And, taking the hand she extended towards him, he turned away, looking back once, however, to call out loudly—
"Good-bye, bad dreams!"
As they disappeared behind the trees, Lovisa turned angrily to the still-sobbing Ulrika.
"What is this folly?" she exclaimed, striking her staff fiercely into the ground. "Art mad or bewitched?"
Ulrika looked up,—her plain face swollen and stained with weeping.
"O Lord, have mercy upon me! O Lord, forgive me!" she moaned. "I did not know it—how could I know?"
Lovisa grew so impatient that she seized her by the shoulder and shook her violently.
"Know what?" she cried; "know what?"
"Sigurd is my son!" said Ulrika, with a sort of solemn resignation,—then, with a sudden gesture, she threw her hands above her head, crying, "My son, my son! The child I thought I had killed! The Lord be praised I did not murder him!"
Lovisa Elsland seemed stupefied with surprise. "Is this the truth?" she asked at last, slowly and incredulously.
"The truth, the truth!" cried Ulrika passionately. "It is always the truth that comes to light! He is my child, I tell you! . . . I gave him that scar!" She paused, shuddering, and continued in a lower tone, "I tried to kill him with a knife, but when the blood flowed, it sickened me, and I could not! He was an infant abortion—the evil fruit of an evil deed—and I threw him out to the waves,—as I told you, long ago. You have had good use of my confession, Lovisa Elsland; you have held me in your power by means of my secret, but now—"
The old woman interrupted her with a low laugh of contempt and malice.
"As the parents are, so are the children!" she said scornfully. "Your lover must have been a fine man, Ulrika, if the son is like his father!"
Ulrika glared at her vengefully, then drew herself up with an air of defiance.
"I care nothing for your taunts, Lovisa Elsland!" she said. "You can do me no harm! All is over between us! I will help in no mischief against the Gueldmars. Whatever their faults, they saved—my child!"
"Is that so great a blessing?" asked Lovisa ironically.
"It makes your threats useless," answered Ulrika. "You cannot call me murderess again!"
"Coward and fool!" shrieked Lovisa. "Was it your intent that the child should live? Were you not glad to think it dead? And cannot I spread the story of your infamy through all the villages where you are known? Is not the wretched boy himself a living witness of the attempt you made to kill him? Does not that scar speak against you? Would not Olaf Gueldmar relate the story of the child's rescue to any one that asked him? Would you like all Bosekop to know of your intrigue with an escaped criminal, who was afterwards caught and hung! The virtuous Ulrika—the zealous servant of the Gospel—the pious, praying Ulrika!" and the old woman trembled with rage and excitement. "Out of my power? Never, never! As long as there is breath in my body I will hold you down! Not a murderess, you say—?"
"No," said Ulrika very calmly, with a keen look, "I am not—but you are!"
"Il n'y a personne qui ait eu autant a souffrir a votre sujet que moi depuis ma naissance! aussi je vous supplie a deux genoux et au nom de Dien, d'avoir pitie de moi!"—Old Breton Ballad.
In a few more days Thelma's engagement to Sir Philip Bruce-Errington was the talk of the neighborhood. The news spread gradually, having been, in the first place, started by Britta, whose triumph in her mistress's happiness was charming to witness. It reached the astonished and reluctant ears of the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy, whose rage was so great that it destroyed his appetite for twenty-four hours. But the general impression in the neighborhood, where superstition maintained so strong a hold on the primitive and prejudiced minds of the people, was that the reckless young Englishman would rue the day on which he wedded "the white witch of the Altenfjord."
Gueldmar was regarded with more suspicion than ever, as having used some secret and diabolical influence to promote the match; and the whole party were, as it seemed, tabooed, and looked upon as given up to the most unholy practices.
Needless to say, the opinions of the villagers had no effect whatever on the good spirits of those who were thus unfavorably criticised, and it would have been difficult to find a merrier group than that assembled one fine morning in front of Gueldmar's house, all equipped from top to toe for some evidently unusually lengthy and arduous mountain excursion. Each man carried a long, stout stick, portable flask, knapsack, and rug—the latter two articles strapped together and slung across the shoulder—and they all presented an eminently picturesque appearance, particularly Sigurd, who stood at a little distance from the others, leaning on his tall staff and gazing at Thelma with an air of peculiar pensiveness and abstraction.
She was at that moment busied in adjusting Errington's knapsack more comfortably, her fair, laughing face turned up to his, and her bright eyes alight with love and tender solicitude.
"I've a good mind not to go at all," he whispered in her ear. "I'll come back and stay with you all day."
"You foolish boy!" she answered merrily. "You would miss seeing the grand fall—all for what? To sit with me and watch me spinning, and you would grow so very sleepy! Now, if I were a man, I would go with you."
"I'm very glad you're not a man!" said Errington, pressing the little hand that had just buckled his shoulder-strap. "Though I wish you were going with us. But I say, Thelma, darling, won't you be lonely?"
She laughed gaily. "Lonely? I? Why, Britta is with me—besides, I am never lonely now." She uttered the last word softly, with a shy, upward glance. "I have so much to think about—" She paused and drew her hand away from her lover's close clasp. "Ah," she resumed, with a mischievous smile, "you are a conceited boy! You want to be missed! You wish me to say that I shall feel most miserable all the time you are away! If I do, I shall not tell you!"
"Thelma, child?" called Olaf Gueldmar, at this juncture "keep the gates bolted and doors barred while we are absent. Remember, thou and Britta must pass the night alone here,—we cannot be at home till late in the evening of to-morrow. Let no one inside the garden, and deny thyself to all comers. Dost thou hear?"
"Yes, father," she responded meekly.
"And let Britta keep good guard that her crazy hag of a grandam come not hither to disturb or fright thee with her croaking,—for thou hast not even Sigurd to protect thee."
"Not even Sigurd!" said that personage, with a meditative smile. "No, mistress; not even poor Sigurd!"
"One of us might remain behind," suggested Lorimer, with a side-look at his friend.
"Oh no, no!" exclaimed Thelma anxiously. "It would vex me so much! Britta and I have often been alone before. We are quite safe, are we not, father?"
"Safe enough!" said the old man, with a laugh. "I know of no one save Lovisa Elsland who has the courage to face thee, child! Still, pretty witch as thou art, 'twill not harm thee to put the iron bar across the house door, and to lock fast the outer gate when we have gone. This done, I have no fear of thy safety. Now," and he kissed his daughter heartily, "now lads, 'tis time we were on the march! Sigurd, my boy, lead on!"
"Wait!" cried Sigurd, springing to Thelma's side. "I must say good-bye!" And he caught the girl's hand and kissed it,—then plucking a rose, he left it between her fingers. "That will remind you of Sigurd, mistress! Think of him once to-day!—once again when the midnight glory shines. Good-bye, mistress! that is what the dead say, . . . Good-bye!"
And with a passionate gesture of farewell, he ran and placed himself at the head of the little group that waited for him, saying exultingly—
"Now follow me! Sigurd knows the way! Sigurd is the friend of all the wild waterfall! Up the hills,—across the leaping stream,—through the sparkling foam!" And he began chanting to himself a sort of wild mountain song.
Macfarlane looked at him dubiously. "Are ye sure?" he said to Gueldmar. "Are ye sure that wee chap kens whaur he's gaun? He'll no lead us into a ditch an' leave us there, mistakin' it for the Fall?"
Gueldmar laughed heartily. "Never fear! Sigurd's the best guide you can have, in spite of his fancies. He knows all the safest and surest paths; and Njedegorze is no easy place to reach, I can tell you!"
"Pardon! How is it called?" asked Duprez eagerly.
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. "I give it up!" he said smilingly. "Mademoiselle Gueldmar, if anything happens to me at this cascade with the name unpronounceable, you will again be my doctor, will you not?"
Thelma laughed as she shook hands with him. "Nothing will happen," she rejoined; "unless, indeed, you catch cold by sleeping in a hut all night. Father, you must see that they do not catch cold!"
The bonde nodded, and motioned the party forward, Sigurd leading the way,—Errington, however, lingered behind on pretense of having forgotten something, and, drawing his betrothed in his arms, kissed her fondly.
"Take care of yourself, darling!" he murmured,—and then hurrying away he rejoined his friends, who had discreetly refrained from looking back, and therefore had not seen the lovers embrace.
Sigurd, however, had seen it, and the sight apparently gave fresh impetus to his movements, for he sprang up the adjacent hill with so much velocity that those who followed had some difficulty to keep up with him,—and it was not till they were out of sight of the farmhouse that he resumed anything like a reasonable pace.
As soon as they had disappeared, Thelma turned into the house and seated herself at her spinning-wheel. Britta soon entered the room, carrying the same graceful implement of industry, and the two maidens sat together for some time in a silence unbroken, save by the low melodious whirring of the two wheels, and the mellow complaints of the strutting doves on the window-sill.
"Froeken Thelma!" said Britta at last, timidly.
"Yes, Britta?" And her mistress looked up inquiringly.
"Of what use is it for you to spin now?" queried the little handmaid. "You will be a great lady, and great ladies do not work at all!"
Thelma's wheel revolved more and more slowly, till at last it stopped altogether.
"Do they not?" she said half inquiringly and musingly. "I think you must be wrong, Britta. It is impossible that there should be people who are always idle. I do not know what great ladies are like."
"I do!" And Britta nodded her curly head sagaciously. "There was a girl from Hammerfest who went to Christiania to seek service—she was handy at her needle, and a fine spinner, and a great lady took her right away from Norway to London. And the lady bought her spinning-wheel for a curiosity she said,—and put it in the corner of a large parlor, and used to show it to her friends, and they would all laugh and say, 'How pretty!' And Jansena,—that was the girl—never span again—she wore linen that she got from the shops,—and it was always falling into holes, and Jansena was always mending, mending, and it was no good!"
Thelma laughed. "Then it is better to spin, after all, Britta—is it not?"
Britta looked dubious. "I do not know," she answered; "but I am sure great ladies do not spin. Because, as I said to you, Froeken, this Jansena's mistress was a great lady, and she never did anything,—no! nothing at all,—but she put on wonderful dresses, and sat in her room, or was driven about in a carriage. And that is what you will do also, Froeken!"
"Oh no, Britta," said Thelma decisively. "I could not be so idle. Is it not fortunate I have so much linen ready? I have quite enough for marriage."
The little maid looked wistful. "Yes, dear Froeken," she murmured hesitatingly; "but I was thinking if it is right for you to wear what you have spun. Because, you see, Jansena's mistress had wonderful things all trimmed with lace,—and they would all come back from the washing torn and hanging in threads, and Jansena had to mend those as well as her own clothes. You see, they do not last at all—and they cost a large sum of money; but it is proper for great ladies to wear them."
"I am not sure of that, Britta," said Thelma, still musingly. "But still, it may be—my bridal things may not please Philip. If you know anything about it, you must tell me what is right."
Britta was in a little perplexity. She had gathered some idea from her friend Jansena concerning life in London,—she had even a misty notion of what was meant by a "trousseau" with all its dainty, expensive, and often useless fripperies; but she did not know how to explain her-self to her young mistress, whose simple, almost severe tastes would, she instinctively felt, recoil from anything like ostentation in dress, so she was discreetly silent.
"You know, Britta," continued Thelma gently, "I shall be Philip's wife, and I must not vex him in any little thing. But I do not quite understand. I have always dressed in the same way,—and he has never said that he thought me wrongly clothed."
And she looked down with quite a touching pathos at her straight, white woolen gown, and smoothed its folds doubtfully. The impulsive Britta sprang to her side and kissed her with girlish and unaffected enthusiasm.
"My dear, my dear! You are more lovely and sweet than anybody in the world!" she cried. "And I am sure Sir Philip thinks so too!"
A beautiful roseate flush suffused Thelma's cheeks, and she smiled.
"Yes, I know he does!" she replied softly. "And, after all, it does not matter what one wears."
Britta was meditating,—she looked lovingly at her mistress's rippling wealth of hair.
"Diamonds!" she murmured to herself in a sort of satisfied soliloquy. "Diamonds, like those you have on your finger, Froeken,—diamonds all scattered among your curls like dew-drops! And white satin, all shining, shining!—people would take you for an angel!"
Thelma laughed merrily. "Britta, Britta! You are talking such nonsense! Nobody dresses so grandly except queens in fairy-tales."
"Do they not?" and the wise Britta looked more profound than ever. "Well, we shall see, dear Froeken—we shall see!"
"We?" queried Thelma with surprised emphasis.
Her little maid blushed vividly, and looked down demurely, twisting and untwisting the string of her apron.
"Yes, Froeken," she said in a low tone. "I have asked Sir Philip to let me go with you when you leave Norway."
"Britta!" Thelma's astonishment was too great for more than this exclamation.
"Oh, my dear! don't be angry with me!" implored Britta, with sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and excited tongue all pleading eloquently together, "I should die here without you! I told the bonde so; I did, indeed I And then I went to Sir Philip—he is such a grand gentleman,—so proud and yet so kind,—and I asked him to let me still be your servant. I said I knew all great ladies had a maid, and if I was not clever enough I could learn, and—and—" here Britta began to sob, "I said I did not want any wages—only to live in a little corner of the same house where you were,—to sew for you, and see you, and hear your voice sometimes—" Here the poor little maiden broke down altogether and hid her face in her apron crying bitterly.
The tears were in Thelma's eyes too, and she hastened to put her arm round Britta's waist, and tried to soothe her by every loving word she could think of.
"Hush, Britta dear! you must not cry," she said tenderly. "What did Philip say?"
"He said," jerked out Britta convulsively, "that I was a g-good little g-girl, and that he was g-glad I wanted to g-go!" Here her two sparkling wet eyes peeped out of the apron inquiringly, and seeing nothing but the sweetest affection on Thelma's attentive face, she went on more steadily. "He p-pinched my cheek, and he laughed—and he said he would rather have me for your maid than anybody—there!"
And this last exclamation was uttered with so much defiance that she dashed away the apron altogether, and stood erect in self-congratulatory glory, with a particularly red little nose and very trembling lips. Thelma smiled, and caressed the tumbled brown curls.
"I am very glad, Britta!" she said earnestly. "Nothing could have pleased me more! I must thank Philip. But it is of father I am thinking—what will father and Sigurd do?"
"Oh, that is all settled, Froeken," said Britta, recovering herself rapidly from her outburst. "The bonde means to go for one of his long voyages in the Valkyrie—it is time she was used again, I'm sure,—and Sigurd will go with him. It will do them both good—and the tongues of Bosekop can waggle as much as they please, none of us will be here to mind them!"
"And you will escape your grandmother!" said Thelma amusedly, as she once more set her spinning-wheel in motion.
Britta laughed delightedly. "Yes! she will not find her way to England without some trouble!" she exclaimed. "Oh, how happy I shall be! And you"—she looked pleadingly at her mistress—"you do not dislike me for your servant?"
"Dislike!" and Thelma gave her a glance of mingled reproach and tenderness. "You know how fond I am of you, Britta! It will be like having a little bit of my old home always with me."
Silently Britta kissed her hand, and then resumed her work. The monotonous murmur of the two wheels recommenced,—this time pleasantly accompanied by the rippling chatter of the two girls, who, after the fashion of girls all the world over, indulged in many speculations as to the new and strange life that lay before them.
Their ideas were of the most primitive character,—Britta had never been out of Norway, and Thelma's experiences, apart from her home life, extended merely to the narrow and restricted bounds of simple and severe convent discipline, where she had been taught that the pomps and vanities of the world were foolish and transient shows, and that nothing could please God more than purity and rectitude of soul. Her character was formed, and set upon a firm basis—firmer than she herself was conscious of. The nuns who had been entrusted with her education had fulfilled their task with more than their customary zeal—they were interested in the beautiful Norwegian child for the sake of her mother, who had also been their charge. One venerable nun in particular had bestowed a deep and lasting benefit on her, for, seeing her extraordinary beauty, and forestalling the dangers and temptations into which the possession of such exceptional charms might lead her, she adopted a wise preventive course, that cased her as it were in armor, proof against all the assailments of flattery. She told the girl quite plainly that she was beautiful,—but at the same time made her aware that beauty was common,—that she shared it alike with birds, flowers, trees, and all the wonderful objects of nature—moreover, that it was nothing to boast of, being so perishable.
"Suppose a rose foolish enough to boast of its pretty leaves," said the gentle religieuse on one occasion. "They all fall to the ground in a short time, and become decayed and yellow—it is only the fragrance, or the soul of the rose that lasts." Such precepts, that might have been wasted on a less sensitive and thoughtful nature, sank deeply into Thelma's mind—she accepted them not only in theory but in practice, and the result was that she accepted her beauty as she accepted her health,—as a mere natural occurrence—no more. She was taught that the three principal virtues of a woman were chastity, humility, and obedience,—these were the laws of God, fixed and immutable, which no one dared break without committing grievous and unpardonable sin. So she thought, and according to her thoughts she lived. What a strange world, then, lay before her in the contemplated change that was about to take place in the even tenor of her existence! A world of intrigue and folly—a world of infidelity and falsehood!—how would she meet it? It was a question she never asked herself—she thought London a sort of magnified Christiania, or at best, the Provencal town of Arles on a larger scale. She had heard her father speak of it, but only in a vague way, and she had been able to form no just idea even to herself of the enormous metropolis crowded to excess with its glad and sorrowful, busy and idle, rich and poor millions. England itself floated before her fancy as a green, fertile, embowered island where Shakespeare had lived—and it delighted her to know that her future home, Errington Manor, was situated in Warwickshire, Shakespeare's county. Of the society that awaited her she had no notion,—she was prepared to "keep house" for her husband in a very simple way—to spin his household linen, to spare him all trouble and expense, and to devote herself body and soul to his service. As may be well imagined, the pictures she drew of her future married life, as she sat and span with Britta on that peaceful afternoon, were widely different to the destined reality that every day approached her more nearly.
Meantime, while the two girls were at home and undisturbed in the quiet farm house, the mountaineering party, headed by Sigurd, were well on their way towards the great Fall of Njedegorze. They had made a toilsome ascent of the hills by the side of the Alten river—they had climbed over craggy boulders and slippery rocks, sometimes wading knee-deep in the stream, or pausing to rest and watch the salmon leap and turn glittering somersaults in the air close above the diamond-clear water,—and they had beguiled their fatigue with songs and laughter, and the telling of fantastic legends and stories in which Sigurd had shone at his best—indeed, this unhappy being was in a singularly clear and rational frame of mind, disposed, too, to be agreeable even towards Errington. Lorimer, who for reasons of his own, had kept a close watch on Sigurd ever since his friend's engagement to Thelma, was surprised and gratified at this change in his former behavior, and encouraged him in it, while Errington himself responded to the dwarf's proffered friendship, and walked beside him, chatting cheerfully, during the most part of the excursion to the Fall. It was a long and exceedingly difficult journey—and in some parts dangerous—but Sigurd proved himself worthy of the commendations bestowed on him by the bonde, and guided them by the easiest and most secure paths, till at last, about seven o'clock in the evening, they heard the rush and roar of the rapids below the Fall, and with half an hour's more exertion, came in sight of them, though not as yet of the Fall itself. Yet the rapids were grand enough to merit attention—and the whole party stopped to gaze on the whirling wonders of water that, hissing furiously, circled round and round giddily in wheels of white foam, and then, as though enraged, leaped high over obstructing stones and branches, and rushed onward and downward to the smoother length of the river.
The noise was deafening,—they could not hear each other speak unless by shouting at the top of their voices, and even then the sounds were rendered almost indistinct by the riotous uproar. Sigurd, however, who knew all the ins and outs of the place, sprang lightly on a jutting crag, and, putting both hands to his mouth, uttered a peculiar, shrill, and far-reaching cry. Clear above the turmoil of the restless waters, that cry was echoed back eight distinct times from the surrounding rocks and hills. Sigurd laughed triumphantly.
"You see!" he exclaimed, as he resumed his leadership of the party, "they all know me! They are obliged to answer me when I call—they dare not disobey!" And his blue eyes flashed with that sudden wild fire that generally foretold some access of his particular mania.
Errington saw this and said soothingly, "Of course not, Sigurd! No one would dream of disobeying you! See how we follow you to-day—we all do exactly what you tell us."
"We are sheep, Sigurd," added Lorimer lazily; "and you are the shepherd!"
Sigurd looked from one to the other half doubtingly, half cunningly. He smiled.
"Yes!" he said. "You will follow me, will you not? Up to the very top of the Fall?"
"By all means!" answered Sir Philip gaily. "Anywhere you choose to go!"
Sigurd seemed satisfied, and lapsing into the calm, composed manner which had distinguished him all day, he led the way as before, and they resumed their march, this time in silence, for conversation was well-nigh impossible. The nearer they came to the yet invisible Fall, the more thunderous grew the din—it was as though they approached some vast battle-field, where opposing armies were in full action, with all the tumult of cannonade and musketry. The ascent grew steeper and more difficult—at times the high barriers of rocks seemed almost impassable,—often they were compelled to climb over confused heaps of huge stones, through which the eddying water pushed its way with speed and fury,—but Sigurd's precision was never at fault,—he leaped crag after crag swiftly and skillfully, always lighting on a sure foothold, and guiding the others to do the same. At last, at a sharp turn of one of these rocky eminences, they perceived an enormous cloud of white vapor rising up like smoke from the earth, and twisting itself as it rose, in swaying, serpentine folds, as though some giant spirit-hand were shaking it to and fro like a long flowing veil in the air. Sigurd paused and pointed forward.
"Njedegorze!" he cried.
They all pressed on with some excitement. The ground vibrated beneath their feet with the shock of the falling torrent, and the clash and uproar of the disputing waters rolled in their ears like the grand, sustained bass of some huge cathedral organ. Almost blinded by the spray that dashed its disdainful drops in their faces, deafened by the majestic, loud, and ceaseless eloquence that poured its persuasive force into the splitting hearts of the rocks around them,—breathless with climbing, and well-nigh tread out, they struggled on, and broke into one unanimous shout of delight and triumph when they at last reached the small hut that had been erected for the convenience of travellers who might choose that way to journey to the Altenfjord,—and stood face to face with the magnificent cascade, one of the grandest in Norway. What a sublime spectacle it was!—that tempest of water sweeping sheer down the towering rocks in one straight, broad, unbroken sheet of foam! A myriad rainbows flashed in the torrent and vanished, to reappear again instantly with redoubled lustre,—while the glory of the evening sunlight glittering on one side of the fall made it gleam like a sparkling shower of molten gold.
"Njedegorze!" cried Sigurd again, giving a singularly musical pronunciation to the apparently uncouth name. "Come! still a little further,—to the top of the Fall!"
Olaf Gueldmar, however, paid no attention to this invitation. He was already beginning to busy himself with preparations for passing the night comfortably in the hut before mentioned. Stout old Norseman as he was, there were limits to his endurance, and the arduous exertions of the long day had brought fatigue to him as well as to the rest of the party.
Macfarlane was particularly exhausted. His frequent pulls at the whiskey flask had been of little or no avail as a support to his aching limbs, and, now he had reached his destination, he threw himself full length on the turf in front of the hut and groaned most dismally.
Lorimer surveyed him amusedly, and stood beside him, the very picture of a cool young Briton whom nothing could possibly discompose.
"Done up—eh, Sandy?" he inquired.
"Done up!" growled Macfarlane. "D'ye think I'm a Norseman or a jumping Frenchy?" This with a look of positive indignation at the lively Duprez, who, if tired, was probably too vain to admit it, for he was strutting about, giving vent to his genuine admiration of the scene before him with the utmost freshness and enthusiasm. "I'm just a plain Scotchman, an' no such a fule at climbin' either! Why, man, I've been up Goatfell in Arran, an' Ben Lomond an' Ben Nevis—there's a mountain for ye, if ye like! But a brae like this, wi' a' the stanes lyin' helter-skelter, an' crags that ye can barely hold on to—and a mad chap guidin' ye on at the speed o' a leapin' goat—I tell ye, I havena been used to't." Here he drew out his flask and took another extensive pull at it. Then he added suddenly, "Just look at Errington! He'll be in a fair way to break his neck if he follows yon wee crazy loon any further."
At these words Lorimer turned sharply round, and perceived his friend following Sigurd step by step up a narrow footing in the steep ascent of some rough, irregular crags that ran out and formed a narrow ledge, ending in a sharp point, jutting directly over the full fury of the waterfall. He watched the two climbing figures for an instant without any anxiety,—then he suddenly remembered that Philip had promised to go with Sigurd "to the top of the Fall." Acting on a rapid impulse which he did not stop to explain to himself, Lorimer at once started off after them,—but the ascent was difficult; they were some distance ahead, and though he shouted vociferously, the roar of the cascade rendered his voice inaudible. Gaining on them, however, by slow degrees, he was startled when all at once they disappeared at the summit—and, breathless with his rapid climb, he paused, bewildered. By-and-by he saw Sigurd creeping cautiously out along the rocky shelf that overhung the tumbling torrent—his gaze grew riveted with a sort of deadly fascination on the spot.
"Good God!" he muttered under his breath. "Surely Phil will not follow him there!"
He watched with strained eyes,—and a smothered cry escaped him as Errington's tall figure, erect and bold, appeared on that narrow and dangerous platform! He never knew how he clambered up the rest of the slippery ascent. A double energy seemed given to his active limbs. He never paused again for one second till he also stood on the platform, without being heard or perceived by either Sigurd or Philip. Their backs were turned to him, and he feared to move or speak, lest a sudden surprised movement on their parts should have the fatal result of precipitating one or both into the fall. He remained, therefore, behind them, silent and motionless,—looking, as they looked, at the terrific scene below. From that point, Njedegorze was as a huge boiling caldron, from which arose twisted wreaths and coiling lengths of white vapor, faintly colored with gold and silvery blue. Dispersing in air, these mists took all manner of fantastic forms,—ghostly arms seemed to wave and beckon, ghostly hands to unite in prayer,—and fluttering creatures in gossamer draperies of green and crimson, appeared to rise and float, and retire and shrink, to nothingness again in the rainbow drift and sweep of whirling foam. Errington gazed unconcernedly down on the seething abyss. He pushed back his cap from his brow, and let the fresh wind play among his dark, clustering curls. His nerves were steady, and he surveyed the giddily twisting wheels of shining water, without any corresponding giddiness in his own brain. He had that sincere delight in a sublime natural spectacle, which is the heritage of all who possess a poetic and artistic temperament; and though he stood on a frail ledge of rock, from which one false or unwary step might send him to certain destruction, he had not the slightest sense of possible danger in his position. Withdrawing his eyes from the Fall, he looked kindly down at Sigurd, who in turn was staring up at him with a wild fixity of regard.
"Well, old boy," he said cheerfully, "this is a fine sight! Have you had enough of it? Shall we go back?"
Sigurd drew imperceptibly nearer. Lorimer, from his point of vantage behind a huge bowlder, drew nearer also.
"Go back?" echoed Sigurd. "Why should we go back?"
"Why, indeed!" laughed Errington, lightly balancing himself on the trembling rocks beneath him. "Except that I should scarcely think this is the best place on which to pass the night! Not enough room, and too much noise! What say you?"
"Oh, brave, brave, fool!" cried the dwarf in sudden excitement. "Are you not afraid?"
The young baronet's keen eyes glanced him over with amused wonder.
"What of?" he demanded coolly. Still nearer came Sigurd—nearer also came the watchful, though almost invisible Lorimer.
"Look down there!" continued Sigurd in shrill tones, pointing to the foaming gulf. "Look at the Elf-danz—see the beautiful spirits with the long pale green hair and glittering wings! See how they beckon, beckon, beckon! They want some one to join them—look how their white arms wave,—they throw back their golden veils and smile at us! They call to you—you with the strong figure and the proud eyes—why do you not go to them? They will kiss and caress you—they have sweet lips and snow-white bosoms,—they will love you and take care of you—they are as fair as Thelma!"
"Are they? I doubt it!" and Errington smiled dreamily as he turned his head again towards the fleecy whirl of white water, and saw at once with an artist's quick eye what his sick-brained companion meant by the Elf-danz, in the fantastic twisting, gliding shapes tossed up in the vaporous mist of the Fall. "But I'll take your word, Sigurd, without making the elves' personal acquaintance! Come along—this place is bad for you—we'll dance with the green-haired nymphs another time."
And with a light laugh he was about to turn away, when he was surprised by a sudden, strange convulsion of Sigurd's countenance—his blue eyes flashed with an almost phosphorescent lustre,—his pale skin flushed deeply red, and the veins in his forehead started into swelled and knotted prominence.
"Another time!" he screamed loudly; "no, no! Now—now! Die, robber of Thelma's love! Die—die—die!"
Repeating these words like quick gasps of fury, he twisted his meager arms tightly round Errington, and thrust him fiercely with all his might towards the edge of the Fall. For one second Philip strove against him—the next, he closed his eyes—Thelma's face smiled on his mind in that darkness as though in white farewell—the surging blood roared in his ears with more thunder than the terrific tumble of the torrent—"God!" he muttered, and then—then he stood safe on the upper part of the rocky platform with Lorimer's strong hand holding him in a vice-like grasp, and Lorimer's face, pale, but looking cheerfully into his. For a moment he was too bewildered to speak. His friend loosened him and laughed rather forcedly—a slight tremble of his lips was observable under his fair moustache.
"By Jove, Phil," he remarked in his usual nonchalant manner, "that was rather a narrow shave! Fortunate I happened to be there!"
Errington gazed about him confusedly. "Where's Sigurd?" he asked.
"Gone! Ran off like a 'leapin' goat,' as Sandy elegantly describes him. I thought at first he meant to jump over the Fall, in which case I should have been compelled to let him have his own way, as my hands were full. But he's taken a safe landward direction."
"Didn't he try to push me over?"
"Exactly! He was quite convinced that the mermaids wanted you. But I considered that Miss Thelma's wishes had a prior claim on my regard."
"Look here, old man," said Errington suddenly, "don't jest about it! You saved my life!"
"Well!" and Lorimer laughed. "Quite by accident, I assure you."
"Not by accident!" and Philip flushed up, looking very handsome and earnest. "I believe you followed us up here thinking something might happen. Now didn't you?"
"Suppose I did," began Lorimer, but he was interrupted by his friend, who seized his hand, and pressed it with a warm, close, affectionate fervor. Their eyes met—and Lorimer blushed as though he had performed some action meriting blame rather than gratitude. "That'll do, old fellow," he said almost nervously. "As we say in polite society when some one crushes our favorite corn under his heel—don't mention it! You see Sigurd is cracked,—there's not the slightest doubt about that,—and he's hardly accountable for his vagaries. Then I know something about him that perhaps you don't. He loves your Thelma!"
They were making the descent of the rocks together, and Errington stopped short in surprise.
"Loves Thelma! You mean as a brother—"
"Oh no, I don't! I mean that he loves her as brothers often love other people's sisters—his affection is by no means fraternal—if it were only that—"
"I see!" and Philip's eyes filled with a look of grave compassion. "Poor fellow! I understand his hatred of me now. Good Heavens! how he must suffer! I forgive him with all my heart. But—I say, Thelma has no idea of this!"
"Of course not. And you'd better not tell her. What's the good of making her unhappy?"
"But how did you learn it?" inquired Philip, with a look of some curiosity at his friend.
"Oh, I!" and Lorimer laughed carelessly; "I was always an observing sort of fellow—fond of putting two and two together and making four of them, when I wasn't too exhausted and the weather wasn't too hot for the process. Sigurd's rather attached to me—indulges me with some specially private ravings now and then—I soon found out his secret, though I believe the poor little chap doesn't understand his own feelings himself."
"Well," said Errington thoughtfully, "under the circumstances you'd better not mention this affair of the Fall to Gueldmar. It will only vex him. Sigurd won't try such a prank again."
"I'm not so sure of that," replied Lorimer; "but you know enough now to be on your guard with him." He paused and looked up with a misty softness in his frank blue eyes—then went on in a subdued tone—"When I saw you on the edge of that frightful chasm, Phil—" He broke off as if the recollection were too painful, and exclaimed suddenly—"Good God! if I had lost you!"
Errington clapped one hand on his shoulder.
"Well! What if you had?" he asked almost mirthfully, though there was a suspicious tremble in his ringing voice.
"I should have said with Horatio, 'I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,'—and gone after you," laughed Lorimer. "And who knows what a jolly banquet we might not have been enjoying in the next world by this time? If I believe in anything at all, I believe in a really agreeable heaven—nectar and ambrosia, and all that sort of thing, and Hebes to wait upon you."
As he spoke they reached the sheltering hut, where Gueldmar, Duprez, and Macfarlane were waiting rather impatiently for them.
"Where's Sigurd?" cried the bonde.
"Gone for a ramble on his own account," answered Errington readily. "You know his fancies!"
"I wish his fancies would leave him," grumbled Gueldmar. "He promised to light a fire and spread the meal—and now, who knows whither he has wandered?"
"Never mind, sir," said Lorimer. "Engage me as a kitchen-boy. I can light a fire, and can also sit beside it when it is properly kindled. More I cannot promise. As the housemaids say when they object to assist the cook,—it would be beneath me."
"Cook!" cried Duprez, catching at this word. "I can cook! Give me anything to broil. I will broil it! You have coffee—I will make it!" And in the twinkling of an eye he had divested himself of his coat, turned up his cuffs, and manufactured the cap of a chef out of a newspaper which he stuck jauntily on his head. "Behold me, messieurs, a votre service!"
His liveliness was infectious; they all set to work with a will, and in a few moments a crackling wood-fire blazed cheerily on the ground, and the gipsy preparations for the al fresco supper went on apace amid peals of laughter. Soon the fragrance of steaming coffee arose and mingled itself with the resinous odors of the surrounding pine-trees,—while Macfarlane distinguished himself by catching a fine salmon trout in a quiet nook of the rushing river, and this Duprez cooked in a style that would have done honor to a cordon bleu. They made an excellent meal, and sang songs in turn and told stories,—Olaf Gueldmar, in particular, related eerie legends of the Dovre-fjelde, and many a striking history of ancient origin, full of terror and superstition,—concerning witches, devils, and spirits both good and evil, who are still believed to have their abode on the Norwegian hills,—for, as the bonde remarked with a smile, "when civilization has driven these unearthly beings from every other refuge in the world, they will always be sure of a welcome in Norway."
It was eleven o'clock when they at last retired within the hut to rest for the night, and the errant Sigurd had not returned. The sun shone brilliantly, but there was no window to the small shed, and light and air came only through the door, which was left wide open. The tired travellers lay down on their spread-out rugs and blankets, and wishing each other a cheerful "good night," were soon fast asleep. Errington was rather restless, and lay awake for some little time, listening to the stormy discourse of the Fall; but at last his eyelids yielded to the heaviness that oppressed them, and he sank into a light slumber.
Meanwhile the imperial sun rode majestically downwards to the edge of the horizon,—and the sky blushed into the pale tint of a wild rose, that deepened softly and steadily with an ever-increasing fiery brilliance as the minutes glided noiselessly on to the enchanted midnight hour. A wind began to rustle mysteriously among the pines—then gradually growing wrathful, strove to whistle a loud defiance to the roar of the tumbling waters. Through the little nooks and crannies of the roughly constructed cabin, where the travellers slept, it uttered small wild shrieks of warning or dismay—and, suddenly, as though touched by an invisible hand, Sir Philip awoke. A crimson glare streaming through the open door dazzled his drowsy eyes—was it a forest on fire? He started up in dreamy alarm,—then remembered where he was. Realizing that there must be an exceptionally fine sky to cast so ruddy a reflection on the ground, he threw on his cloak and went outside.
What a wondrous, almost unearthly scene greeted him! His first impulse was to shout aloud in sheer ecstasy—his next to stand silent in reverential awe. The great Fall was no longer a sweeping flow of white foam—it had changed to a sparkling shower of rubies, as though some great genie, tired of his treasures, were flinging them away by giant handfuls, in the most reckless haste and lavish abundance. From the bottom of the cascade a crimson vapor arose, like smoke from flame, and the whirling rapids, deeply red for the most part, darkened here and there into an olive-green flecked with gold, while the spray, tossed high over interrupting rocks and boulders, glittered as it fell like, small fragments of broken opal. The sky was of one dense uniform rose-color from west to east,—soft and shimmering as a broad satin pavilion freshly unrolled,—the sun was invisible, hidden behind the adjacent mountains, but his rays touched some peaks in the distance, on which white wreaths of snow lay, bringing them into near and sparkling prominence.
The whole landscape was transformed—the tall trees, rustling and swaying in the now boisterous wind, took all flickering tints of color on their trunks and leaves,—the grey stones and pebbles turned to lumps of gold and heaps of diamonds, and on the other side of the rapids, a large tuft of heather in a cleft of the rocks glowed with extraordinary vividness and warmth, like a suddenly kindled fire. A troop of witches dancing wildly on the sward,—a ring of fairies,—kelpies tripping from crag to crag,—a sudden chorus of sweet-voiced water-nymphs—nothing unreal or fantastical would have surprised Errington at that moment. Indeed, he almost expected something of the kind—the scene was so eminently fitted for it.
"Positively, I must wake Lorimer," he thought to himself. "He oughtn't to miss such a gorgeous spectacle as this."
He moved a little more in position to view the Fall. What was that small dark object running swiftly yet steadily along on the highest summit of those jutting crags? He rubbed his eyes amazedly—was it—could it be Sigurd? He watched it for a moment,—then uttered a loud cry as he saw it pause on the very ledge of rock from which but a short while since, he himself had been so nearly precipitated. The figure was now distinctly visible, outlined in black against the flaming crimson of the sky,—it stood upright and waved its arms with a frantic gesture. There was no mistaking it—it was Sigurd!
Without another second's hesitation Errington rushed back to the hut and awoke, with clamorous alarm, the rest of the party. His brief explanation sufficed—they all hurried forth in startled excitement. Sigurd still occupied his hazardous position, and as they looked at him he seemed to dance wildly nearer the extreme edge of the rocky platform. Old Gueldmar turned pale. "The gods preserve him!" he muttered in his beard—then turning he began resolutely to make the ascent of the rocks with long, rapid strides—the young men followed him eager and almost breathless, each and all bent upon saving Sigurd from the danger in which he stood, and trying by different ways to get more quickly near the unfortunate lad and call, or draw him back by force from his point of imminent deadly peril. They were more than half-way up, when a piercing cry rang clearly above the thunderous din of the fall—a cry that made them pause for a moment.
Sigurd had caught sight of the figures advancing to his rescue, and was waving them back with eloquent gesture of anger and defiance. His small misshapen body was alive with wrath,—it seemed as though he were some dwarf king ruling over the glittering crimson torrent, and grimly forbidding strangers to enter on the boundaries of his magic territory. They, however, pressed on with renewed haste,—and they had nearly reached the summit when another shrill cry echoed over the sunset-colored foam.
Once more they paused—they were in full view of the distraught Sigurd, and he turned his head towards them, shaking back his long fair hair with his old favorite gesture and laughing in apparent glee. Then he suddenly raised his arms, and, clasping his hands together, poised himself as though he were some winged thing about to fly.
"Sigurd! Sigurd!" shouted Gueldmar, his strong voice tremulous with anguish. "Come back! come back to Thelma!"
At the sound of that beloved name, the unhappy creature seemed to hesitate, and, profiting by that instant of irresolution, Errington and Lorimer rushed forward—Too late! Sigurd saw them coming, and glided with stealthy caution to the very brink of the torrent, where there was scarcely any foothold—there he looked back at his would-be rescuers with an air of mystery and cunning, and broke into a loud derisive laugh.
Then—still with clasped hands and smiling face—unheeding the shout of horror that broke from those who beheld him—he leaped, and fell! Down, down into the roaring abyss! For one half-second—one lightning flash—his twisted figure, like a slight black speck was seen against the wide roseate glory of the tumbling cascade—then it disappeared, engulfed and lost for ever! Gone,—with all his wild poet fancies and wandering dreams—gone, with his unspoken love and unguessed sorrows—gone where dark things shall be made light,—and where the broken or tangled chain of the soul's intelligence shall be mended and made perfect by the tender hands of the All-Wise and the All-Loving One, whose ways are too gloriously vast for our finite comprehension.
"Gone, mistress!" as he would have said to the innocent cause of his heart's anguish. "Gone where I shall grow straight and strong and brave! Mistress, if you meet me in Valhalla, you will love me!"
"Do not, I pray you, think evilly of so holy a man! He has a sore combat against the flesh and the devil!"—The Maid of Honor.
The horror-stricken spectators of the catastrophe stood for a minute inert and speechless,—stupefied by its suddenness and awful rapidity. Then with one accord they hurried down to the level shore of the torrent, moved by the unanimous idea that they might possibly succeed in rescuing Sigurd's frail corpse from the sharp teeth of the jagged rocks, that, piercing upwards through the foam of the roaring rapids, were certain to bruise, tear, and disfigure it beyond all recognition. But even this small satisfaction was denied them. There was no sign of a floating or struggling body anywhere visible. And while they kept an eager look-out, the light in the heavens slowly changed. From burning crimson it softened to a tender amethyst hue, as smooth and delicate as the glossy pale tint of the purple clematis,—and with it the rosy foam of the Fall graduated to varying tints of pink, from pink to tender green, and lastly, it became as a shower of amber wine. Gueldmar spoke first in a voice broken by deep emotion.
"'Tis all over with him, poor lad!" he said, and tears glittered thickly in his keen old eyes. "And—though the gods, of a surety, know best—this is an end I looked not for! A mournful home-returning shall we have—for how to break the news to Thelma is more than I can tell!"
And he shook his head sorrowfully while returning the warm and sympathizing pressure of Errington's hand.
"You see," he went on, with a wistful look at the grave and compassionate face of his accepted son-in-law—"the boy was no boy of mine, 'tis true—and the winds had more than their share of his wits—yet—we knew him from a baby—and my wife loved him for his sad estate, which he was not to blame for. Thelma, too—he was her first playmate—"
The bonde could trust himself to say no more, but turned abruptly away, brushing one hand across his eyes, and was silent for many minutes. The young men, too, were silent,—Sigurd's determined suicide had chilled and sickened them. Slowly they returned to the hut to pass the remaining hours of the night—though sleep was, of course, after what they had witnessed, impossible. They remained awake, therefore, talking in low tones of the fatal event, and listening to the solemn sough of the wind through the pines, that sounded to Errington's ears like a monotonous forest dirge. He thought of the first time he had ever seen the unhappy creature whose wandering days had just ended,—of that scene in the mysterious shell cavern,—of the wild words he had then uttered—how strangely they came back to Philip's memory now!
"You have come as a thief in the golden midnight, and the thing you seek is the life of Sigurd! Yes—yes! it is true—the spirit cannot lie! You must kill, you must steal—see how the blood drips, drop by drop, from the heart of Sigurd! and the jewel you steal,—ah! what a jewel! You shall not find such another in Norway!" Was not the hidden meaning of these incoherent phrases rendered somewhat clear now? though how the poor lad's disordered imagination had been able thus promptly to conjure up with such correctness, an idea of Errington's future relations with Thelma, was a riddle impossible of explanation. He thought, too, with a sort of generous remorse, of that occasion when Sigurd had visited him on board the yacht to implore him to leave the Altenfjord. He realized everything,—the inchoate desires of the desolate being, who, though intensely capable of loving, felt himself in a dim, sad way, unworthy of love,—the struggling passions in him that clamored for utterance—the instinctive dread and jealousy of a rival, while knowing that he was both physically and mentally unfitted to compete with one,—all these things passed through Philip's mind, and filled him with a most profound pity for the hidden sufferings, the tortures and inexplicable emotions which had racked Sigurd's darkened soul. And, still busy with these reflections, he turned on his arm as he lay, and whispered softly to his friend who was close by him—"I say, Lorimer,—I feel as if I had been to blame somehow in this affair! If I had never come on the scene, Sigurd would still have been happy in his own way."
Lorimer was silent. After a pause, Errington went on still in the same low tone.
"Poor little fellow! Do you know, I can't imagine anything more utterly distracting than having to see such a woman as Thelma day after day,—loving her all the time, and knowing such love to be absolutely hopeless! Why, it was enough to make him crazier than ever!"
Lorimer moved restlessly. "Yes, it must have been hard on him!" he answered at last, in a gentle, somewhat sad tone. "Perhaps it's as well he's out of it all. Life is infinitely perplexing to many of us. By this time he's no doubt wiser than you or I, Phil,—he could tell us the reason why love is such a blessing to some men, and such a curse to others!"
Errington made no answer, and they relapsed into silence—silence which was almost unbroken save by an occasional deep sigh from Olaf Gueldmar and a smothered exclamation such as, "Poor lad, poor lad! Who would have thought it?"
With the early dawn they were all up and ready for the homeward journey,—though with very different feelings to those with which they had started on their expedition. The morning was dazzlingly bright and clear,—and the cataract of Njedegorze rolled down in glittering folds of creamy white and green, uttering its ceaseless psalm of praise to the Creator in a jubilant roar of musical thunder. They paused and looked at it for the last time before leaving,—it had assumed for them a new and solemn aspect—it was Sigurd's grave. The bonde raised his cap from his rough white hair,—instinctively the others followed his example.
"May the gods grant him good rest!" said the old man reverently. "In the wildest waters they say there is a calm underflow,—maybe the lad has found it and is glad to sleep." He paused and stretched his hands forth with an eloquent and touching gesture. "Peace be with him!"
Then, without more words, and as though disdaining his own emotion, he turned abruptly away, and began to descend the stony and precipitous hill, up which Sigurd had so skillfully guided them the day before. Macfarlane and Duprez followed him close,—Macfarlane casting more than once a keen look over the rapids.
"'Tis a pity we couldna find his body," he said in a low tone.
Duprez shrugged his shoulders. Sigurd's death had shocked him considerably by its suddenness, but he was too much of a volatile Frenchman to be morbidly anxious about securing the corpse.
"I think not so at all," he said. "Of what use would it be? To grieve mademoiselle? to make her cry? That would be cruel,—I would not assist in it! A dead body is not a sight for ladies,—believe me, things are best as they are."
They went on, while Errington and Lorimer lingered yet a moment longer.
"A magnificent sepulchre!" said Lorimer, dreamily eyeing for the last time the sweeping flow of the glittering torrent. "Better than all the monuments ever erected! Upon my life, I would not mind having such a grave myself! Say what you like, Phil, there was something grand in Sigurd's choice of a death. We all of us have to get out of life somehow one day—that's certain—but few of us have the chance of making such a triumphant exit!"
Errington looked at him with a grave smile. "How you talk, George!" he said half-reproachfully. "One would think you envied the end of that unfortunate, half-witted fellow! You've no reason to be tired of your life, I'm sure,—all your bright days are before you."
"Are they?" And Lorimer's blue eyes looked slightly melancholy. "Well, I dare say they are! Let's hope so at all events. There need be something before me,—there isn't much behind except wasted opportunities. Come on, Phil!"
They resumed their walk, and soon rejoined the others. The journey back to the Altenfjord was continued all day with but one or two interruptions for rest and refreshment. It was decided that on reaching home, old Gueldmar should proceed a little in advance, in order to see his daughter alone first, and break to her the news of the tragic event that had occurred,—so that when, after a long and toilsome journey, they caught sight, at about eight in the evening, of the familiar farmhouse through the branches of the trees that surrounded and sheltered it, they all came to a halt.
The young men seated themselves on a pleasant knoll under some tall pines, there to wait a quarter of an hour or so, while the bonde went forward to prepare Thelma. On second thoughts, the old man asked Errington to accompany him,—a request to which he very readily acceded, and these two, leaving the others to follow at their leisure, went on their way rapidly. They arrived at, and entered the garden,—their footsteps made a crunching noise on the pebbly path,—but no welcoming face looked forth from any of the windows of the house. The entrance door stood wide open,—there was not a living soul to be seen but the kitten asleep in a corner of the porch, and the doves drowsing on the roof in the sunshine. The deserted air of the place was unmistakable, and Gueldmar and Errington exchanged looks of wonder not unmixed with alarm.
"Thelma! Thelma!" called the bonde anxiously. There was no response. He entered the house and threw open the kitchen door. There was no fire,—and not the slightest sign of any of the usual preparations for supper.
"Britta!" shouted Gueldmar. Still no answer. "By the gods!" he exclaimed, turning to the astonished Philip, "this is a strange thing! Where can the girls be? I have never known both of them to be absent from the house at the same time. Go down to the shore, my lad, and see if Thelma's boat is missing, while I search the garden."
Errington obeyed—hurrying off on his errand with a heart beating fast from sudden fear and anxiety. For he knew Thelma was not likely to have gone out of her own accord, at the very time she would have naturally expected her father and his friends back, and the absence of Britta too, was, to say the least of it, extraordinary. He reached the pier very speedily, and saw at a glance that the boat was gone. He hastened back to report this to Gueldmar, who was making the whole place resound with his shouts of "Thelma!" and "Britta!" though he shouted altogether in vain.
"Maybe," he said dubiously, on hearing of the missing boat—"Maybe the child has gone on the Fjord—'tis often her custom,—but, then, where is Britta? Besides, they must have expected us—they would have prepared supper—they would have been watching for our return. No, no! there is something wrong about this—'tis altogether unusual."
And he looked about him in a bewildered way, while Sir Philip, noting his uneasiness, grew more and more uneasy himself.
"Let me go and search for them, sir," he said, eagerly. "They may be in the woods, or up towards the orchard."
Gueldmar shook his head and drew his fuzzy white brows together in puzzled meditation—suddenly he started and struck his staff forcibly on the ground.
"I have it!" he exclaimed. "That old hag Lovisa is at the bottom of this!"
"By Jove!" cried Errington. "I believe you're right! What shall we do?"
At that moment, Lorimer, Duprez, and Macfarlane came on the scene, thinking they had kept aloft long enough,—and the strange disappearance of the two girls was rapidly explained to them. They listened astonished and almost incredulous, but agreed with the bonde as to Lovisa's probable share in the matter.
"Look here!" said Lorimer excitedly. "I'm not in the least tired,—show me the way to Talvig, where that old screech-owl lives, and I'll go there straight as a gun! Shouldn't wonder if she has not forced away her grandchild, in which case Miss Thelma may have gone after her."
"I'll come with you!" said Errington. "Let's lose no time about it."
But Gueldmar shook his head. "'Tis a long way, my lads,—and you do not know the road. No—'twill be better we should take the boat and pull over to Bosekop; there we can get a carriole to take two of us at least to Talvig—"
He stopped, interrupted by Macfarlane, who looked particularly shrewd.
"I should certainly advise ye to try Bosekop first," he remarked cautiously. "Mr. Dyceworthy might be able to provide ye with valuable information."
"Dyceworthy!" roared the bonde, becoming inflammable at once. "He knows little of me or mine, thank the gods! and I would not by choice step within a mile of his dwelling. What makes you think of him, sir?"
Lorimer laid a hand soothingly on his arm.
"Now, my dear Mr. Gueldmar, don't get excited! Mac is right. I dare say Dyceworthy knows as much in his way as the ancient Lovisa. At any rate, it isn't his fault if he does not. Because you see—" Lorimer hesitated and turned to Errington. "You tell him, Phil! you know all about it."
"The fact is," said Errington, while Gueldmar gazed from one to the other in speechless amazement, "Thelma hasn't told you because she knew how angry you'd be—but Dyceworthy asked her to marry him. Of course she refused him, and I doubt if he's taken his rejection very resignedly."
The face of the old farmer as he heard these words was a study. Wonder, contempt, pride, and indignation struggled for the mastery on his rugged features.
"Asked—her—to—marry—him!" he repeated slowly. "By the sword of Odin! Had I known it I would have throttled him!" His eyes blazed and he clenched his hand. "Throttled him, lads! I would! Give me the chance and I'll do it now! I tell you, the mere look of such a man as that is a desecration to my child,—liar and hypocrite as he is! may the gods confound him!" He paused—then suddenly bracing himself up, added. "I'll away to Bosekop at once—they've been afraid of me there for no reason—I'll teach them to be afraid of me in earnest! Who'll come with me?"
All eagerly expressed their desire to accompany him with the exception of one,—Pierre Duprez,—he had disappeared.
"Why, where has he gone?" demanded Lorimer in some surprise.
"I canna tell," replied Macfarlane. "He just slipped awa' while ye were haverin' about Dyceworthy—he'll maybe join us at the shore."
To the shore they at once betook themselves, and were soon busied in unmooring Gueldmar's own rowing-boat, which, as it had not been used for some time, was rather a tedious business,—moreover they noted with concern that the tide was dead against them.
Duprez did not appear,—the truth is, that he had taken into his head to start off for Talvig on foot without waiting for the others. He was fond of an adventure and here was one that suited him precisely—to rescue distressed damsels from the grasp of persecutors. He was tired, but he managed to find the road,—and he trudged on determinedly, humming a song of Beranger's as he walked to keep him cheerful. But he had not gone much more than a mile when he discerned in the distance a carriole approaching him,—and approaching so swiftly that it appeared to swing from side to side of the road at imminent risk of upsetting altogether. There seemed to be one person in it—an excited person too, who lashed the stout little pony and urged it on to fresh exertions with gesticulations and cries. That plump buxom figure—that tumbled brown hair streaming wildly on, the breeze,—that round rosy face—why! it was Britta! Britta, driving all alone, with the reckless daring of a Norwegian peasant girl accustomed to the swaying, jolting movement of the carriole as well as the rough roads and sharp turnings. Nearer she came and nearer—and Duprez hailed her with a shout of welcome. She saw him, answered his call, and drove still faster,—soon she came up beside him, and without answering his amazed questions, she cried breathlessly—
"Jump in—jump in! We must go on as quickly as possible to Bosekop! Quick—quick! Oh my poor Froeken! The old villain! Wait till I get at him!"
"But, my leet-le child!" expostulated Pierre, climbing up into the queer vehicle—"What is all this? I am in astonishment—I understand not at all! How comes it that you are run away from home, and Mademoiselle also?"
Britta only waited till he was safely seated, and then lashed the pony with redoubled force. Away they clattered at a break-neck pace, the Frenchman having much ado to prevent himself from being jolted out again on the road.
"It is a wicked plot!" she then exclaimed, panting with excitement—"a wicked, wicked plot! This afternoon Mr. Dyceworthy's servant came and brought Sir Philip's card. It said that he had met with an accident and had been brought back to Bosekop, and that he wished the Froeken to come to him at once. Of course, the darling believed it all—and she grew so pale, so pale! And she went straight away in her boat all by herself! Oh my dear—my dear!"
Britta gasped for breath, and Duprez soothingly placed an arm round her waist, an action which the little maiden seemed not to be aware of. She resumed her story—"Then the Froeken had not been gone so very long, and I was watching for her in the garden, when a woman passed by—a friend of my grandmother's. She called out—'Hey, Britta! Do you know they have got your mistress down at Talvig, and they'll burn her for a witch before they sleep!' 'She has gone to Bosekop,' I answered, 'so I know you tell a lie.' 'It is no lie,' said the old woman, 'old Lovisa has her this time for sure.' And she laughed and went away. Well, I did not stop to think twice about it—I started off for Talvig at once—I ran nearly all the way. I found my grandmother alone—I asked her if she had seen the Froeken? She screamed and clapped her hands like a mad woman! she said that the Froeken was with Mr. Dyceworthy—Mr. Dyceworthy would know what to do with her!"
"Sapristi!" ejaculated Duprez. "This is serious!"
Britta glanced anxiously at him, and went on. "Then she tried to shut the doors upon me and beat me—but I escaped. Outside I saw a man I knew with his carriole, and I borrowed it of him and came back as fast as I could—but oh! I am so afraid—my grandmother said such dreadful things!"
"The others have taken a boat to Bosekop," said Duprez, to reassure her. "They may be there by now."
Britta shook her head. "The tide is against them—no! we shall be there first. But," and she looked wistfully at Pierre, "my grandmother said Mr. Dyceworthy had sworn to ruin the Froeken. What did she mean, do you think?"
Duprez did not answer,—he made a strange grimace and shrugged his shoulders. Then he seized the whip and lashed the pony.
"Faster, faster, mon chere!" he cried to that much-astonished, well-intentioned animal. "It is not a time to sleep, ma foi!" Then to Britta—"My little one, you shall see! We shall disturb the good clergyman at his peaceful supper—yes indeed! Be not afraid!"
And with such reassuring remarks he beguiled the rest of the way, which to both of them seemed unusually long, though it was not much past nine when they rattled into the little village called by courtesy a town, and came to a halt within a few paces of the minister's residence. Everything was very quiet—the inhabitants of the place retired to rest early—and the one principal street was absolutely deserted. Duprez alighted.
"Stay you here, Britta," he said, lightly kissing the hand that held the pony's reins. "I will make an examination of the windows of the house. Yes—before knocking at the door! You wait with patience. I will let you know everything!"
And with a sense of pleasurable excitement in his mind, he stole softly along on tip-toe—entered the minister's garden, fragrant with roses and mignonette, and then, attracted by the sound of voices, went straight up to the parlor window. The blind was down and he could see nothing, but he heard Mr. Dyceworthy's bland persuasive tones, echoing out with a soft sonorousness, as though he were preaching to some refractory parishioner. He listened attentively.
"Oh strange, strange!" said Mr. Dyceworthy. "Strange that you will not see how graciously the Lord hath delivered you into my hands! Yea,—and no escape is possible! For lo, you yourself, Froeken Thelma," Dyceworthy started, "you yourself came hither unto my dwelling, a woman all unprotected, to a man equally unprotected,—and who, though a humble minister of saving grace, is not proof against the offered surrender of your charms! Make the best of it, my sweet girl!—make the best of it! You can never undo what you have done to-night."
"Coward! . . . coward!" and Thelma's rich low voice caused Pierre to almost leap forward from the place where he stood concealed. "You,—you made me come here—you sent me that card—you dared to use the name of my betrothed husband, to gain your vile purpose! You have kept me locked in this room all these hours—and do you think you will not be punished? I will let the whole village know of your treachery and falsehood!"
Mr. Dyceworthy laughed gently. "Dear me, dear me!" he remarked sweetly. "How pretty we look in a passion, to be sure! And we talk of our 'betrothed husband' do we? Tut-tut! Put that dream out of your mind, my dear girl—Sir Philip Bruce-Errington will have nothing to do with you after your little escapade of to-night! Your honor is touched!—yes, yes! and honor is everything to such a man as he. As for the 'card' you talk about, I never sent a card—not I!" Mr. Dyceworthy made this assertion in a tone of injured honesty. "Why should I! No—no! You came here of your own accord,—that is certain and—" here he spoke more slowly and with a certain malicious glee, "I shall have no difficulty in proving it to be so, should the young man Errington ask me for an explanation! Now you had better give me a kiss and make the peace! There's not a soul in the place who will believe anything you say against me; you, a reputed witch, and I, a minister of the Gospel. For your father I care nothing, a poor sinful pagan can never injure a servant of the Lord. Come now, let me have that kiss! I have been very patient—I am sure I deserve it!"
There was a sudden rushing movement in the room, and a slight cry.
"If you touch me!" cried Thelma, "I will kill you! I will! God will help me!"
Again Mr. Dyceworthy laughed sneeringly. "God will help you!" he exclaimed as though in wonder. "As if God ever helped a Roman! Froeken Thelma, be sensible. By your strange visit to me to-night you have ruined your already damaged character—I say you have ruined it,—and if anything remains to be said against you, I can say it—moreover, I will!"
A crash of breaking window-glass followed these words, and before Mr. Dyceworthy could realize what had happened, he was pinioned against his own wall by an active, wiry, excited individual, whose black eyes sparkled with gratified rage, whose clenched fist was dealing him severe thumps all over his fat body.
"Ha, ha! You will, will you!" cried Duprez, literally dancing up against him and squeezing him as though he were a jelly. "You will tell lies in the service of le Bon Dieu? No—not quite, not yet!" And still pinioning him with one hand, he dragged at his collar with the other till he succeeded, in spite of the minister's unwieldly efforts to defend himself, in rolling him down upon the floor, where he knelt upon him in triumph. "Voila! Je sais faire la boxe, moi!" Then turning to Thelma, who stood an amazed spectator of the scene, her flushed cheeks and tear-swollen eyes testifying to the misery of the hours she had passed, he said, "Run, Mademoiselle, run! The little Britta is outside, she has a pony-car—she will drive you home. I will stay here till Phil-eep comes. I shall enjoy myself! I will begin—Phil-eep with finish! Then we will return to you."
Thelma needed no more words, she rushed to the door, threw it open, and vanished like a bird in air. Britta's joy at seeing her was too great for more than an exclamation of welcome,—and the carriole, with the two girls safely in it, was soon on its rapid way back to the farm. Meanwhile, Olaf Gueldmar, with Errington and the others, had just landed at Bosekop after a heavy pull across the Fjord, and they made straight for Mr. Dyceworthy's house, the bonde working himself up as he walked into a positive volcano of wrath. Finding the street-door open as it had just been left by the escaped Thelma, they entered, and on the threshold of the parlor, stopped abruptly, in amazement at the sight that presented itself. Two figures were rolling about on the floor, apparently in a close embrace,—one large and cumbrous, the other small and slight. Sometimes they shook each other,—sometimes they lay still,—sometimes they recommenced rolling. Both were perfectly silent, save that the larger personage seemed to breathe somewhat heavily. Lorimer stepped into the room to secure a better view—then he broke into an irrepressible laugh.
"It's Duprez," he cried, for the benefit of the others that stood at the door. "By Jove! How did he get here, I wonder?"
Hearing his name, Duprez looked up from that portion of Mr. Dyceworthy's form in which he had been burrowing, and smiled radiantly.
"Ah, cher Lorimer! Put your knee here, will you? So! that is well—I will rest myself!" And he rose, smoothing his roughened hair with both hands, while Lorimer in obedience to his request, kept one knee artistically pressed on the recumbent figure of the minister. "Ah! and there is our Phil-eep, and Sandy, and Monsieur Gueldmar! But I do not think," here he beamed all over, "there is much more to be done! He is one bruise, I assure you! He will not preach for many Sundays;—it is bad to be so fat—he will be so exceedingly suffering!"
Errington could not forbear smiling at Pierre's equanimity. "But what has happened?" he asked. "Is Thelma here?"
"She was here," answered Duprez. "The religious had decoyed her here by means of some false writing,—supposed to be from you. He kept her locked up here the whole afternoon. When I came he was making love and frightening her,—I am pleased I was in time. But"—and he smiled again—"he is well beaten!"
Sir Philip strode up to the fallen Dyceworthy, his face darkening with wrath.
"Let him go, Lorimer," he said sternly. Then, as the reverend gentleman slowly struggled to his feet, moaning with pain, he demanded, "What have you to say for yourself, sir? Be thankful if I do not give you the horse-whipping you deserve, you scoundrel!"
"Let me get at him!" vociferated Gueldmar at this juncture, struggling to free himself from the close grasp of the prudent Macfarlane. "I have longed for such a chance! Let me get at him!"
But Lorimer assisted to restrain him from springing forward,—and the old man chafed and swore by his gods in vain.
Mr. Dyceworthy meanwhile meekly raised his eyes, and folded his hands with a sort of pious resignation.
"I have been set upon and cruelly abused," he said mournfully, "and there is no part of me without ache and soreness!" He sighed deeply. "But I am punished rightly for yielding unto carnal temptation, put before me in the form of the maiden who came hither unto me with delusive entrancements—"
He stopped, shrinking back in alarm from the suddenly raised fist of the young baronet.
"You'd better be careful!" remarked Philip coolly, with dangerously flashing eyes; "there are four of us here, remember!"
Mr. Dyceworthy coughed, and resumed an air of outraged dignity.
"Truly, I am aware of it!" he said; "and it surpriseth me not at all that the number of the ungodly outweigheth that of the righteous! Alas! 'why do the heathen rage so furiously together?' Why, indeed! Except that 'in their hearts they imagine a vain thing!' I pardon you, Sir Philip, I freely pardon you! And you also, sir," turning gravely to Duprez, who received his forgiveness with a cheerful and delighted bow. "You can indeed injure—and you have injured this poor body of mine—but you cannot touch the soul! No, nor can you hinder that freedom of speech"—here his malignant smile was truly diabolical—"which is my glory, and which shall forever be uplifted against all manner of evil-doers, whether they be fair women and witches, or misguided pagans—"
Again he paused, rather astonished at Errington's scornful laugh.
"You low fellow!" said the baronet. "From Yorkshire, are you? Well, I happen to know a good many people in that part of the world—and I have some influence there, too. Now, understand me—I'll have you hounded out of the place! You shall find it too hot to hold you—that I swear! Remember! I'm a man of my word! And if you dare to mention the name of Miss Gueldmar disrespectfully, I'll thrash you within an inch of your life!"
Mr. Dyceworthy blinked feebly, and drew out his handkerchief.
"I trust, Sir Philip," he said mildly, "you will reconsider your words! It would ill beseem you to strive to do me harm in the parish were my ministrations are welcome, as appealing to that portion of the people who follow the godly Luther. Oh yes,"—and he smiled cheerfully—"you will reconsider your words. In the meantime—I—I"—he stammered slightly—"I apologize! I meant naught but good to the maiden—but I have been misunderstood, as is ever the case with the servants of the Lord. Let us say no more about it! I forgive!—let us all forgive! I will even extend my pardon to the pagan yonder—"
But the "pagan" at that moment broke loose from the friendly grasp in which he had been hitherto held, and strode up to the minister, who recoiled like a beaten cur from the look of that fine old face flushed with just indignation, and those clear blue eyes fiery as the flash of steel.
"Pagan, you call me!" he cried. "I thank the gods for it—I am proud of the title! I would rather be the veriest savage that ever knelt in untutored worship to the great forces of Nature, than such a thing as you—a slinking, unclean animal, crawling coward-like between earth and sky, and daring to call itself a Christian! Faugh! Were I the Christ, I should sicken at sight of you!"
Dyceworthy made no reply, but his little eyes glittered evilly.
Errington, not desiring any further prolongation of the scene, managed to draw the irate bonde away, saying in a low tone—
"We've had enough of this, sir! Let us get home to Thelma."
"I was about to suggest a move," added Lorimer. "We are only wasting time here."
"Ah!" exclaimed Duprez radiantly—"and Monsieur Dyceworthy will be glad to be in bed! He will be very stiff to-morrow, I am sure! Here is a lady who will attend him."
This with a courteous salute to the wooden-faced Ulrika, who suddenly confronted them in the little passage. She seemed surprised to see them, and spoke in a monotonous dreamy tone, as though she walked in her sleep.
"The girl has gone?" she added slowly.
Duprez nodded briskly. "She has gone! And let me tell you, madame, that if it had not been for you, she would not have come here at all. You took that card to her?"
Ulrika frowned. "I was compelled," she said. "She made me take it. I promised." She turned her dull eyes slowly on Gueldmar. "It was Lovisa's fault. Ask Lovisa about it." She paused, and moistened her dry lips with her tongue. "Where is your crazy lad?" she asked, almost anxiously. "Did he come with you?"
"He is dead!" answered Gueldmar, with grave coldness.
"Dead!" And to their utter amazement, she threw up her arms and burst into a fit of wild laughter. "Dead! Thank God! Thank God! Dead! And through no fault of mine! The Lord be praised! He was only fit for death—never mind how he died—it is enough that he is dead—dead! I shall see him no more—he cannot curse me again!—the Lord be thankful for all His mercies!"
And her laughter ceased—she threw her apron over her head and broke into a passion of weeping.
"The woman must be crazy!" exclaimed the bonde, thoroughly mystified,—then placing his arm through Errington's, he said impatiently, "You're right, my lad! We've had enough of this. Let us shake the dust of this accursed place off our feet and get home. I'm tired out!"
They left the minister's dwelling and made straight for the shore, and were soon well on their journey back to the farm across the Fjord. This time the tide was with them—the evening was magnificent, and the coolness of the breeze, the fresh lapping of the water against the boat, and the brilliant tranquility of the landscape, soon calmed their over-excited feelings. Thelma was waiting for them under the porch as usual, looking a trifle paler than her wont, after all the worry and fright and suspense she had undergone,—but the caresses of her father and lover soon brought back the rosy warmth on her fair face, and restored the lustre to her eyes. Nothing was said about Sigurd's fate just then,—when she asked for her faithful servitor, she was told he had "gone wandering as usual," and it was not till Errington and his friends returned to their yacht that old Gueldmar, left alone with his daughter, broke the sad news to her very gently. But the shock, so unexpected and terrible, was almost too much for her already overwrought nerves,—and such tears were shed for Sigurd as Sigurd himself might have noted with gratitude. Sigurd—the loving, devoted Sigurd—gone for ever! Sigurd,—her playmate,—her servant,—her worshiper,—dead! Ah, how tenderly she mourned him!—how regretfully she thought of his wild words! "Mistress, you are killing poor Sigurd!" Wistfully she wondered if, in her absorbing love for Philip, she had neglected the poor crazed lad,—his face, in all its pale, piteous appeal, haunted her, and her grief for his loss was the greatest she had ever known since the day on which she had seen her mother sink into the last long sleep. Britta, too, wept and would not be comforted—she had been fond of Sigurd in her own impetuous little way,—and it was some time before either she or her mistress, could calm themselves sufficiently to retire to rest. And long after Thelma was sleeping, with tears still wet on her cheeks, her father sat alone under his porch, lost in melancholy meditation. Now and then he ruffled his white hair impatiently with his hand,—his daughter's adventure in Mr. Dyceworthy's house had vexed his proud spirit. He knew well enough that the minister's apology meant nothing—that the whole village would be set talking against Thelma more, even than before,—that there was no possibility of preventing scandal so long as Dyceworthy was there to start it. He thought and thought and puzzled himself with probabilities—till at last, when he finally rose to enter his dwelling for the night, he muttered half-aloud. "If it must be, it must! And the sooner the better now, I think, for the child's sake."
The next morning Sir Philip arrived unusually early,—and remained shut up with the bonde, in private conversation for more than an hour. At the expiration of that time, Thelma was called, and taken into their confidence. The result of their mysterious discussion was not immediately evident,—though for the next few days, the farm-house lost its former tranquility and became a scene of bustle and excitement. Moreover, to the astonishment of the Bosekop folk, the sailing-brig known as the Valkyrie, belonging to Olaf Gueldmar, which had been hauled up high and dry on the shore for many months, was suddenly seen afloat on the Fjord, and Valdemar Svensen, Errington's pilot, appeared to be busily engaged upon her decks, putting everything in ship-shape order. It was no use asking him any questions—he was not the man to gratify impertinent curiosity. By-and-by a rumor got about in the village—Lovisa had gained her point in one particular,—the Gueldmars were going away—going to leave the Altenfjord!
At first, the report was received with incredulity—but gained ground, as people began to notice that several packages were being taken in boats from the farm-house to both the Eulalie and the Valkyrie. These preparations excited a great deal of interest and inquisitiveness,—but no one dared ask for information as to what was about to happen. The Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy was confined to his bed "from a severe cold"—as he said, and therefore was unable to perform his favorite mission of spy;—so that when, one brilliant morning, Bosekop was startled by the steam-whistle of the Eulalie blowing furiously, and echoing far and wide across the surrounding rocky islands, several of the lounging inhabitants paused on the shore, or sauntered down to the rickety pier, to see what was the cause of the clamor. Even the long-suffering minister crawled out of bed and applied his fat, meek visage to his window, from whence he could command an almost uninterrupted view of the glittering water. Great was his amazement, and discomfiture to see the magnificent yacht moving majestically out of the Fjord, with Gueldmar's brig in tow behind her, and the English flag fluttering gaily from her middle-mast, as she curtsied her farewell to the dark mountains, and glided swiftly over the little hissing waves. Had Mr. Dyceworthy been possessed of a field-glass, he might have been able to discern on her deck, the figure of a tall, fair girl, who, drawing her crimson hood over her rich hair, stood gazing with wistful, dreamy blue eyes, at the last receding shores of the Altenfjord—eyes that smiled and yet were tearful.
"Are you sorry, Thelma?" asked Errington gently, as he passed one arm tenderly round her. "Sorry to trust your life to me?"
She laid her little hand in playful reproach against his lips.
"Sorry! you foolish boy! I am glad and grateful! But it is saying good-bye to one's old life, is it not? The dear old home!—and poor Sigurd!"
Her voice trembled, and bright tears fell.
"Sigurd is happy,"—said Errington gravely, taking the hand that caressed him, and reverently kissing it. "Believe me, love,—if he had lived some cruel misery might have befallen him—it is better as it is!"
Thelma did not answer for a minute or two—then she said suddenly—"Philip,—do you remember where I saw you first?"
"Perfectly!" he answered, looking fondly into the sweet upturned face. "Outside a wonderful cavern, which I afterwards explored."
She started and seemed surprised. "You went inside?—you saw—?"
"Everything!"—and Philip related his adventure of that morning, and his first interview with Sigurd. She listened attentively—then she whispered softly—
"My mother sleeps there, you know,—yesterday I went to take her some flowers for the last time. Father came with me—we asked her blessing. And I think she will give it, Philip—she must know how good you are and how happy I am."
He stroked her silky hair tenderly and was silent. The Eulalie had reached the outward bend of the Altenfjord, and the station of Bosekop was rapidly disappearing. Olaf Gueldmar and the others came on deck to take their last look of it.
"I shall see the old place again, I doubt not, long before you do, Thelma, child," said the stout old bonde, viewing, with a keen, fond glance, the stretch of the vanishing scenery. "Though when once you are safe married at Christiania, Valdemar Svensen and I will have a fine toss on the seas in the Valkyrie,—and I shall grow young again in the storm and drift of the foam and the dark wild waves! Yes—a wandering life suits me—and I am not sorry to have a taste of it once more. There's nothing like it—nothing like a broad ocean and a sweeping wind!"
And he lifted his cap and drew himself erect, inhaling the air like an old warrior scenting battle. The others listened, amused at his enthusiasm,—and, meanwhile, the Altenfjord altogether disappeared, and the Eulalie was soon plunging in a rougher sea. They were bound for Christiania, where it was decided Thelma's marriage should at once take place—after which Sir Philip would leave his yacht at the disposal of his friends, for them to return in it to England. He himself intended to start directly for Germany with his bride, a trip in which Britta was to accompany them as Thelma's maid. Olaf Gueldmar, as he had just stated, purposed making a voyage in the Valkyrie, as soon as he should get her properly manned and fitted, which he meant to do at Christiania.
Such were their plans,—and, meanwhile, they were all together on the Eulalie,—a happy and sociable party,—Errington having resigned his cabin to the use of his fair betrothed, and her little maid, whose delight at the novel change in her life, and her escape from the persecution of her grandmother, was extreme. Onward they sailed,—past the grand Lofoden Islands and all the magnificent scenery extending thence to Christiansund, while the inhabitants of Bosekop looked in vain for their return to the Altenfjord.
The short summer there was beginning to draw to a close,—some of the birds took their departure from the coast,—the dull routine of the place went on as usual, rendered even duller by the absence of the "witch" element of discord,—a circumstance that had kept the superstitious villagers, more or less on a lively tension of religious and resentful excitement—and by-and-by, the rightful minister of Bosekop came back to his duties and released the Reverend Charles Dyceworthy, who straightway returned to his loving flock in Yorkshire. It was difficult to ascertain whether the aged Lovisa was satisfied or wrathful, at the departure of the Gueldmars with her granddaughter Britta in their company—she kept herself almost buried in her hut at Talvig, and saw no one but Ulrika, who seemed to grow more respectably staid than ever, and who, as a prominent member of the Lutheran congregation, distinguished herself greatly by her godly bearing and uncompromising gloom.
Little by little, the gossips ceased to talk about the disappearance of the "white witch" and her father—little by little they ceased to speculate as to whether the rich Englishman, Sir Philip Errington, really meant to marry her—a consummation of things which none of them seemed to think likely—the absence of their hated neighbors, was felt by them as a relief, while the rumored fate of the crazy Sigurd was of course looked upon as evidence of fresh crime on the part of the "pagan," who was accused of having, in some way or other, caused the unfortunate lad's death. And the old farm-house on the pine-covered knoll was shut up and silent,—its doors and windows safely barred against wind and rain,—and only the doves, left to forage for themselves, crooned upon its roof, all day, or strutting on the deserted paths, ruffled their plumage in melancholy meditation, as though wondering at the absence of the fair ruling spirit of the place, whose smile had been brighter than the sunshine. The villagers avoided it as though it were haunted—the roses drooped and died untended,—and by degrees the old homestead grew to look like a quaint little picture of forgotten joys, with its deserted porch and fading flowers.
Meanwhile, a thrill of amazement, incredulity, disappointment, indignation, and horror, rushed like a violent electric shock through the upper circles of London society, arousing the deepest disgust in the breasts of match-making matrons, and seriously ruffling the pretty feathers of certain bird-like beauties who had just began to try their wings, and who "had expectations." The cause of the sensation was very simple. It was an announcement in the Times—under the head of "Marriages"—and ran as follows:
"At the English Consulate, Christiania, Sir Philip Bruce-Errington, Bart., to Thelma, only daughter of Olaf Gueldmar, bonde, of the Altenfjord, Norway. No cards."
THE LAND OF MOCKERY
"There's nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys." MACBETH.
"I think," said Mrs. Rush-Marvelle deliberately, laying down the Morning Post beside her breakfast-cup, "I think his conduct is perfectly disgraceful!"
Mr. Rush-Marvelle, a lean gentleman with a sallow, clean-shaven face and an apologetic, almost frightened manner, looked up hastily.
"Of whom are you speaking, my dear?" he inquired.
"Why, of that wretched young man Bruce-Errington! He ought to be ashamed of himself!"
And Mrs. Marvelle fixed her glasses more firmly on her small nose, and regarded her husband almost reproachfully. "Don't tell me, Montague, that you've forgotten that scandal about him! He went off last year, in the middle of the season, to Norway, in his yacht, with three of the very fastest fellows he could pick out from his acquaintance—regular reprobates, so I'm told—and after leading the most awful life out there, making love to all the peasant girls in the place, he married one of them,—a common farmer's daughter. Don't you remember? We saw the announcement of his marriage in the Times."
"Ah yes, yes!" And Mr. Rush-Marvelle smiled a propitiatory smile, intended to soothe the evidently irritated feelings of his better-half, of whom he stood always in awe. "Of course, of course! A very sad mesalliance. Yes, yes! Poor fellow! And is there fresh news of him?"
"Read that,"—and the lady handed the Morning Post across the table, indicating by a dent of her polished finger-nail, the paragraph that had offended her sense of social dignity. Mr. Marvelle read it with almost laborious care—though it was remarkably short and easy of comprehension.
"Sir Philip and Lady Bruce-Errington have arrived at their house in Prince's Gate from Errington Manor."
"Well, my dear?" he inquired, with a furtive and anxious glance at his wife. "I suppose—er—it—er—it was to be expected?"
"No, it was not to be expected," said Mrs. Rush-Marvelle, rearing her head, and heaving her ample bosom to and fro in rather a tumultuous manner. "Of course it was to be expected that Bruce-Errington would behave like a fool—his father was a fool before him. But I say it was not to be expected that he would outrage society by bringing that common wife of his to London, and expecting us to receive her! The thing is perfectly scandalous! He has had the decency to keep away from town ever since his marriage—part of the time he has staid abroad, and since January he has been at his place in Warwickshire,—and this time—observe this!" and Mrs. Marvelle looked most impressive—"not a soul has been invited to the Manor—not a living soul! The house used to be full of people during the winter season—of course, now, he dare not ask anybody lest they should be shocked at his wife's ignorance. That's as clear as daylight! And now he has the impudence to actually bring her here,—into society! Good Heavens! He must be mad! He will be laughed at wherever he goes!"
Mr. Rush-Marvelle scratched his bony chin perplexedly.
"It makes it a little awkward for—for you," he remarked feelingly.
"Awkward! It is abominable!" And Mrs. Marvelle rose from her chair, and shook out the voluminous train of her silken breakfast-gown, an elaborate combination of crimson with grey chinchilla fur. "I shall have to call on the creature—just imagine it! It is most unfortunate for me that I happen to be one of Bruce-Errington's oldest friends—otherwise I might have passed him over in some way—as it is I can't. But fancy having to meet a great coarse peasant woman, who, I'm certain, will only be able to talk about fish and whale-oil! It is really quite dreadful!"
Mr. Rush-Marvelle permitted himself to smile faintly.
"Let us hope she will not turn out so badly," he said soothingly,—"but, you know, if she proves to be—er—a common person of,—er—a very uneducated type—you can always let her drop gently—quite gently!"
And he waved his skinny hand with an explanatory flourish.
But Mrs. Marvelle did not accept his suggestion in good part.
"You know nothing about it," she said somewhat testily. "Keep to your own business, Montague, such as it is. The law suits your particular form of brain—society does not. You would never be in society at all if it were not for me—now you know you wouldn't!"
"My love," said Mr. Marvelle, with a look of meek admiration at his wife's majestic proportions. "I am aware of it! I always do you justice. You are a remarkable woman!"
Mrs. Marvelle smiled, somewhat mollified. "You see," she then condescended to explain—"the whole thing is so extremely disappointing to me. I wanted Marcia Van Clupp to go in for the Errington stakes,—it would have been such an excellent match,—money on both sides. And Marcia would have been just the girl to look after that place down in Warwickshire—the house is going to rack and ruin, in my opinion."
"Ah, yes!" agreed her husband mildly. "Van Clupp is a fine girl—a very fine girl! No end of 'go' in her. And so Errington Manor needs a good deal of repairing, perhaps?" This query was put by Mr. Marvelle, with his head very much on one side, and his bilious eyes blinking drowsily.