender accents, with a mist as of unshed tears in her sweet blue eyes. "It was round her neck when she died. I knew I had lost it, and was very unhappy about it. I do thank you with all my heart for bringing it back to me!"
And the hauteur of her face relaxed, and her smile—that sudden sweet smile of hers,—shone forth like a gleam of sunshine athwart a cloud.
Mr. Dyceworthy's breath came and went with curious rapidity. His visage grew pale, and a clammy dew broke out upon his forehead. He took the hand she held out,—a fair, soft hand with a pink palm like an upcurled shell,—and laid the little cross within it, and still retaining his hold of her, he stammeringly observed—
"Then we are friends, Froeken Thelma! . . . good friends, I hope?"
She withdrew her fingers quickly from his hot, moist clasp, and her bright smile vanished.
"I do not see that at all!" she replied frigidly. "Friendship is very rare. To be friends, one must have similar tastes and sympathies,—many things which we have not,—and which we shall never have. I am slow to call any person my friend."
Mr. Dyceworthy's small pursy mouth drew itself into a tight thin line.
"Except," he said, with a suave sneer, "except when 'any person' happens to be a rich Englishman with a handsome face and easy manners! . . . then you are not slow to make friends, Froeken,—on the contrary, you are remarkably quick!"
The cold haughty stare with which the girl favored him might have frozen a less conceited man to a pillar of ice.
"What do you mean?" she asks abruptly, and with an air of surprise.
The minister's little ferret-like eyes, drooped under their puny lids, and he fidgeted on the seat with uncomfortable embarrassment. He answered her in the mildest of mild voices.
"You are unlike yourself, my dear Froeken!" he said, with a soothing gesture of one of his well-trimmed white hands. "You are generally frank and open, but to-day I find you just a little,—well!—what shall I say—secretive! Yes, we will call it secretive! Oh, fie!" and Mr. Dyceworthy laughed a gentle little laugh; "you must not pretend ignorance of what I mean! All the neighborhood is talking of you and the gentleman you are so often seen with. Notably concerning Sir Philip Errington,—the vile tongue of rumor is busy,—for, according to his first plans when his yacht arrived here, he was bound for the North Cape,—and should have gone there days ago. Truly, I think,—and there are others who think also in the same spirit of interest for you,—that the sooner this young man leaves our peaceful Fjord the better,—and the less he has to do with the maidens of the district, the safer we shall be from the risk of scandal." And he heaved a pious sigh.
Thelma turned her eyes upon him in wonderment.
"I do not understand you," she said coldly. "Why do you speak of others? No others are interested in what I do? Why should they be? Why should you be? There is no need!"
Mr. Dyceworthy grew slightly excited. He felt like a runner nearing the winning-post.
"Oh, you wrong yourself, my dear Froeken," he murmured softly, with a sickly attempt at tenderness in his tone. "You really wrong yourself! It is impossible,—for me at least, not to be interested in you,—even for our dear Lord's sake. It troubles me to the inmost depths of my soul to behold in you one of the foolish virgins whose light hath been extinguished for lack of the saving oil,—to see you wandering as a lost sheep in the paths of darkness and error, without a hand to rescue your steps from the near and dreadful precipice! Ay, truly! . . . my spirit yearneth for you as a mother for an own babe—fain would I save you from the devices of the evil one,—fain would I—" here the minister drew out his handkerchief and pressed it lightly to his eyes,—then, as if with an effort overcoming his emotion, he added, with the gravity of a butcher presenting an extortionate bill, "but first,—before my own humble desires for your salvation—first, ere I go further in converse, it behoveth me to enter on the Lord's business!"
Thelma bent her head slightly, with an air as though she said: "Indeed; pray do not be long about it!" And, leaning back against the porch, she waited somewhat impatiently.
"The image I have just restored to you," went on Mr. Dyceworthy in his most pompous and ponderous manner, "you say belonged to your unhappy—"
"She was not unhappy," interposed the girl, calmly.
"Ay, ay!" and the minister nodded with a superior air of wisdom. "So you imagine, so you think,—you must have been too young to judge of these things. She died—"
"I saw her die," again she interrupted, with a musing tenderness in her voice. "She smiled and kissed me,—then she laid her thin, white hand on this crucifix, and, closing her eyes, she went to sleep. They told me it was death, since then I have known that death is beautiful!"
Mr. Dyceworthy coughed,—a little cough of quiet incredulity. He was not fond of sentiment in any form, and the girl's dreamily pensive manner annoyed him. Death "beautiful?" Faugh! it was the one thing of all others that he dreaded; it was an unpleasant necessity, concerning which he thought as little as possible. Though he preached frequently on the peace of the grave and the joys of heaven,—he was far from believing in either,—he was nervously terrified of illness, and fled like a frightened hare from the very rumor of any infectious disorder, and he had never been known to attend a death-bed. And now, in answer to Thelma, he nodded piously and rubbed his hands, and said—
"Yes, yes; no doubt, no doubt! All very proper on your part, I am sure! But concerning this same image of which I came to speak,—it is most imperative that you should be brought to recognize it as a purely carnal object, unfitting a maiden's eyes to rest upon. The true followers of the Gospel are those who strive to forget the sufferings of our dear Lord as much as possible,—or to think of them only in spirit. The minds of sinners, alas! are easily influenced,—and it is both unseemly and dangerous to gaze freely upon the carven semblance of the Lord's limbs! Yea, truly, it hath oft been considered as damnatory to the soul,—more especially in the cases of women immured as nuns, who encourage themselves in an undue familiarity with our Lord, by gazing long and earnestly upon his body nailed to the accursed tree."
Here Mr. Dyceworthy paused for breath. Thelma was silent, but a faint smile gleamed on her face.
"Wherefore," he went on, "I do adjure you, as you desire grace and redemption, to utterly cast from you the vile trinket, I have,—Heaven knows how reluctantly! . . . returned to your keeping,—to trample upon it, and renounce it as a device of Satan. . ." He stopped, surprised and indignant, as she raised the much-abused emblem to her lips and kissed it reverently.
"It is the sign of peace and salvation," she said steadily, "to me, at least. You waste your words, Mr. Dyceworthy; I am a Catholic."
"Oh, say not so!" exclaimed the minister, now thoroughly roused to a pitch of unctuous enthusiasm. "Say not so. Poor child! who knowest not the meaning of the word used. Catholic signifies universal. God forbid a universal Papacy! You are not a Catholic—no! You are a Roman—by which name we understand all that is most loathsome and unpleasing unto God! But I will wrestle for your soul,—yea, night and day will I bend my spiritual sinews to the task,—I will obtain the victory,—I will exorcise the fiend! Alas, alas! you are on the brink of hell—think of it!" and Mr. Dyceworthy stretched out his hand with his favorite pulpit gesture. "Think of the roasting and burning,—the scorching and withering of souls! Imagine, if you can, the hopeless, bitter, eternal damnation," and here he smacked his lips as though he were tasting something excellent,—"from which there is no escape! . . . for which there shall be no remedy!"
"It is a gloomy picture," said Thelma, with a quiet sparkle in her eye. "I am sorry,—for you. But I am happier,—my faith teaches of purgatory—there is always a little hope!"
"There is none! there is none!" exclaimed the minister rising in excitement from his seat, and swaying ponderously to and fro as he gesticulated with hands and head. "You are doomed,—doomed! There is no middle course between hell and heaven. It must be one thing or the other; God deals not in half-measures! Pause, oh pause, ere you decide to fall! Even at the latest hour the Lord desires to save your soul,—the Lord yearns for your redemption, and maketh me to yearn also. Froeken Thelma!" and Mr. Dyceworthy's voice deepened in solemnity, "there is a way which the Lord hath whispered in mine ears,—a way that pointeth to the white robe and the crown of glory,—a way by which you shall possess the inner peace of the heart with bliss on earth as the forerunner of bliss in heaven!"
She looked at him steadfastly. "And that way is—what?" she inquired.
Mr. Dyceworthy hesitated, and wished with all his heart that this girl was not so thoroughly self-possessed. Any sign of timidity in her would have given him an increase of hardihood. But her eyes were coldly brilliant, and glanced him over without the smallest embarrassment. He took refuge in his never-failing remedy, his benevolent smile—a smile that covered a multitude of hypocrisies.
"You ask a plain question, Froeken," he said sweetly, "and I should be loth not to give you a plain answer. That way-that glorious way of salvation for you is—through me!"
And his countenance shone with smug self-satisfaction as he spoke, and he repeated softly, "Yes, yes; that way is through me!"
She moved with a slight gesture of impatience. "It is a pity to talk any more," she said rather wearily. "It is all no use! Why do you wish to change me in my religion? I do not wish to change you. I do not see why we should speak of such things at all."
"Of course!" replied Mr. Dyceworthy blandly. "Of course you do not see. And why? Because you are blind." Here he drew a little nearer to her, and looked covetously at the curve of her full, firm waist.
"Oh, why!" he resumed in a sort of rapture—"why should we say it is a pity to talk any more? Why should we say it is all no use? It is of use,—it is noble, it is edifying to converse of the Lord's good pleasure! And what is His good pleasure at this moment? To unite two souls in His service! Yea, He hath turned my desire towards you, Froeken Thelma,—even as Jacob's desire was towards Rachel! Let me see this hand." He made a furtive grab at the white taper fingers that played listlessly with the jessamine leaves on the porch, but the girl dexterously withdrew them from his clutch and moved a little further back, her face flushing proudly. "Oh, will it not come to me? Cruel hand!" and he rolled his little eyes with an absurdly sentimental air of reproach. "It is shy—it will not clasp the hand of its protector! Do not be afraid, Froeken! . . . I, Charles Dyceworthy, am not the man to trifle with your young affections! Let them rest where they have flown! I accept them! Yea! . . . in spite of wrath and error and moral destitution,—my spirit inclineth towards you,—in the language of carnal men, I love you! More than this, I am willing to take you as my lawful wife—"
He broke off abruptly, somewhat startled at the bitter scorn of the flashing eyes that, like two quivering stars, were blazing upon him. Her voice, clear as a bell ringing in frosty air, cut through the silence like a sweep of a sword-blade.
"How dare you!" she said, with a wrathful thrill in her low, intense tones. "How dare you come here to insult me!"
Insult her! He,—the Reverend Charles Dyceworthy,—considered guilty of insult in offering honorable marriage to a mere farmer's daughter! He could not believe his own ears,—and in his astonishment he looked up at her. Looking, he recoiled and shrank into himself, like a convicted knave before some queenly accuser. The whole form of the girl seemed to dilate with indignation. From her proud mouth, arched like a bow, sprang barbed arrows of scorn that flew straightly and struck home.
"Always I have guessed what you wanted," she went on in that deep, vibrating tone which had such a rich quiver of anger within it; "but I never thought you would—" She paused, and a little disdainful laugh broke from her lips. "You would make me your wife—me? You think me likely to accept such an offer?" And she drew herself up with a superb gesture, and regarded him fixedly.
"Oh, pride, pride!" murmured the unabashed Dyceworthy, recovering from the momentary abasement into which he had been thrown by her look and manner. "How it overcometh our natures and mastereth our spirits! My dear, my dearest Froeken,—I fear you do not understand me! Yet it is natural that you should not; you were not prepared for the offer of my—my affections,"—and he beamed all over with benevolence,—"and I can appreciate a maidenly and becoming coyness, even though it assume the form of a repellant and unreasonable anger. But take courage, my—my dear girl!—our Lord forbid that I should wantonly play with the delicate emotions of your heart! Poor little heart! does it flutter?" and Mr. Dyceworthy leered sweetly. "I will give it time to recover itself! Yes, yes! a little time! and then you will put that pretty hand in mine"—here he drew nearer to her, "and with one kiss we will seal the compact!"
And he attempted to steal his arm round her waist, but the girl sprang back indignantly, and pulling down a thick branch of the clambering prickly roses from the porch, held it in front of her by way of protection. Mr. Dyceworthy laughed indulgently.
"Very pretty—very pretty indeed!" he mildly observed, eyeing her as she stood at bay barricaded by the roses. "Quite a picture! There, there! do not be frightened,—such shyness is very natural! We will embrace in the Lord another day! In the meantime one little word—the word—will suffice me,—yea, even one little smile,—to show me that you understand my words,—that you love me"—here he clasped his plump hands together in flabby ecstasy—"even as you are loved!"
His absurd attitude,—the weak, knock-kneed manner in which his clumsy legs seemed, from the force of sheer sentiment, to bend under his weighty body, and the inanely amatory expression of his puffy countenance, would have excited most women to laughter,—and Thelma was perfectly conscious of his utterly ridiculous appearance, but she was too thoroughly indignant to take the matter in a humorous light.
"Love you!" she exclaimed, with a movement of irrepressible loathing. "You must be mad! I would rather die than marry you!"
Mr. Dyceworthy's face grew livid and his little eyes sparkled vindictively,—but he restrained his inward rage, and merely smiled, rubbing his hands softly one against the other.
"Let us be calm!" he said soothingly. "Whatever we do, let us be calm! Let us not provoke one another to wrath! Above all things, let us, in a spirit of charity and patience, reason out this matter without undue excitement. My ears have most painfully heard your last words, which, taken literally, might mean that you reject my honorable offer. The question is, do they mean this? I cannot,—I will not believe that you would foolishly stand in the way of your own salvation,"—and he shook his head with doleful gentleness. "Moreover, Froeken Thelma, though it sorely distresses me to speak of it,—it is my duty, as a minister of the Lord, to remind you that an honest marriage,—a marriage of virtue and respectability such as I propose, is the only way to restore your reputation,—which, alas! is sorely damaged, and—"
Mr. Dyceworthy stopped abruptly, a little alarmed, as she suddenly cast aside the barrier of roses and advanced toward him, her blue eyes blazing.
"My reputation!" she said haughtily. "Who speaks of it?"
"Oh dear, dear me!" moaned the minister pathetically. "Sad! . . . very sad to see so ungovernable a temper, so wild and untrained a disposition! Alas, alas! how frail we are without the Lord's support,—without the strong staff of the Lord's mercy to lean upon! Not I, my poor child, not I, but the whole village speaks of you; to you the ignorant people attribute all the sundry evils that of late have fallen sorely upon them,—bad harvests, ill-luck with the fishing, poverty, sickness,"—here Mr. Dyceworthy pressed the tips of his fingers delicately together, and looked at her with a benevolent compassion,—"and they call it witchcraft,—yes! strange, very strange! But so it is,—ignorant as they are, such ignorance is not easily enlightened,—and though I," he sighed, "have done my poor best to disabuse their minds of the suspicions against you, I find it is a matter in which I, though a humble mouthpiece of the Gospel, am powerless—quite powerless!"
She relaxed her defiant attitude, and moved away from him; the shadow of a smile was on her lips.
"It is not my fault if the people are foolish," she said coldly; "I have never done harm to any one that I know of." And turning abruptly, she seemed about to enter the house, but the minister dexterously placed himself in her way, and barred her passage.
"Stay, oh, stay!" he exclaimed with unctuous fervor. "Pause, unfortunate girl, ere you reject the strong shield and buckler that the Lord has, in His great mercy, offered you, in my person! For I must warn you,—Froeken Thelma, I must warn you seriously of the danger you run! I will not pain you by referring to the grave charges brought against your father, who is, alas! in spite of my spiritual wrestling with the Lord for his sake, still no better than a heathen savage; no! I will say nothing of this. But what,—what shall I say,"—here he lowered his voice to a tone of mysterious and weighty reproach,—"what shall I say of your most unseemly and indiscreet companionship with these worldly young men who are visiting the Fjord for their idle pastime? Ah dear, dear! This is indeed a heavy scandal and a sore burden to my soul,—for up to this time I have, in spite of many faults in your disposition, considered you were at least of a most maidenly and decorous deportment,—but now—now! to think that you should, of your own free will and choice, consent to be the plaything of this idle stroller from the wicked haunts of fashion,—the hour's toy of this Sir Philip Errington! Froeken Thelma, I would never have believed it of you!" And he drew himself up with ponderous and sorrowful dignity.
A burning blush had covered Thelma's face at the mention of Errington's name, but it soon faded, leaving her very pale. She changed her position so that she confronted Mr. Dyceworthy,—her clear blue eyes regarded him steadfastly.
"Is this what is said of me?" she asked calmly.
"It is,—it is, most unfortunately!" returned the minister, shaking his bullet-like head a great many times; then, with a sort of elephantine cheerfulness, he added, "but what matter? There is time to remedy these things. I am willing to set myself as a strong barrier against the evil noises of rumor! Am I selfish or ungenerous? The Lord forbid it! No matter how I am compromised, no matter how I am misjudged,—I am still willing to take you as my lawful wife Froeken Thelma,—but," and here he shook his forefinger at her with a pretended playfulness, "I will permit no more converse with Sir Philip Errington; no, no! I cannot allow it! . . . I cannot, indeed!"
She still looked straight at him,—her bosom rose and fell rapidly with her passionate breath, and there was such an eloquent breath of scorn in her face that he winced under it as though struck by a sharp scourge.
"You are not worth my anger!" she said slowly, this time without a tremor in her rich voice. "One must have something to be angry with, and you—you are nothing! Neither man nor beast,—for men are brave, and beasts tell no lies! Your wife! I!" and she laughed aloud,—then with a gesture of command, "Go!" she exclaimed, "and never let me see your face again!"
The clear scornful laughter,—the air of absolute authority with which she spoke,—would have stung the most self-opinionated of men, even though his conscience were enveloped in a moral leather casing of hypocrisy and arrogance. And, notwithstanding his invariable air of mildness, Mr. Dyceworthy had a temper. That temper rose to a white heat just now,—every drop of blood receded from his countenance,—and his soft hands clenched themselves in a particularly ugly and threatening manner. Yet he managed to preserve his suave composure.
"Alas, alas!" he murmured. "How sorely my soul is afflicted to see you thus, Froeken! I am amazed—I am distressed! Such language from your lips! oh fie, fie! And has it come to this! And must I resign the hope I had of saving your poor soul? and must I withdraw my spiritual protection from you?" This he asked with a suggestive sneer of his prim mouth,—and then continued, "I must—alas, I must! My conscience will not permit me to do more than pray for you! And as is my duty, I shall, in a spirit of forbearance and charity, speak warningly to Sir Philip concerning—"
But Thelma did not permit him to finish his sentence. She sprang forward like a young leopardess, and with a magnificent outward sweep of her arm motioned him down the garden path.
"Out of my sight,—coward!" she cried, and then stood waiting for him to obey her, her whole frame vibrating with indignation like a harp struck too roughly. She looked so terribly beautiful, and there was such a suggestive power in that extended bare white arm of hers, that the minister, though quaking from head to heel with disappointment and resentment, judged it prudent to leave her.
"Certainly, I will take my departure, Froeken!" he said meekly, while his teeth glimmered wolfishly through his pale lips, in a snarl more than a smile. "It is best you should be alone to recover yourself—from this—this undue excitement! I shall not repeat my—my—offer; but I am sure your good sense will—in time—show you how very unjust and hasty you have been in this matter—and—and you will be sorry! Yes, indeed! I am quite sure you will be sorry! I wish you good day, Froeken Thelma!"
She made him no reply, and he turned from the house and left her, strolling down the flower-bordered path as though he were in the best of all possible moods with himself and the universe. But, in truth, he muttered a heavy oath under his breath—an oath that was by no means in keeping with his godly and peaceful disposition. Once, as he walked, he looked back,—and saw the woman he coveted now more than ever, standing erect in the porch, tall, fair and loyal in her attitude, looking like some proud empress who had just dismissed an unworthy vassal. A farmer's daughter! and she had refused Mr. Dyceworthy with disdain! He had much ado to prevent himself shaking his fist at her!
"The lofty shall be laid low, and the stiff-necked shall be humbled," he thought, as with a vicious switch of his stick he struck off a fragrant head of purple clover. "Conceited fool of a girl! Hopes to be 'my lady' does she? She had better take care!"
Here he stopped abruptly in his walk as if a thought had struck him,—a malignant joy sparkled in his eyes, and he flourished his stick triumphantly in the air. "I'll have her yet!" he exclaimed half-aloud. "I'll set Lovisa on her!" And his countenance cleared; he quickened his pace like a man having some pressing business to fulfill, and was soon in his boat, rowing towards Bosekop with unaccustomed speed and energy.
Meanwhile Thelma stood motionless where he had left her,—she watched the retreating form of her portly suitor till he had altogether disappeared,—then she pressed one hand on her bosom, sighed, and laughed a little. Glancing at the crucifix so lately restored to her, she touched it with her lips and fastened it to a small silver chain she wore, and then a shadow swept over her fair face that made it strangely sad and weary. Her lips quivered pathetically; she shaded her eyes with her curved fingers as though the sunlight hurt her,—then with faltering steps she turned away from the warm stretch of garden, brilliant with blossom, and entered the house. There was a sense of outrage and insult upon her, and though in her soul she treated Mr. Dyceworthy's observations with the contempt they deserved, his coarse allusion to Sir Philip Errington had wounded her more than she cared to admit to herself. Once in the quiet sitting-room, she threw herself on her knees by her father's arm-chair, and laying her proud little golden head down on her folded arms, she broke into a passion of silent tears.
Who shall unravel the mystery of a woman's weeping? Who shall declare whether it is a pain or a relief to the overcharged heart? The dignity of a crowned queen is capable of utterly dissolving and disappearing in a shower of tears, when Love's burning finger touches the pulse and marks its slow or rapid beatings. And Thelma wept as many of her sex weep, without knowing why, save that all suddenly she felt herself most lonely and forlorn like Sainte Beuve's—
"Colombe gemissante, Qui demande par pitie Sa moitie, Sa moitie loin d'elle absente!"
"A wicked will, A woman's will; a cankered grandame's will!" King John.
And Lorimer, after uttering this unmeaning exclamation, was silent out of sheer dismay. He stood hesitating and looking in at the door of the Gueldmar's sitting-room, and the alarming spectacle he saw was the queenly Thelma down on the floor in an attitude of grief,—Thelma giving way to little smothered sobs of distress,—Thelma actually crying! He drew a long breath and stared, utterly bewildered. It was a sight for which he was unprepared,—he was not accustomed to women's tears. What should he do? Should he cough gently to attract her attention, or should he retire on tip-toe and leave her to indulge her grief as long as she would, without making any attempt to console her? The latter course seemed almost brutal, yet he was nearly deciding upon it, when a slight creak of the door against which he leaned, caused her to look up suddenly. Seeing him, she rose quickly from her desponding position and faced him, her cheeks somewhat deeply flushed and her eyes glittering feverishly.
"Mr. Lorimer!" she exclaimed, forcing a faint smile to her quivering lips. "You here? Why, where are the others?"
"They are coming on after me," replied Lorimer, advancing into the room, and diplomatically ignoring the girl's efforts to hide the tears that still threatened to have their way. "But I was sent in advance to tell you not to be frightened. There has been a slight accident—"
She grew very pale. "Is it my father?" she asked tremblingly. "Sir Philip—"
"No, no!" answered Lorimer reassuringly. "It is nothing serious, really, upon my honor! Your father's all right,—so is Phil,—our lively friend Pierre is the victim. The fact is, we've had some trouble with Sigurd. I can't think what has come to the boy! He was as amiable as possible when we started, but after we had climbed about half-way up the mountain, he took it into his head to throw stones about rather recklessly. It was only fun, he said. Your father tried to make him leave off, but he was obstinate. At last, in a particularly bright access of playfulness, he got hold of a large flint, and nearly put Phil's eye out with it,—Phil dodged it, and it flew straight at Duprez, splitting open his cheek in rather an unbecoming fashion—Don't look so horrified, Miss Gueldmar,—it is really nothing!"
"Oh, but indeed it is something!" she said, with true womanly anxiety in her voice. "Poor fellow! I am so sorry! Is he much hurt? Does he suffer?"
"Pierre? Oh, no, not a bit of it! He's as jolly as possible! We bandaged him up in a very artistic fashion; he looks quite interesting, I assure you. His beauty's spoilt for a time, that's all. Phil thought you might be alarmed when you saw us bringing home the wounded,—that is why I came on to tell you all about it."
"But what can be the matter with Sigurd?" asked the girl, raising her hand furtively to dash off a few tear-drops that still hung on her long lashes. "And where is he?"
"Ah, that I can't tell you!" answered Lorimer. "He is perfectly incomprehensible to-day. As soon as he saw the blood flowing from Duprez's cheek, he tittered a howl as if some one had shot him, and away he rushed into the woods as fast as he could go. We called him, and shouted his name till we were hoarse,—all no use! He wouldn't come back. I suppose he'll find his way home by himself?"
"Oh, yes," said Thelma gravely. "But when he comes I will scold him very much! It is not like him to be so wild and cruel. He will understand me when I tell him how wrong he has been."
"Oh, don't break his heart, poor little chap!" said Lorimer easily. "Your father has given him a terrible scolding already. He hasn't got his wits about him you know,—he can't help being queer sometimes. But what have you been doing with yourself during our absence?" And he regarded her with friendly scrutiny. "You were crying when I came in. Now, weren't you?"
She met his gaze quite frankly. "Yes!" she replied, with a plaintive thrill in her voice. "I could not help it! My heart ached and the tears came. Somehow I felt that everything was wrong,—and that it was all my fault—"
"Your fault!" murmured Lorimer, astonished. "My dear Miss Gueldmar, what do you mean? What is your fault?"
"Everything!" she answered sadly, with a deep sigh. "I am very foolish; and I am sure I often do wrong without meaning it. Mr. Dyceworthy has been here and—" she stopped abruptly, and a wave of color flushed her face.
Lorimer laughed lightly. "Dyceworthy!" he exclaimed. "The mystery is explained! You have been bored by 'the good religious,' as Pierre calls him. You know what boring means now, Miss Gueldmar, don't you?" She smiled slightly, and nodded. "The first time you visited the Eulalie, you didn't understand the word, I remember,—ah!" and he shook his head—"if you were in London society, you'd find that expression very convenient,—it would come to your lips pretty frequently, I can tell you!"
"I shall never see London," she said, with a sort of resigned air. "You will all go away very soon, and I—I shall be lonely—"
She bit her lips in quick vexation, as her blue eyes filled again with tears in spite of herself.
Lorimer turned away and pulled a chair to the open window.
"Come and sit down here," he said invitingly. "We shall be able to see the others coming down the hill. Nothing like fresh air for blowing away the blues." Then, as she obeyed him, he added, "What has Dyceworthy been saying to you?"
"He told me I was wicked," she murmured; "and that all the people here think very badly of me. But that was not the worst"—and a little shudder passed over her—"there was something else—something that made me very angry—so angry!"—and here she raised her eyes with a gravely penitent air—"Mr. Lorimer, I do not think I have ever had so bad and fierce a temper before!"
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Lorimer, with a broad smile. "You alarm me, Miss Gueldmar! I had no idea you were a 'bad, fierce' person,—I shall get afraid of you—I shall, really!"
"Ah, you laugh!" and she spoke half-reproachfully. "You will not be serious for one little moment!"
"Yes I will! Now look at me," and he assumed a solemn expression, and drew himself up with an air of dignity. "I am all attention! Consider me your father-confessor. Miss Gueldmar, and explain the reason of this 'bad, fierce' temper of yours."
She peeped at him shyly from under her silken lashes.
"It is more dreadful than you think," she answered in a low tone. "Mr. Dyceworthy asked me to marry him."
Lorimer's keen eyes flashed with indignation. This was beyond a jest,—and he clenched his fist as he exclaimed—
"Impudent donkey! What a jolly good thrashing he deserves! . . . and I shouldn't be surprised if he got it one of these days! And so, Miss Gueldmar,"—and he studied her face with some solicitude—"you were very angry with him?"
"Oh yes!" she replied, "but when I told him he was a coward, and that he must go away, he said some very cruel things—" she stopped, and blushed deeply; then, as if seized by some sudden impulse, she laid her small hand on Lorimer's and said in the tone of an appealing child, "you are very good and kind to me, and you are clever,—you know so much more than I do! You must help me,—you will tell me, will you not? . . . if it is wrong of me to like you all,—it is as if we had known each other a long time and I have been very happy with you and your friends. But you must teach me to behave like the girls you have seen in London,—for I could not bear that Sir Philip should think me wicked!"
"Wicked!" and Lorimer drew a long breath. "Good heavens! If you knew what Phil's ideas about you are, Miss Gueldmar—"
"I do not wish to know," interrupted Thelma steadily. "You must quite understand me,—I am not clever to hide my thoughts, and—and—, you are glad when you talk sometimes to Sir Philip, are you not?" He nodded, gravely studying every light and shadow on the fair, upturned, innocent face.
"Yes!" she continued with some eagerness, "I see you are! Well, it is the same with me,—I do love to hear him speak! You know how his voice is like music, and how his kind ways warm the heart,—it is pleasant to be in his company—I am sure you also find it so! But for me,—it seems it is wrong,—it is not wise for me to show when I am happy. I do not care what other people say,—but I would not have him think ill of me for all the world!"
Lorimer took her hand and held it in his with a most tender loyalty and respect. Her naive, simple words had, all unconsciously to herself, laid bare the secret of her soul to his eyes,—and though his heart beat with a strange sickening sense of unrest that flavored of despair, a gentle reverence filled him, such as a man might feel if some little snow-white shrine, sacred to purity and peace, should be suddenly unveiled before him.
"My dear Miss Gueldmar," he said earnestly, "I assure you, you have no cause to be uneasy! You must not believe a word Dyceworthy says—every one with a grain of common sense can see what a liar and hypocrite he is! And as for you, you never do anything wrong,—don't imagine such nonsense! I wish there were more women like you!"
"Ah, that is very kind of you!" half laughed the girl, still allowing her hand to rest in his. "But I do not think everybody would have such a good opinion." They both started, and their hands fell asunder as a shadow darkened the room, and Sir Philip stood before them.
"Excuse me!" he said stiffly, lifting his hat with ceremonious politeness. "I ought to have knocked at the door—I—"
"Why?" asked Thelma, raising her eyebrows in surprise.
"Yes—why indeed?" echoed Lorimer, with a frank look at his friend.
"I am afraid,"—and for once the generally good-humored Errington looked positively petulant—"I am afraid I interrupted a pleasant conversation!" And he gave a little forced laugh of feigned amusement, but evident vexation.
"And if it was pleasant, shall you not make it still more so?" asked Thelma, with timid and bewitching sweetness, though her heart beat very fast,—she was anxious. Why was Sir Philip so cold and distant? He looked at her, and his pent-up passion leaped to his eyes and filled them with a glowing and fiery tenderness,—her head drooped suddenly, and she turned quickly, to avoid that searching, longing gaze. Lorimer glanced from one to the other with, a slight feeling of amusement.
"Well Phil," he inquired lazily, "how did you get here so soon? You must have glided into the garden like a ghost, for I never heard you coming."
"So I imagine!" retorted Errington, with, an effort to be sarcastic, in which he utterly failed as he met his friend's eyes,—then after a slight and somewhat embarrassed pause he added more mildly! "Duprez cannot get on very fast,—his wound still bleeds, and he feels rather faint now and then. I don't think we bandaged him up properly, and I came on to see if Britta could prepare something for him."
"But you will not need to ask Britta," said Thelma quietly, with a pretty air of authority, "for I shall myself do all for Mr. Duprez. I understand well how to cure his wound, and I do think he will like me as well as Britta." And, hearing footsteps approaching, she looked out at the window. "Here they come!" she exclaimed. "Ah, poor Monsieur Pierre! he does look very pale! I will go and meet them."
And she hurried from the room, leaving the two young men together. Errington threw himself into Olaf Gueldmar's great arm-chair, with a slight sigh.
"Well?" said Lorimer inquiringly.
"Well!" he returned somewhat gruffly.
Lorimer laughed, and crossing the room, approached him and clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"Look here, old man!" he said earnestly, "don't be a fool! I know that 'love maketh men mad,' but I never supposed the lunacy would lead you to the undesirable point of distrusting your friend,—your true friend, Phil,—by all the Gods of the past and present!"
And he laughed again,—a little huskily this time, for there was a sudden unaccountable and unwished-for lump in his throat, and a moisture in his eyes which he had not bargained for. Philip looked up,—and silently held out his hand, which Lorimer as silently clasped. There was a moment's hesitation, and then the young baronet spoke out manfully.
"I'm ashamed of myself, George! I really am! But I tell you, when I came in and saw you two standing there,—you've no idea what a picture you made! . . . by Jove! . . . I was furious!" And he smiled. "I suppose I was jealous!"
"I suppose you were!" returned Lorimer amusedly.
"Novel sensation, isn't it? A sort of hot, prickly, 'have-at-thee-villain' sort of thing; must be frightfully exhausting! But why you should indulge this emotion at my expense is what I cannot, for the life of me, understand!"
"Well," murmured Errington, rather abashed, "you see, her hands were in yours—"
"As they will be again, and yet again, I trust!" said Lorimer with cheery fervor. "Surely you'll allow me to shake hands with your wife?"
"I say, George, be quiet!" exclaimed Philip warningly, as at that moment Thelma passed the window with Pierre Duprez leaning on her arm, and her father and Macfarlane following.
She entered the room with the stately step of a young queen,—her tall, beautiful figure forming a strong contrast to that of the narrow-shouldered little Frenchman, upon whom she smiled down with an air of almost maternal protection.
"You will sit here, Monsieur Duprez," she said, leading him to the bonde's arm-chair which Errington instantly vacated, "and father will bring you a good glass of wine. And the pain will be nothing when I have attended to that cruel wound. But I am so sorry,—so very sorry, to see you suffer!"
Pierre did indeed present rather a dismal spectacle. There was a severe cut on his forehead as well as his cheek; his face was pale and streaked with blood, while the hastily-improvised bandages which were tied under his chin, by no means improved his personal appearance. His head ached with the pain, and his eyes smarted with the strong sunlight to which he had been exposed all the day, but his natural gaiety was undiminished, and he laughed as he answered—
"Chere Mademoiselle, you are too good to me! It is a piece of good fortune that Sigurd threw that stone—yes! since it brings me your pity! But do not trouble; a little cold water and a fresh handkerchief is all I need."
But Thelma was already practicing her own simple surgery for his benefit. With deft, soft fingers she laid bare the throbbing wound,—washed and dressed it carefully and skillfully,—and used with all such exceeding gentleness, that Duprez closed his eyes in a sort of rapture during the operation, and wished it could last longer. Then taking the glass of wine her father brought in obedience to her order, she said in a tone of mild authority—
"Now, you will drink this Monsieur Pierre, and you will rest quite still till it is time to go back to the yacht; and to-morrow you will not feel any pain, I am sure. And I do think it will not be an ugly scar for long."
"If it is," answered Pierre, "I shall say I received it in a duel! Then I shall be great—glorious! and all the pretty ladies will love me!"
She laughed,—but looked grave a moment afterwards.
"You must never say what is not true," she said. "It is wrong to deceive any one,—even in a small matter."
Duprez gazed up at her wonderingly, feeling very much like a chidden child.
"Never say what is not true!" he thought. "Mon Dieu! what would become of my life?"
It was a new suggestion, and he reflected upon it with astonishment. It opened such a wide vista of impossibilities to his mind.
Meanwhile old Gueldmar was engaged in pouring out wine for the other young men, talking all the time.
"I tell thee, Thelma mine," he said seriously, "something must be very wrong with our Sigurd. The poor lad has always been gentle and tractable, but to-day he was like some wild animal for mischief and hardihood. I grieve to see it! I fear the time may come when he may no longer be a safe servant for thee, child!"
"Oh, father!"—and the girl's voice was full of tender anxiety—"surely not! He is too fond of us to do us any harm—he is so docile and affectionate!"
"Maybe, maybe!" and the old farmer shook his head doubtfully. "But when the wits are away the brain is like a ship without ballast—there is no safe sailing possible. He would not mean any harm, perhaps,—and yet in his wild moods he might do it, and be sorry for it directly afterwards. 'Tis little use to cry when the mischief is done,—and I confess I do not like his present humor."
"By-the-by," observed Lorimer, "that reminds me! Sigurd has taken an uncommonly strong aversion to Phil. It's curious but it's a fact. Perhaps it is that which upsets his nerves?"
"I have noticed it myself," said Errington, "and I'm sorry for it, for I've done him no harm that I can remember. He certainly asked me to go away from the Altenfjord, and I refused,—I'd no idea he had any serious meaning in his request. But it's evident he can't endure my company."
"Ah, then!" said Thelma simply and sorrowfully, "he must be very ill,—because it is natural for every one to like you."
She spoke in perfect good faith and innocence of heart; but Errington's eyes flashed and he smiled—one of those rare, tender smiles of his which brightened his whole visage.
"You are very kind to say so, Miss Gueldmar!"
"It is not kindness; it is the truth!" she replied frankly.
At that moment a very rosy face and two sparkling eyes peered in at the door.
"Yes, Britta!" Thelma smiled; "we are quite ready!"
Whereupon the face disappeared, and Olaf Gueldmar led the way into the kitchen, which was at the same time the dining-room, and where a substantial supper was spread on the polished pine table.
The farmer's great arm-chair was brought in for Duprez, who, though he declared he was being spoilt by too much attention, seemed to enjoy it immensely,—and they were all, including Britta, soon clustered round the hospitable board whereon antique silver and quaint glasses of foreign make sparkled bravely, their effect enhanced by the snowy whiteness of the homespun table-linen.
A few minutes set them all talking gaily. Macfarlane vied with the ever-gallant Duprez in making a few compliments to Britta, who was pretty and engaging enough to merit attention, and who, after all, was something more than a mere servant, possessing, as she did, a great deal of her young mistress's affection and confidence, and being always treated by Gueldmar himself as one of the family. There was no reserve or coldness in the party, and the hum of their merry voices echoed up to the cross-rafters of the stout wooden ceiling and through the open door and window, from whence a patch of the gorgeous afternoon sky could be seen, glimmering redly, like a distant lake of fire. They were in the full enjoyment of their repast, and the old farmer's rollicking "Ha, ha, ha!" in response to a joke of Lorimer's, had just echoed jovially through the room, when a strong, harsh voice called aloud—"Olaf Gueldmar!"
There was a sudden silence. Each one looked at the other in surprise. Again the voice called—"Olaf Gueldmar!"
"Well!" roared the bonde testily, turning sharply round in his chair, "who calls me?"
"I do!" and the tall, emaciated figure of a woman advanced and stood on the threshold, without actually entering the room. She dropped the black shawl that enveloped her, and, in so doing, disordered her hair, which fell in white, straggling locks about her withered features, and her dark eyes gleamed maliciously as she fixed them on the assembled party. Britta, on perceiving her, uttered a faint shriek, and without considering the propriety of her action, buried her nut-brown curls and sparkling eyes in Duprez's coat-sleeve, which, to do the Frenchman justice, was exceedingly prompt to receive and shelter its fair burden. The bonde rose from his chair, and his face grew stern.
"What do you here, Lovisa Elsland? Have you walked thus far from Talvig to pay a visit that must needs be unwelcome?"
"Unwelcome I know I am," replied Lovisa, disdainfully noting the terror of Britta and the astonished glances if Errington and his friends—"unwelcome at all times,—but most unwelcome at the hour of feasting ad folly,—for who can endure to receive a message from the Lord when the mouth is full of savory morsels, and the brain reels with the wicked wine? Yet I have come in spite of your iniquities. Olaf Gueldmar,—strong in the strength of the Lord, I dare to set foot upon your accursed threshold, and once more make my just demand. Give me back the child of my dead daughter! . . . restore to me the erring creature who should be the prop of my defenceless age, had not your pagan spells alienated her from me,—release her,—and bid her return with me to my desolate hearth and home. This done,—I will stay the tempest that threatens your habitation—I will hold back the dark cloud of destruction—I will avert the wrath of the Lord,—yes! for the sake of the past—for the sake of the past!"
These last words she muttered in a low tone, more to herself than to Gueldmar; and, having spoken, she averted her eyes from the company, drew her shawl closely about her, and waited for an answer.
"By all the gods of my fathers!" shouted the bonde in a towering passion. "This passes my utmost endurance! Have I not told thee again and again, thou silly soul! . . . that thy grandchild is no slave? She is free—free to return to thee an' she will; free also to stay with us, where she has found a happier home than thy miserable hut at Talvig. Britta!" and he thumped his fist on the table. "Look up, child! Speak for thyself! Thou hast a spirit of thine own. Here is thy one earthly relation. Wilt go with her? Neither thy mistress nor I will stand in the way of thy pleasure."
Thus adjured Britta looked up so suddenly that Duprez,—who had rather enjoyed the feel of her little nestling head hidden upon his arm,—was quite startled, and he was still more so at the utter defiance that flashed into the small maiden's round, rosy face.
"Go with you!" she cried shrilly, addressing the old woman, who remained standing in the same attitude, with an air of perfect composure. "Do you think I have forgotten how you treated my mother, or how you used to beat me and starve me? You wicked old woman! How dare you come here? I'm ashamed of you! You frightened my mother to death—you know you did! . . . and now you want to do the same to me! But you won't—I can tell you! I'm old enough to do as I like, and I'd rather die than live with you!"
Then, overcome by excitement and temper, she burst out crying, heedless of Pierre Duprez's smiling nods of approval, and the admiring remarks he was making under his breath, such as—"Brava, ma petite! C'est bien fait! c'est joliment bien dit! Mais je crois bien!"
Lovisa seemed unmoved; she raised her head and looked, at Gueldmar.
"Is this your answer?" she demanded.
"By the sword of Odin!" cried the bonde, "the woman must be mad! my answer? The girl has spoken for herself,—and plainly enough too! Art thou deaf, Lovisa Elsland? or are thy wits astray?"
"My hearing is very good," replied Lovisa calmly, "and my mind, Olaf Gueldmar, is as clear as yours. And, thanks to your teaching in mine early days,"—she paused and looked keenly at him, but he appeared to see no meaning in her allusion,—"I know the English tongue, of which we hear far too much,—too often! There is nothing Britta has said that I do not understand. But I know well it is not the girl herself that speaks—it is a demon in her,—and that demon shall be cast forth before I die! Yea, with the help of the Lord I shall—" She stopped abruptly and fixed her eyes, glowing with fierce wrath, on Thelma. The girl met her evil glance with a gentle surprise. Lovisa smiled malignantly.
"You know me, I think!" said Lovisa. "You have seen me before?"
"Often," answered Thelma mildly. "I have always been sorry for you."
"Sorry for me!" almost yelled the old woman. "Why—why are you sorry for me?"
"Do not answer her, child!" interrupted Gueldmar angrily. "She is mad as the winds of a wild winter, and will but vex thee."
But Thelma laid her hand soothingly on her father's, and smiled peacefully as she turned her fair face again towards Lovisa.
"Why?" she said. "Because you seem so very lonely and sad—and that must make you cross with every one who is happy! And it is a pity, I think, that you do not let Britta alone—you only quarrel with each other when you meet. And would you not like her to think kindly of you when you are dead?"
Lovisa seemed choking with anger,—her face worked into such hideous grimaces, that all present, save Thelma, were dismayed at her repulsive aspect.
"When I am dead!" she muttered hoarsely. "So you count upon that already, do you? Ah! . . . but do you know which of us shall die first!" Then raising her voice with an effort she exclaimed—
"Stand forth, Thelma Gueldmar! Let me see you closely—face to face!"
Errington said something in a low tone, and the bonde would have again interfered, but Thelma shook her head, smiled and rose from her seat at table.
"Anything to soothe her, poor soul!" she whispered, as she left Errington's side and advanced towards Lovisa till she was within reach of the old woman's hand. She looked like some grand white angel, who had stepped down from a cathedral altar, as she stood erect and stately with a gravely pitying expression in her lovely eyes, confronting the sable-draped, withered, leering hag, who fixed upon her a steady look of the most cruel and pitiless hatred.
"Daughter of Satan!" said Lovisa then, in intense piercing tones that somehow carried with them a sense of awe and horror. "Creature, in whose veins the fire of hell burns without ceasing,—my curse upon you! My curse upon the beauty of your body—may it grow loathsome in the sight of all men! May those who embrace you, embrace misfortune and ruin!—may love betray you and forsake you! May your heart be broken even as mine has been!—may your bridal bed be left deserted!—may your children wither and pine from their hour of birth! Sorrow track you to the grave!—may your death be lingering and horrible! God be my witness and fulfill my words!"
And, raising her arms with wild gesture, she turned and left the house. The spell of stupefied silence was broken with her disappearance. Old Gueldmar prepared to rush after her and force her to retract her evil speech,—Errington was furious, and Britta cried bitterly. The lazy Lorimer was excited and annoyed.
"Fetch her back," he said, "and I'll dance upon her!"
But Thelma stood where the old woman had left her—she smiled faintly, but she was very pale. Errington approached her,—she turned to him and stretched out her hands with a little appealing gesture.
"My friend," she said softly, "do you think I deserve so many curses? Is there something about me that is evil?"
What Errington would have answered is doubtful,—his heart beat wildly—he longed to draw those little hands in his own, and cover them with passionate kisses,—but he was intercepted by old Gueldmar, who caught his daughter in his arms and hugged her closely, his silvery beard mingling with the gold of her rippling hair.
"Never fear a wicked tongue, my bird!" said the old man fondly. "There is naught of harm that would touch thee either on earth or in heaven,—and a foul-mouthed curse must roll off thy soul like water from a dove's wing! Cheer thee, my darling—cheer thee! What! Thine own creed teaches thee that the gentle Mother of Christ, with her little white angels round her, watches over all innocent maids,—and thinkest thou she will let an old woman's malice and envy blight thy young days? No, no! Thou accursed?" And the bonde laughed loudly to hide the tears that moistened his keen eyes. "Thou art the sweetest blessing of my heart, even as thy mother was before thee! Come, come! Raise thy pretty head—here are these merry lads growing long-faced,—and Britta is weeping enough salt water to fill a bucket! One of thy smiles will set us all right again,—ay, there now!"—as she looked up and, meeting Philip's eloquent eyes, blushed, and withdrew herself gently from her father's arms,—"Let us finish our supper and think no more of yonder villainous old hag—she is crazy, I believe, and knows not what she says half her time. Now, Britta, cease thy grunting and sighing—'twill spoil thy face and will not mend the hole in thy grandmother's brain!"
"Wicked, spiteful, ugly old thing!" sobbed Britta; "I'll never, never, never forgive her!" Then, running to Thelma, she caught her hand and kissed it affectionately. "Oh, my dear, my dear! To think she should have cursed you, what dreadful, dreadful wickedness! Oh!" and Britta looked volumes of wrath. "I could have beaten her black and blue!"
Her vicious eagerness was almost comic—every one laughed, including Thelma, though she pressed the hand of her little servant very warmly.
"Oh fie!" said Lorimer seriously. "Little girls mustn't whip their grandmothers; it's specially forbidden in the Prayer-book, isn't it, Phil?"
"I'm sure I don't know!" replied Errington merrily. "I believe there is something to the effect that a man may not marry his grandmother—perhaps that is what you mean?"
"Ah, no doubt!" murmured Lorimer languidly, as, with the others, he resumed his seat at the supper-table. "I knew there was a special mandate respecting one's particularly venerable relations, with a view to self-guidance in case they should prove troublesome, like Britta's good grand-mamma. What a frightfully picturesque mouthing old lady she is!"
"She is la petroleuse of Norway!" exclaimed Duprez. "She would make an admirable dancer in the Carmagnole!"
Macfarlane, who had preserved a discreet silence throughout the whole scene, here looked up.
"She's just a screech-owl o' mistaken piety," he said. "She minds me o' a glowerin' auld warlock of an aunt o' mine in Glasgie, wha sits in her chair a' day wi' ae finger on the Bible. She says she's gaun straight to heaven by special invitation o' the Lord, leavin' a' her blood relations howlin' vainly after her from their roastin' fires down below. Ma certes! she'll give ye a good rousin' curse if ye like! She's cursed me ever since I can remember her,—cursed me in and out from sunrise to sunset,—but I'm no the worse for't as yet,—an' it's dootful whether she's any the better."
"And yet Lovisa Elsland used to be as merry and lissom a lass as ever stepped," said Gueldmar musingly. "I remember her well when both she and I were young. I was always on the sea at that time,—never happy unless the waves tossed me and my vessel from one shore to another. I suppose the restless spirit of my fathers was in me. I was never contented unless I saw some new coast every six months or so. Well! . . . Lovisa was always foremost among the girls of the village who watched me leave the Fjord,—and however long or short a time I might be absent, she was certain to be on the shore when my ship came sailing home again. Many a joke I have cracked with her and her companions—and she was a bonnie enough creature to look at then, I tell you,—though now she is like a battered figure-head on a wreck. Her marriage, spoiled her temper,—her husband was as dark and sour a man as could be met with in all Norway, and when he and his fishing-boat sank in a squall off the Lofoden Islands, I doubt if she shed many tears for his loss. Her only daughter's husband went down in the same storm,—and he but three months wedded,—and the girl,—Britta's mother,—pined and pined, and even when her child was born took no sort of comfort in it. She died four years after Britta's birth—her death was hastened, so I have heard, through old Lovisa's harsh treatment,—anyhow the little lass she left behind her had no very easy time of it all alone with her grandmother,—eh Britta?"
Britta looked up and shook her head emphatically.
"Then," went on Gueldmar, "when my girl came back the last time from France, Britta chanced to see her, and, strangely enough,"—here he winked shrewdly—"took a fancy to her face,—odd, wasn't it? However, nothing would suit her but that she must be Thelma's handmaiden, and here she is. Now you know her history,—she would be happy enough if her grandmother would let her alone; but the silly old woman thinks the girl is under a spell, and that Thelma is the witch that works it;"—and the old farmer laughed. "There's a grain of truth in the notion too, but not in the way she has of looking at it."
"All women are witches!" said Duprez. "Britta is a little witch herself!"
Britta's rosy cheeks grew rosier at this, and she tossed her chestnut curls with an air of saucy defiance that delighted the Frenchman. He forgot his wounded cheek and his disfiguring bandages in the contemplation of the little plump figure, cased in its close-fitting scarlet bodice, and the tempting rosy lips that were in such close proximity to his touch.
"If it were not for those red hands!" he thought. "Dieu! what a charming child she would be! One would instantly kill the grandmother and kiss the granddaughter!"
And he watched her with admiration as she busied herself about the supper-table, attending to every one with diligence and care, but reserving her special services for Thelma, whom she waited on with a mingled tenderness, and reverence, that were both touching and pretty to see.
The conversation now became general, and nothing further occurred to disturb the harmony and hilarity of the party—only Errington seemed somewhat abstracted, and answered many questions that were put to him at haphazard, without knowing, or possibly caring, whether his replies were intelligible or incoherent. His thoughts were dreamlike and brilliant with fairy sunshine. He understood at last what poets meant by their melodious musings, woven into golden threads of song—he seemed to have grasped some hitherto unguessed secret of his being—a secret that filled him with as much strange pain as pleasure. He felt as though he were endowed with a thousand senses,—each one keenly alive and sensitive to the smallest touch,—and there was a pulsation in his blood that was new and beyond his control,—a something that beat wildly in his heart at the sound of Thelma's voice, or the passing flutter of her white garments near him. Of what use to disguise it from himself any longer? He loved her! The terrible, beautiful tempest of love had broken over his life at last; there was no escape from its thunderous passion and dazzling lightning glory.
He drew a sharp quick breath—the hum of the gay voices around him was more meaningless to his ears than the sound of the sea breaking on the beach below. He glanced at the girl—the fair and innocent creature who had, in his imagination, risen to a throne of imperial height, from whence she could bestow on him death or salvation. How calm she seemed! She was listening with courteous patience to a long story of Macfarlane's whose Scotch accent rendered it difficult for her to understand. She was pale, Philip thought, and her eyes were heavy; but she smiled now and then,—such a smile! Even so sweetly might the "kiss-worthy" lips of the Greek Aphrodite part, could that eloquent and matchless marble for once breathe into life. He looked at her with a sort of fear. Her hands held his fate. What if she could not love him? What if he must lose her utterly? This idea overpowered him; his brain whirled, and he suddenly pushed away his untasted glass of wine, and rose abruptly from the table, heedless of the surprise his action excited.
"Hullo, Phil, where are you off to?" cried Lorimer. "Wait for me!"
"Tired of our company, my lad?" said Gueldmar kindly, "You've had a long day of it,—and what with the climbing and the strong air, no doubt you'll be glad to turn in."
"Upon my life, sir," answered Errington, with some confusion, "I don't know why I got up just now! I was thinking,—I'm rather a dreamy sort of fellow sometimes, and—"
"He was asleep, and doesn't want to own it!" interrupted Lorimer sententiously. "You will excuse him; he means well! He looks rather seedy. I think, Mr. Gueldmar, we'll be off to the yacht. By the way, you're coming with us to-morrow, aren't you?"
"Oh yes," said Thelma. "We will sail with you round by Soroe,—it is weird and dark and grand; but I think it is beautiful. And there are many stories of the elves and berg-folk, who are said to dwell there among the deep ravines. Have you heard about the berg-folk?" she continued, addressing herself to Errington, unaware of the effort he was making to appear cool and composed in her presence. "No? Then I must tell you to-morrow."
They all walked out of the house into the porch, and while her father was interchanging farewells with the others, she looked at Sir Philip's grave face with some solicitude.
"I am afraid you are very tired, my friend?" she asked softly, "or your head aches,—and you suffer?"
He caught her hands swiftly and raised them to his lips.
"Would you care much,—would you care at all, if I suffered?" he murmured in a low tone.
Then before she could speak or move, he let go her hands again, and turned with his usual easy courtesy to Gueldmar. "Then we may expect you without fail to-morrow, sir! Good night!"
"Good night, my lad!"
And with many hearty salutations the young men took their departure, raising their hats to Thelma as they turned down the winding path to the shore. She remained standing near her father,—and, when the sound of their footsteps had died away, she drew closer still and laid her head against his breast.
"Cold, my bird?" queried the old man. "Why, thou art shivering, child!—and yet the sunshine is as warm as wine. What ails thee?"
"Nothing, father!" And she raised her eyes, glowing and brilliant as stars. "Tell me,—do you think often of my mother now!"
"Often!" And Gueldmar's fine resolute face grew sad and tender. "She is never absent from my mind! I see her night and day, ay! I can feel her soft arms clinging round my neck,—why dost thou ask so strange a question, little one? Is it possible to forget what has been once loved?"
Thelma was silent for many minutes. Then she kissed her father and said "good night." He held her by the hand and looked at her with a sort of vague anxiety.
"Art thou well, my child?" he asked. "This little hand burns like fire,—and thine eyes are too bright, surely, for sleep to visit them? Art sure that nothing ails thee?"
"Sure, quite sure," answered the girl with a strange, dreamy smile. "I am quite well,—and happy!"
And she turned to enter the house.
"Stay!" called the father. "Promise me thou wilt think no more of Lovisa!"
"I had nearly forgotten her," she responded. "Poor thing! She cursed me because she is so miserable, I suppose—all alone and unloved; it must be hard! Curses sometimes turn to blessings, father! Good night!"
And she ascended the one flight of wooden stairs in the house to her own bedroom—a little three-cornered place as clean and white as the interior of a shell. Never once glancing at the small mirror that seemed to invite her charms to reflect themselves therein, she went to the quaint latticed window and knelt down by it, folding her arms on the sill while she looked far out to the Fjord. She could see the English flag fluttering from the masts of the Eulalie; she could almost hear the steady plash of the oars wielded by Errington and his friends as they rowed themselves back to the yacht. Bright tears filled her eyes, and brimmed over, falling warmly on her folded hands.
"Would I care if you suffered?" she whispered. "Oh, my love! . . . my love!"
Then, as if afraid lest the very winds should have heard her half-breathed exclamation, she shut her window in haste, and a hot blush crimsoned her cheeks.
Undressing quickly, she slipped into her little white bed and, closing her eyes, fancied she slept, though her sleep was but a waking dream of love in which all bright hopes reached their utmost fulfillment, and yet were in some strange way crossed with shadows which she had no power to disperse. And later on, when old Gueldmar slumbered soundly, and the golden mid-night sunshine lit up every nook and gable of the farmhouse with its lustrous glory, making Thelma's closed lattice sparkle like a carven jewel,—a desolate figure lay prone on the grass beneath her window, with meagre pale face, and wide-open wild blue eyes upturned to the fiery brilliancy of the heavens. Sigurd had come home;—Sigurd was repentant, sorrowful, ashamed,—and broken-hearted.
"O Love! O Love! O Gateway of Delight! Thou porch of peace, thou pageant of the prime Of all God's creatures! I am here to climb Thine upward steps, and daily and by night To gaze beyond them and to search aright The far-off splendor of thy track sublime." ERIC MACKAY'S Love-letters of a Violinist.
On the following morning the heat was intense,—no breath of wind stirred a ripple on the Fjord, and there was a heaviness in the atmosphere which made the very brightness of the sky oppressive. Such hot weather was unusual for that part of Norway, and according to Valdemar Svensen, betokened some change. On board the Eulalie everything was ready for the trip to Soroe,—steam was getting up prior to departure,—and a group of red-capped sailors stood prepared to weigh the anchor as soon as the signal was given. Breakfast was over,—Macfarlane was in the saloon writing his journal, which he kept with great exactitude, and Duprez, who, on account of his wound, was considered something of an invalid, was seated in a lounge chair on deck, delightedly turning over a bundle of inflammatory French political journals received that morning. Errington and Lorimer were pacing the deck arm in arm, keeping a sharp look-out for the first glimpse of the returning boat which had been sent off to fetch Thelma and her father. Errington looked vexed and excited,—Lorimer bland and convincing.
"I can't help it, Phil!" he said. "It's no use fretting and fuming at me. It was like Dyceworthy's impudence, of course,—but there's no doubt he proposed to her,—and it's equally certain that she rejected him. I thought I'd tell you you had a rival,—not in me, as you seemed to think yesterday,—but in our holy fat friend."
"Rival! pshaw!" returned Errington, with an angry laugh. "He is not worth kicking!"
"Possibly not! Still I have a presentiment that he's the sort of fellow that won't take 'no' for an answer. He'll dodge that poor girl and make her life miserable if he can, unless—"
"Unless what?" asked Philip quickly.
Lorimer stopped in his walk, and, leaning against the deck-railings, looked his friend straight in the eyes.
"Unless you settle the matter," he said with a slight effort. "You love her,—tell her so!"
Errington laid one hand earnestly on his shoulder.
"Ah, George, you don't understand!" he said in a low tone, while his face was grave and full of trouble. "I used to think I was fairly brave, but I find I am a positive coward. I dare not tell her! She—Thelma—is not like other women. You may think me a fool,—I dare say you do,—but I swear to you I am afraid to speak, because—because, old boy,—if she were to refuse me,—if I knew there was no hope—well, I don't want to be sentimental,—but my life would be utterly empty and worthless,—so useless, that I doubt if I should care to live it out to the bitter end!"
Lorimer heard him in silence,—a silence maintained partly out of sympathy, and partly that he might keep his own feelings well under control.
"But why persist in looking at the gloomy side of the picture?" he said at last. "Suppose she loves you?"
"Suppose an angel flew down from Heaven!" replied Philip, with rather a sad smile. "My dear fellow, who am I that I should flatter myself so far? If she were one of those ordinary women to whom marriage is the be-all and end-all of existence, it would be different—but she is not. Her thoughts are like those of a child or a poet,—why should I trouble them by the selfishness of my passion? for all passion is selfish, even at its best. Why should I venture to break the calm friendship she may have for me, by telling her of a love which might prove unwelcome!"
Lorimer looked at him with gentle amusement depicted in his face.
"Phil, you are less conceited than I thought you were," he said, with a light laugh, "or else you are blind—blind as a bat, old man! Take my advice,—don't lose any more time about it. Make the 'king's daughter of Norroway' happy, . . ." and a brief sigh escaped him. "You are the man to do it. I am surprised at your density; Sigurd, the lunatic, has more perception. He sees which way the wind blows,—and that's why he's so desperately unhappy. He thinks—and thinks rightly too—that he will lose his 'beautiful rose of the northern forest,' as he calls her,—and that you are to be the robber. Hence his dislike to you. Dear me!" and Lorimer lit a cigarette and puffed at it complacently. "It seems to me that my wits are becoming sharper as I grow older, and that yours, my dear boy,—pardon me! . . . are getting somewhat blunted, otherwise you would certainly have perceived—" he broke off abruptly.
"Well, go on!" exclaimed Philip eagerly, with flashing eyes. "Perceived what?"
Lorimer laughed. "That the boat containing your Sun-empress is coming along very rapidly, old fellow, and that you'd better make haste to receive her!"
This was the fact, and Duprez had risen from his chair and was waving his French newspaper energetically to the approaching visitors. Errington hastened to the gangway with a brighter flush than usual on his handsome face, and his heart beating with a new sense of exhilaration and excitement. If Lorimer's hints had any foundation of truth—if Thelma loved him ever so little—how wild a dream it seemed! . . . why not risk his fate? He resolved to speak to her that very day if opportunity favored him,—and, having thus decided, felt quite masterful and heroic about it.
This feeling of proud and tender elation increased when Thelma stepped on deck that morning and laid her hands in his. For, as he greeted her and her father, he saw at a glance that she was slightly changed. Some restless dream must have haunted her—or his hurried words beneath the porch, when he parted from her the previous evening, had startled her and troubled her mind. Her blue eyes were no longer raised to his in absolute candor,—her voice was timid, and she had lost something of her usual buoyant and graceful self-possession. But she looked lovelier than ever with that air of shy hesitation and appealing sweetness. Love had thrown his network of light about her soul and body till, like Keats's "Madeleine,"
"She seemed a splendid angel newly drest Save wings, for heaven!"
As soon as the Gueldmars were on board, the anchor was weighed with many a cheery and musical cry from the sailors; the wheel revolved rapidly under Valdemar Svensen's firm hand,—and with a grand outward sweeping curtsy to the majestic Fjord she left behind her, the Eulalie steamed away, cutting a glittering line of white foam through the smooth water as she went, and threading her way swiftly among the clustering picturesque islands,—while the inhabitants of every little farm and hamlet on the shores, stopped for a while in their occupations to stare at the superb vessel, and to dreamily envy the wealth of the English Herren who could afford to pass the summer months in such luxury and idleness. Thelma seated herself at once by Duprez, and seemed glad to divert attention from herself to him.
"You are better, Monsieur Duprez, are you not?" she asked gently. "We saw Sigurd this morning; he came home last night. He is very, very sorry to have hurt you!"
"He need not apologize," said Duprez cheerfully. "I am delighted he gave me this scar, otherwise I am confident he would have put out the eye of Phil-eep. And that would have been a misfortune! For what would the ladies in London say if le beau Errington returned to them with one eye! Mon Dieu! they would all be en desespoir!"
Thelma looked up. Philip was standing at some little distance with Olaf Gueldmar and Lorimer, talking and laughing gaily. His cap was slightly pushed off his forehead, and the sun shone on his thick dark-chestnut curls; his features, warmly colored by the wind and sea, were lit up with mirth, and his even white teeth sparkled in an irresistible smile of fascinating good-humor. He was the beau-ideal of the best type of Englishman, in the full tide of youth, health and good spirits.
"I suppose he is a great favorite with all those beautiful ladies?" she asked very quietly.
Something of gentle resignation in her tone struck the Frenchman's sense of chivalry; had she been like any ordinary woman, bent on conquest, he would have taken a mischievous delight in inventing a long list of fair ones supposed to be deeply enamored of Errington's good looks,—but this girl's innocent inquiring face inspired him with quite a different sentiment.
"Mais certainement!" he said frankly and emphatically. "Phil-eep is a favorite everywhere! Yet not more so with women than with men. I love him extremely—he is a charming boy! Then you see, chere Mademoiselle, he is rich,—very rich,—and there are so many pretty girls who are very poor,—naturally they are enchanted with our Errington—voyez-vous?"
"I do not understand," she said, with a puzzled brow. "It is not possible that they should like him better because he is rich. He would be the same man without money as with it—it makes no difference!"
"Perhaps not to you," returned Duprez, with a smile; "but to many it would make an immense difference! Chere Mademoiselle, it is a grand thing to have plenty of money,—believe me!"