Thelma shrugged her shoulders. "Perhaps," she answered indifferently. "But one cannot spend much on one's self, after all. The nuns at Arles used to tell me that poverty was a virtue, and that to be very rich was to be very miserable. They were poor,—all those good women,—and they were always cheerful."
"The nuns! ah, mon Dieu!" cried Duprez. "The darlings know not the taste of joy—they speak of what they cannot understand! How should they know what it is to be happy or unhappy, when they bar their great convent doors against the very name of love!"
She looked at him, and her color rose.
"You always talk of love," she said, half reproachfully, "as if it were so common a thing! You know it is sacred—why will you speak as if it were all a jest?"
A strange emotion of admiring tenderness stirred Pierre's heart—he was very impulsive and impressionable.
"Forgive me!" he murmured penitently. Then he added suddenly, "You should have lived ages ago, ma belle,—the world of to-day will not suit you! You will be made very sorrowful in it, I assure you,—it is not a place for good women!"
She laughed. "You are morose," she said. "That is not like you! No one is good,—we all live to try and make ourselves better."
"What highly moral converse is going on here?" inquired Lorimer, strolling leisurely up to them. "Are you giving Duprez a lecture, Miss Gueldmar? He needs it,—so do I. Please give me a scolding!"
And he folded his hands with an air of demure appeal.
A sunny smile danced in the girl's blue eyes. "Always you will be foolish!" she said. "One can never know you because I am sure you never show your real self to anybody. No,—I will not scold you, but I should like to find you out!"
"To find me out!" echoed Lorimer. "Why, what do you mean?"
She nodded her bright head with much sagacity.
"Ah, I do observe you often! There is something you hide; it is like when my father has tears in his eyes; he pretends to laugh, but the tears are there all the time. Now I see in you—" she paused, and her questioning eyes rested on his, seriously.
"This is interesting!" said Lorimer, lazily drawing a camp-stool opposite to her, and seating himself thereon. "I had no idea I was a human riddle. Can you read me, Miss Gueldmar?"
"Yes," she answered slowly and meditatively. "Just a little. But I will not say anything; no—except this—that you are not altogether what you seem."
"Here, Phil!" called Lorimer, as he saw Errington approaching, arm in arm with Olaf Gueldmar, "come and admire this young lady's power of perception. She declares I am not such a fool as I look!"
"Now," said Thelma, shaking her forefinger at him, "you know very well that I did not put it in that way. But is it not true, Sir Philip—" and she looked up for a moment, though her eyes drooped again swiftly under his ardent gaze, "is it not true that many people do hide their feelings, and pretend to be quite different to what they are?"
"I should say it was a very common fault," replied Errington. "It is a means of self-defense against the impertinent curiosity of outsiders. But Lorimer is free from it,—he has nothing to hide. At any rate, he has no secrets from me,—I'm sure of that!" And he clapped his hand heartily on his friend's shoulder.
Lorimer flushed slightly, but made no remark, and at that moment Macfarlane emerged from the saloon, where the writing of his journal had till now detained him. In the general handshaking and salutations which followed, the conversation took a different turn, for which Lorimer was devoutly thankful. His face was a tell-tale one,—and he was rather afraid of Philip's keen eyes. "I hope to Heaven he'll speak to her to-day," he thought, vexedly. "I hate being in suspense! My mind will be easier when I once know that he has gained his point,—and that there's not the ghost of a chance for any other fellow!"
Meanwhile the yacht skimmed along by the barren and rocky coast of Seiland; the sun was dazzling; yet there was a mist in the air as though the heavens were full of unshed tears. A bank of nearly motionless clouds hung behind the dark, sharp peaks of the Altenguard mountains, which now lay to the southward, as the vessel pursued her course. There was no wind; the flag on the mast flapped idly now and then with the motion of the yacht; and Thelma found herself too warm with her pretty crimson hood,—she therefore unfastened it and let the sunshine play on the uncovered gold of her hair. They had a superb view of the jagged glacier of Jedke,—black in some parts, and in others white with unmelted snow,—and seeming, as it rose straight up against the sky, to be the majestic monument of some giant Viking. Presently, at her earnest request, Errington brought his portfolio of Norwegian sketches for Thelma to look at; most of them were excellently well done, and elicited much admiration from the bonde.
"It is what I have wondered at all my life," said he, "that skill of the brush dipped in color. Pictures surprise me as much as poems. Ah, men are marvellous creatures, when they are once brought to understand that they are men,—not beasts! One will take a few words and harmonize them into a song or a verse that clings to the world for ever; another will mix a few paints and dab a brush in them, and give you a picture that generation after generation shall flock to see. It is what is called genius,—and genius is a sort of miracle. Yet I think it is fostered by climate a good deal,—the further north, the less inspiration. Warmth, color, and the lightness of heart that a generally bright sky brings, enlarges the brain and makes it capable of creative power."
"My dear sir," said Lorimer, "England does not possess these climatic advantages, and yet Shakespeare was an Englishman."
"He must have travelled," returned Gueldmar positively. "No one will make me believe that the man never visited Italy. His Italian scenes prove it,—they are full of the place and the people. The whole of his works, full of such wonderful learning, and containing so many types of different nations, show,—to my mind, at least,—that countries were his books of study. Why I, who am only a farmer and proprietor of a bit of Norwegian land,—I have learned many a thing from simply taking a glance at a new shore each year. That's the way I used to amuse myself when I was young,—now I am old, the sea tempts me less, and I am fonder of my arm-chair; yet I've seen a good deal in my time—enough to provide me with memories for my declining days. And it's a droll thing, too," he added, with a laugh, "the further south you go, the more immoral and merry are the people; the further north, the more virtuous and miserable. There's a wrong balance somewhere,—but where, 'tis not easy to find out."
"Weel," said Macfarlane, "I can give ye a direct contradeection to your theory. Scotland lies to the north, and ye'll not find a grander harvest o' sinfu' souls anywhere between this an' the day o' judgment. I'm a Scotchman, an' I'm just proud o' my country—I'd back its men against a' the human race,—but I wadna say much for the stabeelity o' its women. I wad just tak to my heels and run if I saw a real, thumpin', red-cheeked, big-boned Scotch lassie makin' up to me. There's nae bashfulness in they sort, and nae safety."
"I will go to Scotland!" said Duprez enthusiastically. "I feel that those—what do you call them, lassies?—will charm, me!"
"Scotland I never saw," said Gueldmar. "From all I have heard, it seems to me 'twould be too much like Norway. After one's eyes have rested long on these dark mountains and glaciers, one likes now and then to see a fertile sunshiny stretch of country such as France, or the plains of Lombardy. Of course there may be exceptions, but I tell you climatic influences have a great deal to do with the state of mind and morals. Now, take the example of that miserable old Lovisa Elsland. She is the victim of religious mania—and religious mania, together with superstition of the most foolish kind, is common in Norway. It happens often during the long winters; the people have not sufficient to occupy their minds; no clergyman—not even Dyceworthy—can satisfy the height of their fanaticism. They preach and pray and shriek and groan in their huts; some swear that they have the spirit of prophecy,—others that they are possessed of devils,—others imagine witchcraft, like Lovisa—and altogether there is such a howling on the name of Christ, that I am glad to be out of it,—for 'tis a sight to awaken the laughter and contempt of a pagan such as I am!"
Thelma listened with a slight shadow of pain on her features.
"Father is not a pagan," she declared, turning to Lorimer. "How can one be pagan if one believes that there is good in everything,—and that nothing happens except for the best?"
"It sounds to me more Christian than pagan," averred Lorimer, with a smile. "But it's no use appealing to me on such matters, Miss Gueldmar. I am an advocate of the Law of Nothing. I remember a worthy philosopher who,—when he was in his cups,—earnestly assured me it was all right—'everything was nothing, and nothing was everything.' 'You are sure that is so?' I would say to him. 'My dear young friend—hic—I am positive! I have—hic—worked out the problem with—hic—care!' And he would shake me by the hand warmly, with a mild and moist smile, and would retire to bed walking sideways in the most amiable manner. I'm certain his ideas were correct as well as luminous."
They laughed, and then looking up saw that they were passing a portion of the coast of Seiland which was more than usually picturesque. Facing them was a great cavernous cleft in the rocks, tinted with a curious violet hue intermingled with bronze,—and in the strong sunlight these colors flashed with the brilliancy of jewels, reflecting themselves in the pale slate-colored sea. By Errington's orders the yacht slackened speed, and glided along with an almost noiseless motion,—and they were silent, listening to the dash and drip of water that fell invisibly from the toppling crags that frowned above, while the breathless heat and stillness of the air added to the weird solemnity of the scene. They all rose from their chairs and leaned on the deck-rails, looking, but uttering no word.
"In one of these islands," said Thelma at last, very softly—"it was either Seiland or Soroe—they once found the tomb of a great chief. There was an inscription outside that warned all men to respect it, but they laughed at the warning and opened the tomb. And they saw, seated in a stone chair, a skeleton with a gold crown on its head and a great carved seal in its hand, and at its feet there was a stone casket. The casket was broken open, and it was full of gold and jewels. Well, they took all the gold and jewels, and buried the skeleton—and now,—do you know what happens? At midnight a number of strange persons are seen searching on the shore and among the rocks for the lost treasure, and it is said they often utter cries of anger and despair. And those who robbed the tomb all died suddenly."
"Served them right!" said Lorimer. "And now they are dead, I suppose the wronged ghosts don't appear any more?"
"Oh yes, they do," said Gueldmar very seriously. "If any sailor passes at midnight, and sees them or hears their cries, he is doomed."
"But does he see or hear them?" asked Errington, with a smile.
"Well, I don't know," returned Gueldmar, with a grave shake of his head. "I'm not superstitious myself, but I should be sorry to say anything against the berg-folk. You see they may exist, and it's no use offending them."
"And what do ye mean by the berg-folk?" inquired Macfarlane.
"They are supposed to be the souls of persons who died impenitent," said Thelma, "and they are doomed to wander, on the hills till the day of judgment. It is a sort of purgatory."
Duprez shook his fingers emphatically in the air.
"Ah, bah!" he said; "what droll things remain still in the world! Yes, in spite of liberty, equality, fraternity! You do not believe in foolish legends, Mademoiselle? For example,—do you think you will suffer purgatory?"
"Indeed yes!" she replied. "No one can be good enough to go straight to heaven. There must be some little stop on the way in which to be sorry for all the bad things one has done."
"'Tis the same idea as ours," said Gueldmar. "We have two places of punishment in the Norse faith; one, Nifleheim, which is a temporary thing like the Catholic purgatory; the other Nastrond, which is the counterpart of the Christian hell. Know you not the description of Nifleheim in the Edda?—'tis terrible enough to satisfy all tastes. 'Hela, or Death rules over the Nine Worlds of Nifleheim. Her hall is called Grief. Famine is her table, and her only servant is Delay. Her gate is a precipice, her porch Faintness, her bed Leanness,—Cursing and Howling are her tent. Her glance is dreadful and terrifying,—and her lips are blue with the venom of Hatred.' These words," he added, "sound finer in Norwegian, but I have given the meaning fairly."
"Ma certes!" said Macfarlane chuckling. "I'll tell my aunt in Glasgie aboot it. This Nifleheim wad suit her pairfectly,—she wad send a' her relations there wi' tourist tickets, not available for the return journey!"
"It seems to me," observed Errington, "that the Nine Worlds of Nifleheim have a resemblance to the different circles of Dante's Purgatory."
"Exactly so," said Lorimer. "All religions seem to me to be more or less the same,—the question I can never settle is,—which is the right one?"
"Would you follow it if you knew?" asked Thelma, with a slight smile. Lorimer laughed.
"Well, upon my life, I don't know!" he answered frankly, "I never was a praying sort of fellow,—I don't seem to grasp the idea of it somehow. But there's one thing I'm certain of,—I can't endure a bird without song,—a flower without scent, or a woman without religion—she seems to me no woman at all."
"But are there any such women?" inquired the girl surprised.
"Yes, there are undoubtedly! Free-thinking, stump-orator, have-your-rights sort of creatures. You don't know anything about them, Miss Gueldmar—be thankful! Now, Phil, how long is this vessel of yours going to linger here?"
Thus reminded, Errington called to the pilot, and in a few minutes the Eulalie resumed her usual speed, and bore swiftly on towards Soroe. This island, dreary and dark in the distance, grew somewhat more inviting in aspect on a nearer approach. Now and then a shaft of sunlight fell on some glittering point of felspar or green patch of verdure.—and Valdemar Svensen stated that he knew of a sandy creek where, if the party chose, they could land and see a small cave of exquisite beauty, literally hung all over with stalactites.
"I never heard of this cave," said Gueldmar, fixing a keen eye on the pilot. "Art thou a traveller's guide to all such places in Norway?"
Somewhat to Errington's surprise, Svensen changed color and appeared confused; moreover, he removed his red cap altogether when he answered the bonde, to whom he spoke deferentially in rapid Norwegian. The old man laughed as he listened, and seemed satisfied; then, turning away, he linked his arm through Philip's, and said,
"You must pardon him, my lad, that he spoke in your presence a tongue unfamiliar to you. No offense was meant. He is of my creed, but fears to make it known, lest he should lose all employment—which is likely enough, seeing that so many of the people are fanatics. Moreover, he is bound to me by an oath,—which in olden days would have made him my serf,—but which leaves him free enough just now,—with one exception."
"And that exception?" asked Errington with some interest.
"Is, that should I ever demand a certain service at his hands, he dare not refuse it. Odd, isn't it? or so it seems to you," and Gueldmar pressed the young man's arm lightly and kindly; "but our Norse oaths, are taken with great solemnity, and are as binding as the obligation of death itself. However, I have not commanded Valdemar's obedience yet, nor do I think I am likely to do so for some time. He is a fine, faithful fellow,—though too much given to dreams."
A gay chorus of laughter here broke from the little group seated on deck, of which Thelma was the centre,—and Gueldmar stopped in his walk, with an attentive smile on his open, ruddy countenance.
"'Tis good for the heart to hear the merriment of young folks," he said. "Think you not my girl's laugh is like the ripple of a lark's song? just so clear and joyous?"
"Her voice is music itself!" declared Philip quickly and warmly. "There is nothing she says, or does, or looks,—that is not absolutely beautiful!"
Then, suddenly aware of his precipitation, he stopped abruptly. His face flushed as Gueldmar regarded him fixedly, with a musing and doubtful air. But whatever the old man thought, he said nothing. He merely held the young baronet's arm a little closer, and together they joined the others,—though it was noticeable that during the rest of the day the bonde was rather abstracted and serious,—and that every now and then his eyes rested on his daughter's face with an expression of tender yearning and melancholy.
It was about two hours after luncheon that the Eulalie approached the creek spoken of by the pilot, and they were all fascinated by the loveliness as well as by the fierce grandeur of the scene. The rocks on that portion of Soroe appeared to have split violently asunder to admit some great in-rushing passage of the sea, and were piled up in toppling terraces to the height of more than two thousand feet above the level of the water. Beneath these wild and craggy fortresses of nature a shining stretch of beach had formed itself, on which the fine white sand, mixed with crushed felspar, sparkled like powdered silver. On the left-hand side of this beach could be distinctly seen the round opening of the cavern to which Valdemar Svensen directed their attention. They decided to visit it—the yacht was brought to a standstill, and the long-boat lowered. They took no sailors with them, Errington and his companions rowing four oars, while Thelma and her father occupied the stern. A landing was easily effected, and they walked toward the cavern, treading on thousands of beautiful little shells which strewed the sand beneath their feet. There was a deep stillness everywhere—the island was so desolate that it seemed as though the very seabirds refused to make their homes in the black clefts of such steep and barren rocks.
At the entrance of the little cave Gueldmar looked back to the sea.
"There's a storm coming!" he announced. "Those clouds we saw this morning have sailed thither almost as quickly as ourselves!"
The sky had indeed grown darker, and little wrinkling waves disturbed the surface of the water. But the sun as yet retained his sovereignty, and there was no wind. By the pilot's advice, Errington and his friends had provided themselves each with a pine torch, in order to light up the cavern as soon as they found themselves within it. The smoky crimson flare illuminated what seemed at a first glance to be a miniature fairy palace studded thickly with clusters of diamonds. Long pointed stalactites hung from the roof at almost mathematically even distances from one another,—the walls glistened with varying shades of pink and green and violet,—and in the very midst of the cave was a still pool of water in which all the fantastic forms and hues of the place mirrored themselves in miniature. In one corner the stalactites had clustered into the shape of a large chair overhung by a canopy, and Duprez perceiving it, exclaimed—he listened, and seemed satisfied; then, turning away, he linked his arm through Philip's, and said,
"Voila! A queen's throne! Come Mademoiselle Gueldmar, you must sit in it!"
"But I am not a queen," laughed Thelma. "A throne is for a king—will not Sir Phillip sit there?"
"There's a compliment for you, Phil!" cried Lorrimer, waving his torch enthusiastically. "Let us awaken the echoes with the shout of 'Long live the King!'"
But Errington approached Thelma, and taking her hand in his, said gently—
"Come! let us see you throned in state, Queen Thelma! To please me,—come!"
She looked up—the flame of the bright torch he carried illumined his face, on which love had written what she could not fail to read,—but she trembled as with cold, and there was a kind of appalling winder in her troubled eyes. He whispered, "come, Queen Thelma!" As in a dream, she allowed him to lead her to the stalactite chair, and when she was seated therein, she endeavored to control the rapid beating of her heart, and to smile unconcernedly on the little group that surrounded her with shouts of mingled mirth and admiration.
"Ye look just fine!" said Macfarlane with undisguised delight. "Ye'd mak' a grand picture, wouldn't she, Errington?"
Phillip gazed at her, but said nothing—his head was too full. Sitting there among the glittering, intertwisted, and suspended rocks,—with the blaze from the torches flashing on her winsome face and luxuriant hair,—with that half-troubled, half-happy look in her eyes, and an uncertain shadowy smile quivering on her sweet lips, the girl looked almost dangerously lovely,—Helen of Troy could scarce have fired more passionate emotion among the old-world heroes than she unconsciously excited at that moment in the minds of all who beheld her. Duprez for once understood what it was to reverence a woman's beauty, and decided that the flippant language of compliment was out of place—he therefore said nothing, and Lorrimer, too, was silent battling bravely against the wild desires that were now, in his opinion, nothing but disloyalty to his friend. Old Gueldmar's hearty voice roused and startled them all.
"Now Thelma, child! If thou art a queen, give orders to these lads to be moving! 'Tis a damp place to hold a court in, and thy throne must needs be a cold one. Let us out to the blessed sunshine again—maybe we can climb one of yon wild rocks and get a view worth seeing."
"All right, sir!" said Lorimer, chivalrously resolving that now Errington should have a chance. "Come on, Mac! Allons, marchons,—Pierre! Mr. Gueldmar exacts our obedience! Phil, you take care of the queen!"
And skillfully pushing on Duprez and Macfarlane before him, he followed Gueldmar, who preceded them all,—thus leaving his friend in a momentary comparative solitude with Thelma. The girl was a little startled as she saw them thus taking their departure, and sprang up from her stalactite throne in haste. Sir Philip had laid aside his torch in order to assist her with both hands to descend the sloping rocks; but her embarrassment at being left almost alone with him made her nervous and uncertain of foot,—she was hurried and agitated and anxious to overtake the others, and in trying to walk quickly she slipped and nearly fell. In one second she was caught in his arms and clasped passionately to his heart.
"Thelma! Thelma!" he whispered, "I love you, my darling—I love you!"
She trembled in his strong embrace, and strove to release herself, but he pressed her more closely to him, scarcely knowing that he did so, but feeling that he held the world, life, time, happiness, and salvation in this one fair creature. His brain was in a wild whirl—the glitter of the stalactite cave turned to a gyrating wheel of jewel-work, there was nothing any more—no universe, no existence—nothing but love, love, love, beating strong hammer-strokes through every fibre of his frame. He glanced up, and saw that the slowly retreating forms of his friends had nearly reached the outer opening of the cavern. Once there, they would look back and—
"Quick, Thelma!" and his warm breath touched her cheek. "My darling! my love! if you are not angry,—kiss me! I shall understand."
She hesitated. To Philip that instant of hesitation seemed a cycle of slow revolving years. Timidly she lifted her head. She was very pale, and her breath came and went quickly. He gazed at her in speechless suspense,—and saw as in a vision the pure radiance of her face and star-like eyes shining more and more closely upon him. Then came a touch,—soft and sweet as a roseleaf pressed against his lips,—and for one mad moment he remembered nothing,—he was caught up like Homer's Paris in a cloud of gold, and knew not which was earth or heaven.
"You love me, Thelma?" he murmured in a sort of wondering rapture. "I cannot believe it, sweet! Tell me—you love me?"
She looked up. A new, unspeakable glory flushed her face, and her eyes glowed with the mute eloquence of awakening passion.
"Love you?" she said in a voice so low and sweet that it might have been the whisper of a passing fairy. "Ah, yes! more than my life!"
"Sweet hands, sweet hair, sweet cheeks, sweet eyes, sweet mouth; Each singly wooed and won!" DANTE ROSETTI.
"Hallo, ho!" shouted Gueldmar vociferously, peering back into the shadows of the cavern from whence the figures of his daughter and Errington were seen presently emerging. "Why, what kept you so long, my lad? We thought you were close behind us. Where's your torch?"
"It went out," replied Philip promptly, as he assisted Thelma with grave and ceremonious politeness to cross over some rough stones at the entrance, "and we had some trouble to find our way."
"Ye might hae called to us i' the way o' friendship," observed Macfarlane somewhat suspiciously, "and we wad hae lighted ye through."
"Oh, it was no matter!" said Thelma, with a charming smile. "Sir Philip seemed well to know the way, and it was not so very dark!"
Lorimer glanced at her and read plainly all that was written in her happy face. His heart sank a little; but, noticing that the old bonde was studying his daughter with a slight air of vexation and surprise, he loyally determined to divert the general attention from her bright blushes and too brilliantly sparkling eyes.
"Well! . . . here you both are, at any rate," he said lightly, "and I should strongly advise that we attempt no more exploration of the island of Soroe to-day. Look at the sky; and just now there was a clap of thunder."
"Thunder?" exclaimed Errington. "I never heard it!"
"I dare say not!" said Lorimer, with a quiet smile. "Still we heard it pretty distinctly, and I think we'd better make for the yacht."
"All right!" and Sir Philip sprang gaily into the long-boat to arrange the cushions in the stern for Thelma. Never had he looked handsomer or more high-spirited, and his elation was noticed by all his companions.
"Something joyous has happened to our Phil-eep," said Duprez in a half-whisper. "He is in the air!"
"And something in the ither way has happened vera suddenly to Mr. Gueldmar," returned Macfarlane. "Th' auld man is in the dumps."
The bonde's face in truth looked sad and somewhat stern. He scarcely spoke at all as he took his place in the boat beside his daughter,—once he raised her little hand, looked at it, and kissed it fondly.
They were all soon on their way back to the Eulalie over a sea that had grown rough and white-crested during their visit to the stalactite cave. Clouds had gathered thickly over the sky, and though a few shafts of sunlight still forced a passage through them, the threatening darkness spread with steady persistency, especially to the northern side of the horizon, where Storm hovered in the shape of a black wing edged with coppery crimson. As they reached the yacht a silver glare of lightning sprang forth from beneath this sable pinion, and a few large drops of rain began to fall. Errington hurried Thelma on deck and down into the saloon. His friends, with Gueldmar, followed,—and the vessel was soon plunging through waves of no small height on her way back to the Altenfjord. A loud peal of thunder like a salvo of artillery accompanied their departure from Soroe, and Thelma shivered a little as she heard it.
"You are nervous, Mademoiselle Gueldmar?" asked Duprez, noticing her tremor.
"Oh no," she answered brightly. "Nervous? That is to be afraid,—I am not afraid of a storm, but I do not like it. It is a cruel, fierce thing; and I should have wished to-day to be all sunshine—all gladness!" She paused, and her eyes grew soft and humid.
"Then you have been happy to-day?" said Lorimer in a low and very gentle voice.
She smiled up at him from the depths of the velvet lounge in which Errington had placed her.
"Happy? I do not think I have ever been so happy before!" She paused, and a bright blush crimsoned her cheeks; then, seeing the piano open, she said suddenly "Shall I sing to you? or perhaps you are all tired, and would rather rest?"
"Music is rest," said Lorimer rather dreamily, watching her as she rose from her seat,—a tall, supple, lithe figure,—and moved towards the instrument. "And your voice. Miss Gueldmar, would soothe the most weary soul that ever dwelt in clay."
She glanced round at him, surprised at his sad tone.
"Ah, you are very, very tired, Mr. Lorimer, I am sure! I will sing you a Norse cradle-song to make you go to sleep. You will not understand the words though—will that matter?"
"Not in the least!" answered Lorimer, with a smile. "The London girls sing in German, Italian, Spanish, and English. Nobody knows what they are saying: they scarcely know themselves—but it's all right, and quite fashionable."
Thelma laughed gaily. "How funny!" she exclaimed. "It is to amuse people, I suppose! Well,—now listen." And, playing a soft prelude, her rich contralto rippled forth in a tender, passionate, melancholy melody,—so sweet and heart-penetrating that the practical Macfarlane sat as one in a dream,—Duprez forgot to finish making the cigarette he was daintily manipulating between his fingers, and Lorimer had much ado to keep tears from his eyes. From one song she glided to another and yet another; her soul seemed possessed by the very spirit of music. Meanwhile Errington, in obedience to an imperative sign from old Gueldmar, left the saloon, with him,—once outside the doors the bonde said in a somewhat agitated voice—
"I desire to speak to you, Sir Philip, alone and undisturbed, if such a thing be possible."
"By all means!" answered Philip. "Come to my 'den' on deck. We shall be quite solitary there."
He led the way, and Olaf Gueldmar followed him in silence.
It was raining fiercely, and the waves, green towers of strength, broke every now and then over the sides of the yacht with a hissing shower of salt white spray. The thunder rolled along the sky in angry reverberating echoes,—frequent flashes of lightning leaped out like swords drawn from dark scabbards,—yet towards the south the sky was clearing, and arrowy beams of pale gold fell from the hidden sun, with a soothing and soft lustre on the breast of the troubled water.
Gueldmar looked about him, and heaved a deep sigh of refreshment. His eyes rested lovingly on the tumbling billows,—he bared his white head to the wind and rain.
"This is the life, the blood, the heart of a man!" he said, while a sort of fierce delight shone in his keen eyes. "To battle with the tempest,—to laugh at the wrath of waters,—to set one's face against the wild wind,—to sport with the elements as though they were children or serfs,—this is the joy of manhood! A joy," he added slowly, "that few so-called men of to-day can ever feel."
Errington smiled gravely. "Perhaps you are right, sir," he said; "but perhaps, at the same time, you forget that life has grown very bitter to all of us during the last hundred years or so. Maybe the world is getting old and used up, maybe the fault is in ourselves,—but it is certain that none of us nowadays are particularly happy, except at rare intervals when—"
At that moment, in a lull of the storm, Thelma's voice pealed upwards from the saloon. She was singing a French song, and the refrain rang out clearly—
"Ah! le doux son d'un baiser tendre!"
Errington paused abruptly in his speech, and turning towards a little closed and covered place on deck which was half cabin, half smoking-room, and which he kept as his own private sanctum, he unlocked it, saying—
"Will you come in here, sir? It's not very spacious, but I think it's just the place for a chat,—especially a private one."
Gueldmar entered, but did not sit down,—Errington shut the door against the rain and beating spray and also remained standing. After a pause, during which the bonde seemed struggling with some inward emotion, he said resolutely—
"Sir Philip, you are a young man, and I am an old one. I would not willingly offend you—for I like you—yes!" And the old man looked up frankly: "I like you enough to respect you—which is more than I can say to many men I have known! But I have a weight on my heart that must be lifted. You and my child have been much together for many days,—and I was an old fool not to have foreseen the influence your companionship might have upon her. I may be mistaken in the idea that has taken hold of me—some wild words let fall by the poor boy Sigurd this morning, when he entreated my pardon for his misconduct of yesterday, have perhaps misled my judgment,—but—by the gods! I cannot put it into suitable words! I—"
"You think I love your daughter?" said Sir Philip quietly. "You are not mistaken, Sir! I love her with my whole heart and soul! I want you to give her to me as my wife."
A change passed over the old farmer's face. He grew deathly pale, and put out one hand feebly as though to seek some support. Errington caught it in his own and pressed it hard.
"Surely you are not surprised, Sir?" he added with eagerness. "How can I help loving her! She is the best and loveliest girl I have ever seen! Believe me,—I would make her happy!"
"And have you thought, young man," returned Gueldmar slowly, "that you would make me desolate?—or, thinking it, have you cared?"
There was an infinite pathos in his voice, and Errington was touched and silent. He found no answer to this reproach. Gueldmar sat down, leaning his head on his hand.
"Let me think a little," he said. "My mind is confused a bit. I was not prepared for—"
He paused and seemed lost in sorrowful meditation. By-and-by he looked up, and meeting Errington's anxious gaze, he broke into a short laugh.
"Don't mind me, my lad!" he said sturdily. "'Tis a blow, you see! I had not thought so far as this. I'll tell you the plain truth, and you must forgive me for wronging you. I know what young blood is, all the world over. A fair face fires it—and impulse makes it gallop beyond control. 'Twas so with me when I was your age,—though no woman, I hope, was ever the worse for my harmless lovemaking. But Thelma is different from most women,—she has a strange nature,—moreover, she has a heart and a memory,—if she once learns the meaning of love, she will never unlearn the lesson. Now, I thought, that like most young men of your type, you might, without meaning any actual evil, trifle with her—play with her feelings—"
"I understand, Sir," said Philip coolly, without displaying any offense. "To put it plainly, in spite of your liking for me, you thought me a snob."
This time the old man laughed heartily and unforcedly.
"Dear, dear!" he exclaimed. "You are what is termed in your own land, a peppery customer! Never mind—I like it. Why, my lad, the men of to-day think it fair sport to trifle with a pretty woman now and then—"
"Pardon!" interrupted Philip curtly. "I must defend my sex. We may occasionally trifle with those women who show us that they wish to be trifled with—but never with those who, like your daughter, win every man's respect and reverence."
Gueldmar rose and grasped his hand fervently.
"By all the gods, I believe you are a true gentleman!" he said. "I ask your pardon if I have offended you by so much as a thought. But now"—and his face grew very serious—"we must talk this matter over. I will not speak of the suddenness of your love for my child, because I know, from my own past experience, that love is a rapid impulse—a flame ignited in a moment. Yes, I know that well!" He paused, and his voice trembled a little, but he soon steadied it and went on—"I think, however, my lad, that you have been a little hasty,—for instance, have you thought what your English friends and relatives will say to your marrying a farmer's daughter who,—though she has the blood of kings in her veins,—is, nevertheless, as this present world would judge, beneath you in social standing? I say, have you thought of this?"
Philip smiled proudly. "Certainly, sir, I have not thought of any such trifle as the opinion of society,—if that is what you mean. I have no relatives to please or displease—no friends in the truest sense of the world except Lorimer. I have a long list of acquaintances undoubtedly,—infinite bores, most of them,—and whether they approve or disapprove of my actions is to me a matter of profound indifference."
"See you!" said the bonde firmly and earnestly. "It would be an ill day for me if I gave my little one to a husband who might—mind! I only say might,—in the course of years, regret having married her."
"Regret!" cried Philip excitedly, then quieting down, he said gently. "My good friend, I do not think you understand me. You talk as if Thelma were beneath me. Good God! It is I who am infinitely beneath her! I am utterly unworthy of her in every way, I assure you—and I tell you so frankly. I have led a useless life, and a more or less selfish one. I have principally sought to amuse and interest myself all through it. I've had my vices to, and have them still. Beside Thelma's innocent white soul, mine looks villainous! But I can honestly say I never knew what love was till I saw her,—and now—well! I would give my life away gladly to save her from even a small sorrow."
"I believe you—I thoroughly believe you!" said Gueldmar. "I see you love the child. The gods forbid that I should stand in the way of her happiness! I am getting old, and 'twas often a sore point with me to know what would become of my darling when I was gone,—for she is fair to look upon, and there are many human wolves ready to devour such lambs. Still, my lad, you must learn all. Do you know what is said of me in Bosekop?"
Errington smiled and nodded in the affirmative.
"You do?" exclaimed the old man, somewhat surprised. "You know they say I killed my wife—my wife! the creature before whom my soul knelt in worship night and day—whose bright head was the sunlight of life! Let me tell you of her, Sir Philip—'tis a simple story. She was the child of my dearest friend, and many years younger than myself. This friend of mine, Erik Erlandsen, was the captain of a stout Norwegian barque, running constantly between these wild waters and the coast of France. He fell in love with, and married a blue-eyed beauty from the Sogne Fjord, he carried her secretly away from her parents, who would not consent to the marriage. She was a timid creature, in spite of her queenly ways, and, for fear of her parents, she would never land again on the shores of Norway. She grew to love France,—and Erik often left her there in some safe shelter when he was bound on some extra long and stormy passage. She took to the Catholic creed, too, in France, and learned to speak the French tongue, so Erik said, as though it were her own. At the time of the expected birth of her child, her husband had taken her far inland to Arles, and there business compelled him to leave her for some days. When he returned she was dead!—laid out for burial, with flowers and tapers round her. He fell prone on her body insensible,—and not for many hours did the people of the place dare to tell him that he was the father of a living child—a girl, with the great blue eyes and white skin of her mother. He would scarce look at it—but at last, when roused a bit, he carried the little thing in his arms to the great Convent at Arles, and, giving the nuns money, he bade them take it and bring it up as they would, only giving it the name of Thelma. Then poor Erlandsen came home—he sought me out:—he said, 'Olaf, I feel that I am going on my last voyage. Promise you will see to my child—guard her, if you can, from an evil fate! For me there is no future!' I promised, and strove to cheer him—but he spoke truly—his ship went down in a storm on the Bay of Biscay, and all on board were lost. Then it was that I commenced my journeyings to and fro, to see the little maiden that was growing up in the Convent at Arles. I watched her for sixteen years—and when she reached her seventeenth birthday, I married her and brought her to Norway."
"And she was Thelma's mother?" said Errington with interest.
"She was Thelma's mother," returned the bonde, "and she was more beautiful than even Thelma is now. Her education had been almost entirely French, but, as a child, she had learnt that I generally spoke English, and as there happened to be an English nun in the Convent, she studied that language and mastered it for the love of me—yes!" he repeated with musing tenderness, "all for the love of me,—for she loved me, Sir Philip—ay! as passionately as I loved her, and that is saying a great deal! We lived a solitary happy life,—but we did not mix with our neighbors—our creeds were different,—our ways apart from theirs. We had some time of perfect happiness together. Three years passed before our child was born, and then"—the bonde paused awhile, and again continued,—"then my wife's health grew frail and uncertain. She liked to be in the fresh air, and was fond of wandering about the hills with her little one in her arms. One day—shall I ever forget it! when Thelma was about two and a half years old, I missed them both, and went out to search for them, fearing my wife had lost her way, and knowing that our child could not toddle far without fatigue. I found them"—the bonde shuddered-"but how? My wife had slipped and fallen through a chasm in the rocks,—high enough, indeed, to have killed her,—she was alive, but injured for life. She lay there white and motionless—little Thelma meanwhile sat smilingly on the edge of the rock, assuring me that her mother had gone to sleep 'down there.' Well!" and Gueldmar brushed the back of his hand across his eyes, "to make a long story short, I carried my darling home in my arms a wreck—she lingered for ten years of patient suffering, ten long years! She could only move about on crutches,—the beauty of her figure was gone—but the beauty of her face grew more perfect every day! Never again was she seen on the hills,—and so to the silly folks of Bosekop she seemed to have disappeared. Indeed, I kept her very existence a secret,—I could not endure that others should hear of the destruction of all that marvellous grace and queenly loveliness! She lived long enough to see her daughter blossom into girlhood,—then,—she died. I could not bear to have her laid in the damp, wormy earth—you know in our creed earth-burial is not practiced,—so I laid her tenderly away in a king's tomb of antiquity,—a tomb known only to myself and one who assisted me to lay her in her last resting-place. There she sleeps right royally,—and now is your mind relieved, my lad? For the reports of the Bosekop folk must certainly have awakened some suspicions in your mind?"
"Your story has interested me deeply, sir," said Errington; "but I assure you I never had any suspicions of you at all. I always disregard gossip—it is generally scandalous, and seldom true. Besides, I took your face on trust, as you took mine."
"Then," declared Gueldmar, with a smile, "I have nothing more to say,—except"—and he stretched out both hands—"may the great gods prosper your wooing! You offer a fairer fate to Thelma than I had dreamed of for her—but I know not what the child herself may say—"
Philip interrupted him. His eyes flashed, and he smiled.
"She loves me!" he said simply. Gueldmar looked at him, laughed a little, and sighed.
"She loves thee?" he said, relapsing into the thee and thou he was wont to use with his daughter. "Thou hast lost no time, my lad? When didst thou find that out?"
"To-day!" returned Philip, with that same triumphant smile playing about his lips. "She told me so—yet even now I cannot believe it!"
"Ah, well, thou mayest believe it truly," said Gueldmar, "for Thelma says nothing that she does not mean! The child has never stooped to even the smallest falsehood."
Errington seemed lost in a happy dream. Suddenly he roused himself and took Gueldmar by the arm.
"Come," he said, "let us go to her! She will wonder why we are so long absent. See! the storm has cleared—the sun is shining. It is understood? You will give her to me?"
"Foolish lad!" said Gueldmar gently. "What have I to do with it? She has given herself to thee! Love has overwhelmed both of your hearts, and before the strong sweep of such an ocean what can an old man's life avail? Nothing—less than nothing! Besides, I should be happy—if I have regrets,—if I feel the tooth of sorrow biting at my heart—'tis naught but selfishness. 'Tis my own dread of parting with her"—his voice trembled, and his fine face quivered with suppressed emotion.
Errington pressed his arm. "Our house shall be yours, sir!" he said eagerly. "Why not leave this place and come with us?"
Gueldmar shook his head. "Leave Norway!" he said—"leave the land of my fathers—turn my back on these mountains and fjords and glaziers? Never! No, no, my lad, you're kind-hearted and generous as becomes you, and I thank you from my heart. But 'twould be impossible! I should be like a caged eagle, breaking my wings against the bars of English conventionalities. Besides, young birds must make their nest without interference from the old ones."
He stepped out on deck as Errington opened the little cabin door, and his features kindled with enthusiasm as he looked on the stretch of dark mountain scenery around him, illumined by the brilliant beams of the sun that shone out now in full splendor, as though in glorious defiance of the retreating storm, which had gradually rolled away in clouds that were tumbling one over the other at the extreme edge of the northern horizon, like vanquished armies taking to hasty flight.
"Could I stand the orderly tameness of your green England, think you, after this?" he exclaimed, with a comprehensive gesture of his hand. "No, no! When death comes—and 'twill not be long coming—let it find me with my face turned to the mountains, and nothing but their kingly crests between me and the blessed sky! Come, my lad!" and he relapsed into his ordinary tone. "If thou art like me when I was thy age, every minute passed away from thy love seems an eternity! Let us go to her—we had best wait till the decks are dry before we assemble up here again."
They descended at once into the saloon, where they found Thelma being initiated into the mysteries of chess by Duprez, while Macfarlane and Lorimer looked idly on. She glanced up from the board as her father and Errington entered, and smiled at them both with a slightly heightened color.
"This is such a wonderful game, father!" she said. "And I am so stupid, I cannot understand it! So Monsieur Pierre is trying to make me remember the moves."
"Nothing is easier!" declared Duprez. "I was showing you how the bishop goes, so—cross-ways," and he illustrated his lesson. "He is a dignitary of the Church, you perceive. Bien! it follows that he cannot go in a straight line,—if you observe them well, you will see that all the religious gentlemen play at cross purposes. You are very quick, Mademoiselle Gueldmar,—you have perfectly comprehended the move of the Castle, and the pretty plunge of the knight. Now, as I told you, the queen can do anything—all the pieces shiver in their shoes before her!"
"Why?" she asked, feeling a little embarrassed, as Sir Philip came and sat beside her, looking at her with an undoubtedly composed air of absolute proprietorship.
"Why? Enfin, the reason is simple!" answered Pierre. "The queen is a woman,—everything must give way to her wish!"
"And the king?" she inquired.
"Ah! Le pauvre Roi! He can do very little—almost nothing! He can only move one step at a time, and that with much labor and hesitation—he is the wooden image of Louis XVI!"
"Then," said the girl quickly, "the object of the game is to protect a king who is not worth protecting!"
Duprez laughed. "Exactly! And thus, in this charming game, you have the history of many nations! Mademoiselle Gueldmar has put the matter excellently! Chess is for those who intend to form republics. All the worry and calculation—all the moves of pawns, bishops, knights, castles, and queens,—all to shelter the throne which is not worth protecting! Excellent! Mademoiselle, you are not in favor of monarchies!"
"I do not know," said Thelma; "I have never thought of such things. But kings should be great men,—wise and powerful, better and braver than all their subjects, should they not?"
"Undoubtedly!" remarked Lorimer; "but, it's a curious thing, they seldom are. Now, our queen, God bless her—"
"Hear, hear!" interrupted Errington, laughing good-humoredly. "I won't have a word said against the dear old lady, Lorimer! Granted that she hates London, and sees no fun in being stared at by vulgar crowds, I think she's quite right,—and I sympathize heartily with her liking for a cup of tea in peace and quiet with some old Scotch body who doesn't care whether she's a queen or a washerwoman."
"I think," said Macfarlane slowly, "that royalty has its duties, ye see, an' though I canna say I object to Her Majesty's homely way o' behavin', still there are a few matters that wad be the better for her pairsonal attention."
"Oh bother!" said Errington gaily. "Look at that victim of the nation, the Prince of Wales! The poor fellow hasn't a moment's peace of his life,—what with laying foundation stones, opening museums, inspecting this and visiting that, he is like a costermonger's donkey, that must gee-up or gee-wo as his master, the people bid. If he smiles at a woman, it is instantly reported that he's in love with her,—if he frankly says he considers her pretty, there's no end to the scandal. Poor royal wretch! I pity him from my heart! The unwashed, beer-drinking, gin-swilling classes, who clamor for shortened hours of labor, and want work to be expressly invented for their benefit, don't suffer a bit more than Albert Edward, who is supposed to be rolling idly in the very lap of luxury, and who can hardly call his soul his own. Why, the man can't eat a mutton-chop without there being a paragraph in the papers headed, 'Diet of the Prince of Wales.' His life is made an infinite bore to him, I'm positive!"
Gueldmar looked thoughtful. "I know little about kings or princes," he said, "but it seems to me, from what I do know, that they have but small power. They are mere puppets. In olden times they possessed supremacy, but now—"
"I will tell you," interrupted Duprez excitedly, "who it is that rules the people in these times,—it is the Pen—Madame La Plume. A little black, sharp, scratching devil she is,—empress of all nations! No crown but a point,—no royal robe save ink! It is certain that as long as Madame la Plume gambols freely over her realms of paper, so long must kings and autocrats shake in their shoes and be uncertain of their thrones. Mon Dieu! if I had but the gift of writing, I would conquer the world!"
"There are an immense number of people writing just now, Pierre," remarked Lorimer, with a smile, "yet they don't do much in the conquering line."
"Because they are afraid!" said Duprez. "Because they have not the courage of their opinions! Because they dare not tell the truth!"
"Upon my life, I believe you are right!" said Errington. "If there were a man bold enough to declare truths and denounce lies, I should imagine it quite possible that he might conquer the world,—or, at any rate, make it afraid of him."
"But is the world so full of lies?" asked Thelma timidly.
Lorimer looked at her gravely. "I fear so, Miss Gueldmar! I think it has a tolerable harvest of them every year,—a harvest, too, that never fails! But I say, Phil! Look at the sun shining! Let us go up on deck,—we shall soon be getting back to the Altenfjord."
They all rose, threw on their caps, and left the saloon with the exception of Errington, who lingered behind, watching his opportunity, and as Thelma followed her father he called her back softly—
She hesitated, and then turned towards him,—her father saw her movement, smiled at her, and nodded kindly, as he passed through the saloon doors and disappeared. With a beating heart, she sprang quickly to her lover's side, and as he caught her in his arms, she whispered—
"You have told him?"
"Your father? Yes, my darling!" murmured Philip, as he kissed her sweet, upturned lips. "Be quite happy—he knows everything. Come, Thelma! tell me again you love me—I have not heard you say it properly yet!"
She smiled dreamily as she leaned against his breast and looked up into his eyes.
"I cannot say it properly!" she said. "There is no language for my heart! If I could tell you all I feel, you would think it foolish, I am sure, because it is all so wild and strange,"—she stopped, and her face grew pale,—"oh!" she murmured with a slight tremor; "it is terrible!"
"What is terrible, my sweet one?" asked Errington drawing her more closely, and folding her more tightly in his arms.
She sighed deeply. "To have no more life of my own!" she answered, while her low voice quivered with intense feeling. "It has all gone—to you! And yours has come to me!—is it not strange and almost sad? How your heart beats, poor boy!—I can hear it throb, throb—so fast!—here, where I am resting my head." She looked up, and her little white hand caressed his cheek. "Philip," she said very softly, "what are you thinking about? Your eyes shine so brightly—do you know you have beautiful eyes?"
"Have I?" he murmured abstractedly, looking down on that exquisite, innocent, glowing face, and trembling with the force of the restrained passion that kindled through him. "I don't know about that!—yours seem to me like two stars fallen from heaven! Oh, Thelma, my darling!—God make me worthy of you."
He spoke with intense fervor,—kissing her with a tenderness, in which there was something of reverence as well as fear. The whole soul of the man was startled and roused to inexpressible devotion, by the absolute simplicity and purity of her nature—the direct frankness with which she had said her life was his—his!—and in what way was HE fitted to be the guardian and possessor of this white lily from the garden of God? She was so utterly different to all women as he had known them—as different as a bird of paradise to a common house-sparrow. Meanwhile, as these thoughts flitted through his brain, she moved gently from his embrace and smiled proudly, yet sweetly.
"Worthy of me?" she said softly and wonderingly. "It is I that will pray to be made worthy of you! You must not put it wrongly, Philip!"
He made no answer, but looked at her as she stood before him, majestic as a young empress in her straight, unadorned white gown.
"Thelma!" he said suddenly, "do you know how lovely you are?"
"Yes!" she answered simply; "I know it, because I am like my mother. But it is not anything to be beautiful,—unless one is loved,—and then it is different! I feel much more beautiful now, since you think me pleasant to look at!"
Philip laughed and caught her hand. "What a child you are!" he said. "Now let me see this little finger." And he loosened from his watch-chain a half-hoop ring of brilliants. "This belonged to my mother, Thelma," he continued gently, "and since her death I have always carried it about with me. I resolved never to part with it, except to—" He paused and slipped it on the third finger of her left hand, where it sparkled bravely.
She gazed at it in surprise. "You part with it now?" she asked, with wonder in her accents. "I do not understand!"
He kissed her. "No? I will explain again, Thelma!—and you shall not laugh at me as you did the very first time I saw you! I resolved never to part with this ring, I say, except to—my promised wife. Now do you understand?"
She blushed deeply, and her eyes dropped before his ardent gaze.
"I do thank you very much, Philip,"—she faltered timidly,—she was about to say something further when suddenly Lorimer entered the saloon. He glanced from Errington to Thelma, and from Thelma back again to Errington,—and smiled. So have certain brave soldiers been known to smile in face of a death-shot. He advanced with his usual languid step and nonchalant air, and removing his cap, bowed gravely and courteously.
"Let me be the first to offer my congratulations to the future Lady Errington! Phil, old man! . . . I wish you joy!"
"Why, sir, in the universal game of double-dealing, shall not the cleverest tricksters play each other false by haphazard, and so betray their closest secrets, to their own and their friends' infinite amazement?"—CONGREVE.
When Olaf Gueldmar and his daughter left the yacht that evening, Errington accompanied them, in order to have the satisfaction of escorting his beautiful betrothed as far as her own door. They were all three very silent—the bonde was pensive, Thelma shy, and Errington himself was too happy for speech. Arriving at the farmhouse, they saw Sigurd curled up under the porch, playing idly with the trailing rose-branches, but, on hearing their footsteps, he looked up, uttered a wild exclamation, and fled. Gueldmar tapped his own forehead significantly.
"He grows worse and worse, the poor lad!" he said somewhat sorrowfully. "And yet there is a strange mingling of foresight and wit with his wild fancies. Wouldst thou believe it, Thelma, child," and here he turned to his daughter and encircled her waist with his arm—"he seemed to know how matters were with thee and Philip, when I was yet in the dark concerning them!"
This was the first allusion her father had made to her engagement, and her head drooped with a sort of sweet shame.
"Nay, now, why hide thy face?" went on the old man cheerily. "Didst thou think I would grudge my bird her summer-time? Not I! And little did I hope for thee, my darling, that thou wouldst find a shelter worthy of thee in this wild world!" He paused a moment, looking tenderly down upon her, as she nestled in mute affection against his breast,—then addressing himself to Errington, he went on—
"We have a story in our Norse religion, my lad, of two lovers who declared their passion to each other, on one stormy night in the depth of winter. They were together in a desolate hut on the mountains, and around them lay unbroken tracts of frozen snow. They were descended from the gods, and therefore the gods protected them—and it happened that after they had sworn their troth, the doors of the snow-bound hut flew suddenly open, and lo! the landscape had changed—the hills were gay with grass and flowers,—the sky was blue and brilliant, the birds sang, and everywhere was heard the ripple of waters let loose from their icy fetters, and gamboling down the rocks in the joyous sun. This was the work of the goddess Friga,—the first kiss exchanged by the lovers she watched over, banished Winter from the land, and Spring came instead. 'Tis a pretty story, and true all the world over—true for all men and women of all creeds! It must be an ice-bound heart indeed that will not warm to the touch of love—and mine, though aged, grows young again in the joy of my children." He put his daughter gently from him to-wards Philip, saying with more gravity, "Go to him, child!—go—with thy old father's blessing! And take with thee the three best virtues of a wife,—truth, humility, and obedience. Good night, my son!" and he wrung Errington's hand with fervor. "You'll take longer to say good night to Thelma," and he laughed, "so I'll go in and leave you to it!"
And with a good-natured nod, he entered the house whistling a tune as he went, that they might not think he imagined himself lonely or neglected,—and the two lovers paced slowly up and down the garden-path together, exchanging those first confidences which to outsiders seem so eminently foolish, but which to those immediately concerned are most wonderful, delightful, strange, and enchanting beyond all description. Where, from a practical point of view, is the sense of such questions as these—"When did you love me first?" "What did you feel when I said so-and-so?" "Have you dreamt of me often?" "Will you love me always, always, always?" and so on ad infinitum. "Ridiculous rubbish!" exclaims the would-be strong-minded, but secretly savage old maid,—and the selfishly matter-of-fact, but privately fidgety and lonely old bachelor. Ah! but there are those who could tell you that at one time or another of their lives this "ridiculous rubbish" seemed far more important than the decline and fall of empires,—more necessary to existence than light and air,—more fraught with hope, fear, suspense, comfort, despair, and anxiety than anything that could be invented or imagined! Philip and Thelma,—man and woman in the full flush of youth, health, beauty, and happiness,—had just entered their Paradise,—their fairy-garden,—and every little flower and leaf on the way had special, sweet interest for them. Love's indefinable glories,—Love's proud possibilities,—Love's long ecstasies,—these, like so many spirit-figures, seemed to smile and beckon them on, on, on, through golden seas of sunlight,—through flower-filled fields of drowsy entrancement,—through winding ways of rose-strewn and lily-scented leafage,—on, on, with eyes and hearts absorbed in one another,—unseeing any end to the dreamlike wonders that, like some heavenly picture-scroll, unrolled slowly and radiantly before them. And so they murmured those unwise, tender things which no wisdom in the world has ever surpassed, and when Philip at last said "Good night!" with more reluctance than Romeo, and pressed his parting kiss on his love's sweet, fresh mouth,—the riddle with which he had puzzled himself so often was resolved at last,—life was worth living, worth cherishing, worth ennobling. The reason of all things seemed clear to him,—Love, and Love only, supported, controlled, and grandly completed the universe! He accepted this answer to all perplexities,—his heart expanded with a sense of large content—his soul was satisfied.
Meanwhile, during his friend's absence from the yacht, Lorimer took it upon himself to break the news to Duprez and Macfarlane. These latter young gentlemen had had their suspicions already, but they were not quite prepared to hear them so soon confirmed. Lorimer told the matter in his own way.
"I say, you fellows!" he remarked carelessly, as he sat smoking in their company on deck, "you'd better look out! If you stare at Miss Gueldmar too much, you'll have Phil down upon you!"
"Ha, ha!" exclaimed Duprez slyly, "the dear Phil-eep is in love?"
"Something more than that," said Lorimer, looking absently at the cigarette he held between his fingers,—"he's an engaged man."
"Engaged!" cried Macfarlane excitedly. "Ma certes! He has the deevil's own luck! He's just secured for himself the grandest woman in the warld!"
"Je le crois bien!" said Duprez gravely, nodding his head several times. "Phil-eep is a wise boy! He is the fortunate one! I am not for marriage at all—no! not for myself,—it is to tie one's hands, to become a prisoner,—and that would not suit me; but if I were inclined to captivity, I should like Mademoiselle Gueldmar for my beautiful gaoler. And beautiful she is, mon Dieu! . . . beyond all comparison!"
Lorimer was silent, so was Macfarlane. After a pause Duprez spoke again.
"And do you know, cher Lorimer, when our Phil-eep will marry?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," returned Lorimer. "I know he's engaged, that's all."
Suddenly Macfarlane broke into a chuckling laugh.
"I say, Lorimer," he said, with his deep-set, small grey eyes sparkling with mischief. "'Twould be grand fun to see auld Dyceworthy's face when he hears o't. By the Lord! He'll fall to cursin' an' swearin' like ma pious aunt in Glasgie, or that auld witch that cursed Miss Thelma yestreen!"
"An eminently unpleasant old woman she was!" said Lorimer musingly. "I wonder what she meant by it!"
"She meant, mon cher," said Duprez airily, "that she knew herself to be ugly and venerable, while Mademoiselle was youthful and ravishing,—it is a sufficient reason to excite profanity in the mind of a lady!"
"Here comes Errington!" said Macfarlane, pointing to the approaching boat that was coming swiftly back from the Gueldmars' pier. "Lorimer, are we to congratulate him?"
"If you like!" returned Lorimer. "I dare say he won't object."
So that as soon as Sir Philip set foot on the yacht, his hands were cordially grasped, and his friends out-vied each other in good wishes for his happiness. He thanked them simply and with a manly straightforwardness, entirely free from the usual affected embarrassment that some modern young men think it seemly to adopt under similar circumstances.
"The fact is," he said frankly, "I congratulate myself,—I'm more lucky than I deserve, I know!"
"What a sensation she will make in London, Phil!" said Lorimer suddenly. "I've just thought of it! Good Heavens! Lady Winsleigh will cry for sheer spite and vexation!"
Philip laughed. "I hope not," he said. "I should think it would need immense force to draw a tear from her ladyship's cold bright eyes."
"She used to like you awfully, Phil!" said Lorimer. "You were a great favorite of hers."
"All men are her favorites with the exception of one—her husband!" observed Errington gaily. "Come along, let's have some champagne to celebrate the day! We'll propose toasts and drink healths—we've got a fair excuse for jollity this evening."
They all descended into the saloon, and had a merry time of it, singing songs and telling good stories, Lorimer being the gayest of the party, and it was long past midnight when they retired to their cabins, without even looking at the wonders of, perhaps, the most gorgeous sky that had yet shone on their travels—a sky of complete rose-color, varying from the deepest shade up to the palest, in which the sun glowed with a subdued radiance like an enormous burning ruby.
Thelma saw it, standing under her house-porch, where her father had joined her,—Sigurd saw it,—he had come out from some thicket where he had been hiding, and he now sat, in a humble, crouching posture at Thelma's feet. All three were silent, reverently watching the spreading splendor of the heavens. Once Gueldmar addressed his daughter in a soft tone.
"Thou are happy, my bird?"
She smiled—the expression of her face was almost divine in its rapture.
"Perfectly happy, my father!"
At the sound of her dulcet voice, Sigurd looked up. His large blue eyes were full of tears, he took her hand and held it in his meagre and wasted one.
"Mistress!" he said suddenly, "do you think I shall soon die?"
She turned her pitying eyes down upon him, startled by the vibrating melancholy of his tone.
"Thou wilt die, Sigurd," answered Gueldmar gently, "when the gods please,—not one second sooner or later. Art thou eager to see Valhalla?"
Sigurd nodded dreamily. "They will understand me there!" he murmured. "And I shall grow straight and strong and brave! Mistress, if you meet me in Valhalla, you will love me!"
She stroked his wild fair locks. "I love you now, Sigurd," she said tenderly. "But perhaps we shall all love each other better in heaven."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Sigurd, patting her hand caressingly. "When we are all dead, dead! When our bodies crumble away and turn to flowers and birds and butterflies,—and our souls come out like white and red flames,—yes! . . . then we shall love each other and talk of such strange, strange things!" He paused and laughed wildly. Then his voice sank again into melancholy monotony—and he added: "Mistress, you are killing poor Sigurd!"
Thelma's face grow very earnest and anxious. "Are you vexed with me, dear?" she asked soothingly. "Tell me what it is that troubles you?"
Sigurd met her eyes with a look of speechless despair and shook his head.
"I cannot tell you!" he muttered. "All my thoughts have gone to drown themselves one by one in the cold sea! My heart was buried yesterday, and I saw it sealed down into its coffin. There is something of me left,—something that dances before me like a flame,—but it will not rest, it does not obey me. I call it, but it will not come! And I am getting tired, mistress—very, very tired!" His voice broke, and a low sob escaped him,—he hid his face in the folds of her dress. Gueldmar looked at the poor fellow compassionately.
"The wits wander further and further away!" he said to his daughter in a low tone. "'Tis a mind like a broken rainbow, split through by storm—'twill soon vanish. Be patient with him, child,—it cannot be for long!"
"No, not for long!" cried Sigurd, raising his head brightly. "That is true—not for long! Mistress, will you come to-morrow with me and gather flowers? You used to love to wander with your poor boy in the fields,—but you have forgotten,—and I cannot find any blossoms without you! They will not show themselves unless you come! Will you? dear, beautiful mistress! will you come?"
She smiled, pleased to see him a little more cheerful. "Yes, Sigurd," she said; "I will come. We will go together early to-morrow morning and gather all the flowers we can find. Will that make you happy?"
"Yes!" he said, softly kissing the hem of her dress. "It will make me happy—for the last time."
Then he rose in an attitude of attention, as though he had been called by some one at a distance,—and with a grave, preoccupied air he moved away, walking on tip-toe as though he feared to interrupt the sound of some soft invisible music. Gueldmar sighed as he watched him disappear.
"May the gods make us thankful for a clear brain when we have it!" he said devoutly; and then turning to his daughter, he bade her good night, and laid his hands on her golden head in silent but fervent blessing. "Child," he said tremulously, "in the new joys that await thee, never forget how thy old father loves thee!"
Then, not trusting himself to say more, he strode into the house and betook himself to slumber. Thelma followed his example, and the old farmhouse was soon wrapped in the peace and stillness of the strange night—a night of glittering sunshine. Sigurd alone was wakeful,—he lay at the foot of one of the tallest pine-trees, and stared persistently at the radiant sky through the network of dark branches. Now and then he smiled as though he saw some beatific vision—sometimes he plucked fitfully at the soft long moss on which he had made his couch, and sometimes he broke into a low, crooning song. God alone knew the broken ideas, the dim fancies, the half born desires, that glimmered like pale ghosts in the desert of his brain,—God alone, in the great Hereafter, could solve the problem of his sorrows and throw light on his soul's darkness.
It was past six in the morning when he arose, and smoothing back his tangled locks, went to Thelma's window and sat down beneath it, in mute expectancy. He had not long to wait,—at the expiration of ten or fifteen minutes, the little lattice was thrown wide open, and the girl's face, fresh as a rose, framed in a shower of amber locks, smiled down upon him.
"I am coming, Sigurd!" she cried softly and joyously. "How lovely the morning is! Stay for me there! I shall not be long."
And she disappeared, leaving her window open. Sigurd heard her singing little scraps of song to herself, as she moved about in the interior of her room. He listened, as though his soul were drawn out of him by her voice,—but presently the rich notes ceased, and there was a sudden silence. Sigurd knew or guessed the reason of that hush,—Thelma was at her prayers. Instinctively the poor forlorn lad folded his wasted hands—most piteously and most imploringly he raised his bewildered eyes to the blue and golden glory of the sky. His conception of God was indefinable; his dreams of heaven, chaotic minglings of fairy-land with Valhalla,—but he somehow felt that wherever Thelma's holy aspirations turned, there the angels must be listening.
Presently she came out of the house, looking radiant as the morning itself,—her luxuriant hair was thrown back over her shoulders, and fell loosely about her in thick curls, simply confined by a knot of blue ribbon. She carried a large osier basket, capacious, and gracefully shaped.
"Now, Sigurd," she called sweetly, "I am ready! Where shall we go?"
Sigurd hastened to her side, happy and smiling.
"Across there," he said, pointing toward the direction of Bosekop. "There is a stream under the trees that laughs to itself all day—you know it, mistress? And the poppies are in the field as you go—and by the banks there are the heart's-ease flowers—we cannot have too many of them! Shall we go?"
"Wherever you like, dear," answered Thelma tenderly, looking down from her stately height on the poor stunted creature at her side, who held her dress as though he were a child clinging to her as his sole means of guidance. "All the land is pleasant to-day."
They left the farm and its boundaries. A few men were at work on one of Gueldmar's fields, and these looked up,—half in awe, half in fear,—as Thelma and her fantastic servitor passed along.
"'Tis a fine wench!" said one man, resting on his spade, and following with his eyes the erect, graceful figure of his employer's daughter.
"Maybe, maybe!" said another gruffly; "but a fine wench is a snare of the devil! Do ye mind what Lovisa Elsland told us?"
"Ay, ay," answered the first speaker, "Lovisa knows,—Lovisa is the wisest woman we have in these parts—that's true! The girl's a witch, for sure!"
And they resumed their work in gloomy silence. Not one of them would have willingly labored on Olaf Gueldmar's land, had not the wages he offered been above the usual rate of hire,—and times were bad in Norway. But otherwise, the superstitious fear of him was so great that his fields might have gone untilled and his crops ungathered,—however, as matters stood, none of them could deny that he was a good paymaster, and just in his dealings with those whom he employed.
Thelma and Sigurd took their way in silence across a perfumed stretch of meadow-land,—the one naturally fertile spot in that somewhat barren district. Plenty of flowers blossomed at their feet, but they did not pause to gather these, for Sigurd was anxious to get to the stream where the purple pansies grew. They soon reached it—it was a silvery clear ribbon of water that unrolled itself in bright folds, through green, transparent tunnels of fern and waving grass—leaping now and then with a swift dash over a smooth block of stone or jagged rock—but for the most part gliding softly, with a happy, self-satisfied murmur, as though it were some drowsy spirit dreaming joyous dreams. Here nodded the grave, purple-leaved pansies,—legendary consolers of the heart,—their little, quaint, expressive physiognomies turned in every direction; up to the sky, as though absorbing the sunlight,—down to the ground, with an almost severe air of meditation, or curled sideways on their stems in a sort of sly reflectiveness.
Sigurd was among them at once—they were his friends,—his playmates, his favorites,—and he gathered them quickly, yet tenderly, murmuring as he did so, "Yes, you must all die; but death does not hurt; no! life hurts, but not death! See! as I pluck you, you all grow wings and fly away—away to other meadows, and bloom again." He paused, and a puzzled look came into his eyes. He turned toward Thelma, who had seated herself on a little knoll just above the stream, "Tell me, mistress," he said, "do the flowers go to heaven?"
She smiled. "I think so, dear Sigurd," she said; "I hope so! I am almost sure they do."
Sigurd nodded with an air of satisfaction.
"That is right," he observed. "It would never do to leave them behind, you know! They would be missed, and we should have to come down again and fetch them—" A crackling among the branches of some trees startled him,—he looked round, and uttered a peculiar cry like the cry of a wild animal, and exclaimed, "Spies, spies! ha! ha! secret, wicked faces that are afraid to show themselves! Come out! Mistress, mistress! make them come out!"
Thelma rose, surprised as his gesticulations, and came towards him; to her utter astonishment she found herself confronted by old Lovisa Elsland, and the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy's servant, Ulrika. On both women's faces there was a curious expression of mingled fear, triumph, and malevolence. Lovisa was the first to break silence.
"At last!" she croaked, in a sort of slow, monotonous tone "At last, Thelma Gueldmar, the Lord has delivered you into my hands!"
Thelma drew Sigurd close to her, and slipped one arm around him.
"Poor soul!" she said softly, with sweet pitying eyes fixed fearlessly on the old hag's withered, evil visage. "You must be tired, wandering about on the hills as you do! If you are her friend," she added, addressing Ulrika, "why do you not make her rest at home and keep warm? She is so old and feeble!"
"Feeble!" shrieked Lovisa; "feeble!" And she seemed choking with passion. "If I had my fingers at your throat, you should then see if I am feeble! I—" Ulrika pulled her by the arm, and whispered something which had the effect of calming her a little. "Well," she said, "you speak then! I can wait!"
Ulrika cleared her husky voice, and fixed her dull eyes on the girl's radiant countenance.
"You must go away," she said coldly and briefly; "You and your father, and this creature," and she pointed contemptuously to the staring Sigurd. "Do you understand? You must leave the Alten Fjord. The people are tired of you—tired of bad harvests, ill-luck, sickness, and continued poverty. You are the cause of all our miseries,—and we have resolved you shall not stay among us. Go quickly,—take the blight and pestilence of your presence elsewhere! Go! or if you will not—"
"We shall burn, burn, burn, and utterly destroy!" interrupted Lovisa, with a sort of eldritch shriek. "The strong pine rafters of Olaf Gueldmar's dwelling shall be kindled into flame to light the hills with crimson, far and near! Not a plank shall be spared!—not a vestige of his pride be left—"
"Stop!" said Thelma quietly. "What do you mean? You must both be very mad or very wicked! You want us to go away—you threaten to set fire to our home—why? We have done you no harm. Tell me, poor soul!" and she turned with queenly forbearance to Lovisa, "is it for Britta's sake that you would burn the house she lives in? That is not wise! You cursed me the other day,—and why? What have I done that you should hate me?"
The old woman regarded her with steadfast, cruel eyes.
"You are your mother's child!" she said. "I hated her—I hate you! You are a witch!—the village knows it—Mr. Dyceworthy knows it! Mr. Dyceworthy says we shall be justified in the Lord's sight for wreaking evil upon you! Evil, evil be on those of evil deeds!"
"Then shall the evil fall on Mr. Dyceworthy," said the girl calmly. "He is wicked in himself,—and doubly wicked to encourage you in wickedness. He is ignorant and false—why do you believe in such a man?"
"He is a saint—a saint!" cried Lovisa wildly. "And shall the daughter of Satan withstand his power?" And she clapped her hands in a sort of fierce ecstasy.
Thelma glanced at her pityingly and smiled. "A saint! Poor thing, how little you know him!" she said. "And it is a pity you should hate me, for I have done you no wrong. I would do good to all if I knew how,—tell me can I comfort you, or make your life more cheerful? It must be hard to be so old and all alone!"
"Your death would comfort me!" returned Lovisa grimly. "Why do you keep Britta from me?"
"I do not keep her," Thelma answered. "She stays with me because she is happy. Why do you grudge her, her happiness? And as for burning my father's house, surely you would not do so wicked and foolish a thing!—but still, you must do as you choose, for it is not possible that we shall leave the Altenfjord to please you."
Here Ulrika started forward angrily. "You defy us!" she cried. "You will not go?" And in her excitement she seized Thelma's arm roughly.
This action was too much for Sigurd; he considered it an attack on the person of his beloved mistress and he resented it at once in his own fashion. Throwing himself on Ulrika with sudden ferocity, he pushed and beat her back as though he were a wolf-hound struggling with refractory prey; and though the ancient Lovisa rushed to the rescue, and Thelma imploringly called upon her zealous champion to desist,—all remonstrances were unavailing, till Sigurd had reduced his enemy to the most abject and whimpering terror.
"A demon—a demon!" she sobbed and moaned, as the valiant dwarf at last released her from his clutches; and, tossing his long, fair locks over his misshapen shoulders, laughed loudly and triumphantly with delight at his victory. "Lovisa! Lovisa Elsland! this is your doing; you brought this upon me! I may die now, and you will not care! O Lord, Lord, have mercy—"
Suddenly she stopped; her eyes dilated,—her face grew grey with the sickening pallor of fear. Slowly she raised her hand and pointed to Sigurd—his fantastic dress had become disordered in the affray, and his jacket was torn open,—and on his bare chest a long red scar in the shape of a cross was distinctly visible. "That scar!" she muttered. "How did he get that scar?"
Lovisa stared at her in impatient derision. Thelma was too surprised to answer immediately, and Sigurd took it upon himself to furnish what he considered a crushing reply.
"Odin's mark!" he said, patting the scar with much elation. "No wonder you are afraid of it! Everybody knows it—birds, flowers, trees, and stars! Even you—you are afraid!"
And he laughed again, and snapped his fingers in her face. The woman shuddered violently. Step by step she drew near to the wondering Thelma, and spoke in low and trembling accents, without a trace of her former anger.
"They say you are wicked," she said slowly, "and that the devil has your soul ready, before you are dead! But I am not afraid of you. No; I will forgive you, and pray for you, if you will tell me, . . ." She paused, and then continued, as with a strong effort. "Yes—tell me who is this Sigurd?"
"Sigurd is a foundling," answered Thelma simply. "He was floating about in the Fjord in a basket, and my father saved him. He was quite a baby. He had this scar on his chest then. He has lived with us ever since."
Ulrika looked at her searchingly,—then bent her head,—whether in gratitude or despair it was difficult to say.
"Lovisa Elsland," she said monotonously, "I am going home. I cannot help you any longer! I am tired—ill." Here she suddenly broke down, and, throwing up her arms with a wild gesture, she cried, "O God, God! O God!" and burst into a stormy passion of sobs and tears.
Thelma, touched by her utter misery, would have offered consolation, but Lovisa repelled her with a fierce gesture.
"Go!" said the old woman harshly. "You have cast your spells upon her—I am witness of your work! And shall you escape just punishment? No; not while there is a God in heaven, and I, Lovisa Elsland, live to perform His bidding! Go,—white devil that you are!—go and carry misfortune upon misfortune to your fine gentleman-lover! Ah!" and she chuckled maliciously as the girl recoiled from her, her proud face growing suddenly paler, "have I touched you there? Lie in his breast, and it shall be as though a serpent stung him,—kiss his lips, and your touch shall be poison,—live in doubt, and die in misery! Go! and may all evil follow you!"
She raised her staff and waved it majestically, as though she drew a circle in the air,—Thelma smiled pityingly, but deigned no answer to her wild ravings.
"Come, Sigurd!" she said simply, "let us return home. It is growing late—father will wonder where we are."
"Yes, yes," agreed Sigurd, seizing the basket full of the pansies he had plucked. "The sunshine is slipping away, and we cannot live with shadows! These are not real women, mistress; they are dreams—black dreams,—I have often fought with dreams, and I know how to make them afraid! See how the one weeps because she knows me,—and the other is just going to fall into a grave. I can hear the clods thrown on her head—thump—thump! It does not take long to bury a dream! Come, mistress, let us follow the sunshine!"