Tales From two Hemispheres by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen - HTML preview

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Tales From Two Hemispheres

The Man Who Lost His Name....................................................................................3

 

The Story Of An Outcast ..........................................................................................30

 

A Good-For-Nothing...............................................................................................47

 

A Scientific Vagabond...............................................................................................65

 

Truls, The Nameless .................................................................................................81 Asathor's Vengeance .................................................................................................90

The Man Who Lost His Name

ON the second day of June, 186--, a young Norseman, Halfdan Bjerk by name, landed on the pier at Castle Garden. He passed through the straight and narrow gate where he was asked his name, birthplace, and how much money he had,-at which he grew very much frightened.
"And your destination?"--demanded the gruff-looking functionary at the desk. "America," said the youth, and touched his hat politely.
"Do you think I have time for joking?" roared the official, with an oath. The Norseman ran his hand through his hair, smiled his timidly conciliatory smile, and tried his best to look brave; but his hand trembled and his heart thumped away at an alarmingly quickened tempo.
"Put him down for Nebraska!" cried a stout red-cheeked individual (inwrapped in the mingled fumes of tobacco and whisky) whose function it was to open and shut the gate.
"There aint many as go to Nebraska."
"All right, Nebraska."
The gate swung open and the pressure from behind urged the timid traveler on, while an extra push from the gate-keeper sent him flying in the direction of a board fence, where he sat down and tried to realize that he was now in the land of liberty.
Halfdan Bjerk was a tall, slender-limbed youth of very delicate frame; he had a pair of wonderfully candid, unreflecting blue eyes, a smooth, clear, beardless face, and soft, wavy light hair, which was pushed back from his forehead without parting. His mouth and chin were well cut, but their lines were, perhaps, rather weak for a man. When in repose, the ensemble of his features was exceedingly pleasing and somehow reminded one of Correggio's St. John. He had left his native land because he was an ardent republican and was abstractly convinced that man, generically and individually, lives more happily in a republic than in a monarchy. He had anticipated with keen pleasure the large, freely breathing life he was to lead in a land where every man was his neighbor's brother, where no senseless traditions kept a jealous watch over obsolete systems and shrines, and no chilling prejudice blighted the spontaneous blossoming of the soul. Halfdan was an only child. His father, a poor government official, had died during his infancy, and his mother had given music lessons, and kept boarders, in order to gain the means to give her son what is called a learned education. In the Latin school Halfdan had enjoyed the reputation of being a bright youth, and at the age of eighteen, he had entered the university under the most promising auspices. He could make very fair verses, and play all imaginable instruments with equal ease, which made him a favorite in society. Moreover, he possessed that very old-fashioned accomplishment of cutting silhouettes; and what was more, he could draw the most charmingly fantastic arabesques for embroidery patterns, and he even dabbled in portrait and landscape painting. Whatever he turned his hand to, he did well, in fact, astonishingly well for a dilettante, and yet not well enough to claim the title of an artist. Nor did it ever occur to him to make such a claim. As one of his fellow-students remarked in a fit of jealousy, "Once when Nature had made three geniuses, a poet, a musician, and a painter, she took all the remaining odds and ends and shook them together at random and the result was Halfdan Bjerk." This agreeable melange of accomplishments, however, proved very attractive to the ladies, who invited the possessor to innumerable afternoon tea-parties, where they drew heavy drafts on his unflagging patience, and kept him steadily engaged with patterns and designs for embroidery, leather flowers, and other dainty knickknacks. And in return for all his exertions they called him "sweet" and "beautiful," and applied to him many other enthusiastic adjectives seldom heard in connection with masculine names. In the university, talents of this order gained but slight recognition, and when Halfdan had for three years been preparing himself in vain for the examen philosophicum, he found himself slowly and imperceptibly drifting into the ranks of the so-called studiosi perpetui, who preserve a solemn silence at the examination tables, fraternize with every new generation of freshmen, and at last become part of the fixed furniture of their Alma Mater. In the larger American colleges, such men are mercilessly dropped or sent to a Divinity School; but the European universities, whose tempers the centuries have mellowed, harbor in their spacious Gothic bosoms a tenderer heart for their unfortunate sons. There the professors greet them at the green tables with a good-humored smile of recognition; they are treated with gentle forbearance, and are allowed to linger on, until they die or become tutors in the families of remote clergymen, where they invariably fall in love with the handsomest daughter, and thus lounge into a modest prosperity. If this had been the fate of our friend Bjerk, we should have dismissed him here with a confident "vale" on his life's pilgrimage. But, unfortunately, Bjerk was inclined to hold the government in some way responsible for his own poor success as a student, and this, in connection with an aesthetic enthusiasm for ancient Greece, gradually convinced him that the republic was the only form of government under which men of his tastes and temperament were apt to flourish. It was, like everything that pertained to him, a cheerful, genial conviction, without the slightest tinge of bitterness. The old institutions were obsolete, rotten to the core, he said, and needed a radical renovation. He could sit for hours of an evening in the Students' Union, and discourse over a glass of mild toddy, on the benefits of universal suffrage and trial by jury, while the picturesqueness of his language, his genial sarcasms, or occasional witty allusions would call forth uproarious applause from throngs of admiring freshmen. These were the sunny days in Halfdan's career, days long to be remembered. They came to an abrupt end when old Mrs. Bjerk died, leaving nothing behind her but her furniture and some trifling debts. The son, who was not an eminently practical man, underwent long hours of misery in trying to settle up her affairs, and finally in a moment of extreme dejection sold his entire inheritance in a lump to a pawnbroker (reserving for himself a few rings and trinkets) for the modest sum of 250 dollars specie. He then took formal leave of the Students' Union in a brilliant speech, in which he traced the parallelisms between the lives of Pericles and Washington,-- in his opinion the two greatest men the world had ever seen,--expounded his theory of democratic government, and explained the causes of the rapid rise of the American Republic. The next morning he exchanged half of his worldly possessions for a ticket to New York, and within a few days set sail for the land of promise, in the far West.
II.
From Castle Garden, Halfdan made his way up through Greenwich street, pursued by a clamorous troop of confidence men and hotel runners. "Kommen Sie mit mir. Ich bin auch Deutsch," cried one. "Voila, voila, je parle Francais," shouted another, seizing hold of his valise. "Jeg er Dansk. Tale Dansk,"[1] roared a third, with an accent which seriously impeached his truthfulness. In order to escape from these importunate rascals, who were every moment getting bolder, he threw himself into the first street-car which happened to pass; he sat down, gazed out of the windows and soon became so thoroughly absorbed in the animated scenes which moved as in a panorama before his eyes, that he quite forgot where he was going. The conductor called for fares, and received an English shilling, which, after some ineffectual expostulation, he pocketed, but gave no change. At last after about an hour's journey, the car stopped, the conductor called out "Central Park," and Halfdan woke up with a start. He dismounted with a timid, deliberate step, stared in dim bewilderment at the long rows of palatial residences, and a chill sense of loneliness crept over him. The hopeless strangeness of everything he saw, instead of filling him with rapture as he had once anticipated, Sent a cold shiver to his heart. It is a very large affair, this world of ours--a good deal larger than it appeared to him gazing out upon it from his snug little corner up under the Pole; and it was as unsympathetic as it was large; he suddenly felt what he had never been aware of before-- that he was a very small part of it and of very little account after all. He staggered over to a bench at the entrance to the park, and sat long watching the fine carriages as they dashed past him; he saw the handsome women in brilliant costumes laughing and chatting gayly; the apathetic policemen promenading in stoic dignity up and down upon the smooth pavements; the jauntily attired nurses, whom in his Norse innocence he took for mothers or aunts of the chil- dren, wheeling baby-carriages which to Norse eyes seemed miracles of dainty ingenuity, under the shady crowns of the elm-trees. He did not know how long he had been sitting there, when a little bright-eyed girl with light kid gloves, a small blue parasol and a blue polonaise, quite a lady of fashion en miniature, stopped in front of him and stared at him in shy wonder. He had always been fond of children, and often rejoiced in their affectionate ways and confidential prattle, and now it suddenly touched him with a warm sense of human fellowship to have this little daintily befrilled and crisply starched beauty single him out for notice among the hundreds who reclined in the arbors, or sauntered to and fro under the great trees.
[1] "I am a Dane. I speak Danish."
"What is your name, my little girl?" he asked, in a tone of friendly interest. "Clara," answered the child, hesitatingly; then, having by another look assured herself of his harmlessness, she added: "How very funny you speak!" "Yes," he said, stooping down to take he tiny begloved hand. "I do not speak as well as you do, yet; but I shall soon learn."
Clara looked puzzled.
"How old are you?" she asked, raising her parasol, and throwing back her head with an air of superiority.
"I am twenty-four years old."
She began to count half aloud on her fingers: "One, two, three, four," but, before she reached twenty, she lost her patience.
"Twenty-four," she exclaimed, "that is a great deal. I am only seven, and papa gave me a pony on my birthday. Have you got a pony?"
"No; I have nothing but what is in this valise, and you know I could not very well get a pony into it."
Clara glanced curiously at the valise and laughed; then suddenly she grew serious again, put her hand into her pocket and seemed to be searching eagerly for something. Presently she hauled out a small porcelain doll's head, then a redpainted block with letters on it, and at last a penny.
"Do you want them?" she said, reaching him her treasures in both hands. "You may have them all."
Before he had time to answer, a shrill, penetrating voice cried out: "Why, gracious! child, what are you doing ? "
And the nurse, who had been deeply absorbed in "The New York Ledger," came rushing up, snatched the child away, and retreated as hastily as she had come. Halfdan rose and wandered for hours aimlessly along the intertwining roads and footpaths. He visited the menageries, admired the statues, took a very light dinner, consisting of coffee, sandwiches, and ice, at the Chinese Pavilion, and, toward evening, discovered an inviting leafy arbor, where he could withdraw into the privacy of his own thoughts, and ponder upon the still unsolved problem of his destiny. The little incident with the child had taken the edge off his unhappiness and turned him into a more conciliatory mood toward himself and the great pitiless world, which seemed to take so little notice of him. And he, who had come here with so warm a heart and so ardent a will to join in the great work of human advancement--to find himself thus harshly ignored and buffeted about, as if he were a hostile intruder! Before him lay the huge unknown city where human life pulsated with large, full heart-throbs, where a breathless, weird intensity, a cold, fierce passion seemed to be hurrying everything onward in a maddening whirl, where a gentle, warm- blooded enthusiast like himself had no place and could expect naught but a speedy destruction.
A strange, unconquerable dread took possession of him, as if he had been caught in a swift, strong whirlpool, from which he vainly struggled to escape. He crouched down among the foliage and shuddered. He could not return to the city. No, no: he never would return. He would remain here hidden and unseen until morning, and then he would seek a vessel bound for his dear native land, where the great mountains loomed up in serene majesty toward the blue sky, where the pine-forests whispered their dreamily sympathetic legends, in the long summer twilights, where human existence flowed on in calm beauty with the modest aims, small virtues, and small vices which were the happiness of modest, idyllic souls. He even saw himself in spirit recounting to his astonished countrymen the wonderful things he had heard and seen during his foreign pilgrimage, and smiled to himself as he imagined their wonder when he should tell them about the beautiful little girl who had been the first and only one to offer him a friendly greeting in the strange land. During these reflections he fell asleep, and slept soundly for two or three hours. Once, he seemed to hear footsteps and whispers among the trees, and made an effort to rouse himself, but weariness again overmastered him and he slept on. At last, he felt himself seized violently by the shoulders, and a gruff voice shouted in his ear:
"Get up, you sleepy dog."
He rubbed his eyes, and, by the dim light of the moon, saw a Herculean policeman lifting a stout stick over his head. His former terror came upon him with increased violence, and his heart stood for a moment still, then, again, hammered away as if it would burst his sides.
"Come along!" roared the policeman, shaking him vehemently by the collar of his coat.
In his bewilderment he quite forgot where he was, and, in hurried Norse sentences, assured his persecutor that he was a harmless, honest traveler, and implored him to release him. But the official Hercules was inexorable. "My valise, my valise;" cried Halfdan. "Pray let me get my valise." They returned to the place where he had slept, but the valise was nowhere to be found. Then, with dumb despair he resigned himself to his fate, and after a brief ride on a street-car, found himself standing in a large, low-ceiled room; he covered his face with his hands and burst into tears.
"The grand-the happy republic," he murmured, "spontaneous blossoming of the soul. Alas! I have rooted up my life; I fear it will never blossom."
All the high-flown adjectives he had employed in his parting speech in the Students' Union, when he paid his enthusiastic tribute to the Grand Republic, now kept recurring to him, and in this moment the paradox seemed cruel. The Grand Republic, what did it care for such as he? A pair of brawny arms fit to wield the pick-axe and to steer the plow it received with an eager welcome; for a child-like, loving heart and a generously fantastic brain, it had but the stern greeting of the law.
III.
The next morning, Halfdan was released from the Police Station, having first been fined five dollars for vagrancy. All his money, with the exception of a few pounds which he had exchanged in Liverpool, he had lost with his valise, and he had to his knowledge not a single acquaintance in the city or on the whole continent. In order to increase his capital he bought some fifty "Tribunes," but, as it was already late in the day, he hardly succeeded in selling a single copy. The next morning, he once more stationed himself on the corner of Murray street and Broadway, hoping in his innocence to dispose of the papers he had still on hand from the previous day, and actually did find a few customers among the people who were jumping in and out of the omnibuses that passed up and down the great thoroughfare. To his surprise, however, one of these gentlemen returned to him with a very wrathful countenance, shook his fist at him, and vociferated with excited gestures something which to Halfdan's ears had a very unintelligible sound. He made a vain effort to defend himself; the situation appeared so utterly incomprehensible to him, and in his dumb helplessness he looked pitiful enough to move the heart of a stone. No English phrase suggested itself to him, only a few Norse interjections rose to his lips. The man's anger suddenly abated; he picked up the paper which he had thrown on the sidewalk, and stood for a while regarding Halfdan curiously.
"Are you a Norwegian?" he asked.
"Yes, I came from Norway yesterday."
"What's your name?"
"Halfdan Bjerk."
"Halfdan Bjerk! My stars! Who would have thought of meeting you here! You do not recognize me, I suppose."
Halfdan declared with a timid tremor in his voice that he could not at the moment recall his features.
"No, I imagine I must have changed a good deal since you saw me," said the man, suddenly dropping into Norwegian. "I am Gustav Olson, I used to live in the same house with you once, but that is long ago now."
Gustav Olson--to be sure, he was the porter's son in the house, where his mother had once during his childhood, taken a flat. He well remembered having clandestinely traded jack- knives and buttons with him, in spite of the frequent warnings he had received to have nothing to do with him; for Gustav, with his broad freckled face and red hair, was looked upon by the genteel inhabitants of the upper flats as rather a disreputable character. He had once whipped the son of a colonel who had been impudent to him, and thrown a snow-ball at the head of a new-fledged lieutenant, which offenses he had duly expiated at a house of correction. Since that time he had vanished from Halfdan's horizon. He had still the same broad freckled face, now covered with a lusty growth of coarse red beard, the same rebellious head of hair, which refused to yield to the subduing influences of the comb, the same plebeian hands and feet, and uncouth clumsiness of form. But his linen was irreproachable, and a certain dash in his manner, and the loud fashionableness of his attire, gave unmistakable evidences of prosperity.
"Come, Bjerk," said he in a tone of good- fellowship, which was not without its sting to the idealistic republican, "you must take up a better business than selling yesterday's `Tribune.' That won't pay here, you know. Come along to our office and I will see if something can't be done for you."
"But I should be sorry to give you trouble," stammered Halfdan, whose native pride, even in his present wretchedness, protested against accepting a favor from one whom he had been wont to regard as his inferior.
"Nonsense, my boy. Hurry up, I haven't much time to spare. The office is only two blocks from here. You don't look as if you could afford to throw away a friendly offer."
The last words suddenly roused Halfdan from his apathy; for he felt that they were true. A drowning man cannot afford to make nice distinctions--cannot afford to ask whether the helping hand that is extended to him be that of an equal or an inferior. So he swallowed his humiliation and threaded his way through the bewildering turmoil of Broadway, by the side of his officious friend. They entered a large, elegantly furnished office, where clerks with sleek and severely apathetic countenances stood scribbling at their desks.
"You will have to amuse yourself as best you can," said Olson. "Mr. Van Kirk will be here in twenty minutes. I haven't time to entertain you."
A dreary half hour passed. Then the door opened and a tall, handsome man, with a full grayish beard, and a commanding presence, entered and took his seat at a desk in a smaller adjoining office. He opened, with great dispatch, a pile of letters which lay on the desk before him, called out in a sharp, ringing tone for a clerk, who promptly appeared, handed him half-a-dozen letters, accompanying each with a brief direction, took some clean paper from a drawer and fell to writing. There was something brisk, determined, and business-like in his manner, which made it seem very hopeless to Halfdan to appear before him as a petitioner. Presently Olson entered the private office, closing the door behind him, and a few minutes later re-appeared and summoned Halfdan into the chief's presence. "You are a Norwegian, I hear," said the merchant, looking around over his shoulder at the supplicant, with a preoccupied air. "You want work. What can you do?"
What can you do? A fatal question. But here was clearly no opportunity for mental debate. So, summoning all his courage, but feeling nevertheless very faint, he answered:
"I have passed both examen artium and philosophicum,[2] and got my laud clear in the former, but in the latter haud on the first point."
[2] Examen artium is the entrance examination to the Norwegian University, and philosophicum the first degree. The ranks given at these are Laudabilis prae ceteris (in student's parlance, prae), laudabilis or laud, haud illaudabilis, or haud, etc.
Mr. Van Kirk wheeled round on his chair and faced the speaker:
"That is all Greek to me," he said, in a severe tone. "Can you keep accounts?" "No. I am afraid not."
Keeping accounts was not deemed a classical accomplishment in Norway. It was only "trade- rats" who troubled themselves about such gross things, and if our Norseman had not been too absorbed with the problem of his destiny, he would have been justly indignant at having such a question put to him.
"Then you don't know book-keeping?"
"I think not. I never tried it."
"Then you may be sure you don't know it. But you must certainly have tried your hand at something. Is there nothing you can think of which might help you to get a living?"
"I can play the piano--and--and the violin."
"Very well, then. You may come this afternoon to my house. Mr. Olson will tell you the address. I will give you a note to Mrs. Van Kirk. Perhaps she will engage you as a music teacher for the children. Good morning."
IV.
At half-past four o'clock in the afternoon, Halfdan found himself standing in a large, dimly lighted drawing-room, whose brilliant upholstery, luxurious carpets, and fantastically twisted furniture dazzled and bewildered his senses. All was so strange, so strange; nowhere a familiar object to give rest to the wearied eye. Wherever he looked he saw his shabbily attired figure repeated in the long crystal mirrors, and he became uncomfortably conscious of his threadbare coat, his uncouth boots, and the general incongruity of his appearance. With every moment his uneasiness grew; and he was vaguely considering the propriety of a precipitate flight, when the rustle of a dress at the farther end of the room startled him, and a small, plump lady, of a daintily exquisite form, swept up toward him, gave a slight inclination of her head, and sank down into an easy-chair: "You are Mr. ----, the Norwegian, who wishes to give music lessons?" she said, holding a pair of gold-framed eyeglasses up to her eyes, and running over the note which she held in her hand. It read as follows:
DEAR MARTHA,--The bearer of this note is a young Norwegian, I forgot to ascertain his name, a friend of Olson's. He wishes to teach music. If you can help the poor devil and give him something to do, you will oblige,

Yours,
H. V. K.
Mrs. Van Kirk was evidently, by at least twelve years, her husband's junior, and apparently not very far advanced in the forties. Her blonde hair, which was freshly crimped, fell lightly over her smooth, narrow forehead; her nose, mouth and chin had a neat distinctness of outline; her complexion was either naturally or artificially perfect, and her eyes, which were of the purest blue, had, owing to their near-sightedness, a certain pinched and scrutinizing look. This look, which was without the slightest touch of severity, indicating merely a lively degree of interest, was further emphasized by three small perpendicular wrinkles, which deepened and again relaxed according to the varying intensity of observation she bestowed upon the object which for the time engaged her attention. "Your name, if you please?" said Mrs. Van Kirk, having for awhile measured her visitor with a glance of mild scrutiny.
"Halfdan Bjerk."
"Half-dan B----, how do you spell that?"
"B-j-e-r-k."
"B-jerk. Well, but I mean, what is your name in English?"
Halfdan looked blank, and blushed to his ears.
"I wish to know," continued the lady energetically, evidently anxious to help him out, "what your name would mean in plain English. Bjerk, it certainly must mean something."
"Bjerk is a tree--a birch-tree."
"Very well, Birch,--that is a very respectable name. And your first name? What did you say that was?
"H-a-l-f-d-a-n."
"Half Dan. Why not a whole Dan and be done with it? Dan Birch, or rather Daniel Birch. Indeed, that sounds quite Christian."
"As you please, madam," faltered the victim,; looking very unhappy. "You will pardon my straightforwardness, won't you? B-jerk. I could never pronounce that, you know."
"Whatever may be agreeable to you, madam, will be sure to please me." "That is very well said. And you will find that it always pays to try to please me. And you wish to teach music? If you have no objection I will call my oldest daughter. She is an excellent judge of music, and if your playing meets with her approval, I will engage you, as my husband suggests, not to teach Edith, you understand, but my youngest child, Clara."
Halfdan bowed assent, and Mrs. Van Kirk rustled out into the hall where she rang a bell, and re-entered. A servant in dress-coat appeared, and again vanished as noiselessly as he had come. To our Norseman there was some thing weird and uncanny about these silent entrances and exits; he could hardly suppress a shudder. He had been accustomed to hear the clatter of people's heels upon the bare floors, as they approached, and the audible crescendo of their footsteps gave one warning, and prevented one from being taken by surprise. While absorbed in these reflections, his senses must have been dormant; for just then Miss Edith Van Kirk entered, unheralded by anything but a hovering perfume, the effect of which was to lull him still deeper into his wondering abstraction. "Mr. Birch," said Mrs. Van Kirk, "this is my daughter Miss Edith," and as Halfdan sprang to his feet and bowed with visible embarrassment, she continued: "Edith, this is Mr. Daniel Birch, whom your father has sent here to know if he would be serviceable as a music teacher for Clara. And now, dear, you will have to decide about the merits of Mr. Birch. I don't know enough about music to be anything of a judge."
"If Mr. Birch will be kind enough to play," said Miss Edith with a languidly musical intonation," I shall be happy to listen to him."
Halfdan silently signified his willingness and followed the ladies to a smaller apartment which was separated from the drawing-room by folding doors. The apparition of the beautiful young girl who was walking at his side had suddenly filled him with a strange burning and shuddering happiness; he could not tear his eyes away from her; she held him as by a powerful spell. And still, all the while he had a painful sub-consciousness of his own unfortunate appearance, which was thrown into cruel relief by her splendor. The tall, lithe magnificence of her form, the airy elegance of her toilet, which seemed the perfection of selfconcealing art, the elastic deliberateness of her step--all wrought like a gentle, deliciously soothing opiate upon the Norseman's fancy and lifted him into hitherto unknown regions of mingled misery and bliss. She seemed a combination of the most divine contradictions, one moment supremely conscious, and in the next adorably child-like and simple, now full of arts and coquettish innuendoes, then again nave, unthinking and almost boyishly blunt and direct; in a word, one of those miraculous New York girls whom abstractly one may disapprove of, but in the concrete must abjectly adore. This easy predominance of the masculine heart over the mas- culine reason in the presence of an impressive woman, has been the motif of a thousand tragedies in times past, and will inspire a thousand more in times to come.
Halfdan sat down at the grand piano and played Chopin's Nocturne in G major, flinging out that elaborate filigree of sound with an impetuosity and superb ABANDON which caused the ladies to exchange astonished glances behind his back. The transitions from the light and ethereal texture of melody to the simple, more concrete theme, which he rendered with delicate shadings of articulation, were sufficiently startling to impress even a less cultivated ear than that of Edith Van Kirk, who had, indeed, exhausted whatever musical resources New York has to offer. And she was most profoundly impressed. As he glided over the last pianissimo notes toward the two concluding chords (an ending so characteristic of Chopin) she rose and hurried to his side with a heedless eagerness, which was more eloquent than emphatic words of praise.
"Won't you please repeat this passage?" she said, humming the air with soft modulations; "I have always regarded the monotonous repetition of this strain" (and she indicated it lightly by a few touches of the keys) "as rather a blemish of an otherwise perfect composition. But as you play it, it is anything but monotonous. You put into this single phrase a more intense meaning and a greater variety of thought than I ever suspected it was capable of expressing." "It is my favorite composition," answered he, modestly. "I have bestowed more thought upon it than upon anything I have ever played, unless perhaps it be the one in G minor, which, with all its difference of mood and phraseology, expresses an essentially kindred thought."
"My dear Mr. Birch," exclaimed Mrs. Van Kirk, whom his skillful employment of technical terms (in spite of his indifferent accent) had impressed even more than his rendering of the music,--"you are a comsummate{sic} artist, and we shall deem it a great privilege if you will undertake to instruct our child. I have listened to you with profound satisfaction."
Halfdan acknowledged the compliment by a bow and a blush, and repeated the latter part of the nocturne according to Edith's request.
"And now," resumed Edith, "may I trouble you to play the G minor, which has even puzzled me more than the one you have just played."
"It ought really to have been played first," replied Halfdan. "It is far intenser in its coloring and has a more passionate ring, but its conclusion does not seem to be final. There is no rest in it, and it seems oddly enough to be a mere transition into the major, which is its proper supplement and completes the fragmentary thought."
Mother and daughter once more telegraphed wondering looks at each other, while Halfdan plunged into the impetuous movements of the minor nocturne, which he played to the end with ever-increasing fervor and animation. "Mr. Birch," said Edith, as he arose from the piano with a flushed face, and the agitation of the music still tingling through his nerves. "You are a far greater musician than you seem to be aware of. I have not been taking lessons for some time, but you have aroused all my musical ambition, and if you will accept me too, as a pupil, I shall deem it a favor."
"I hardly know if I can teach you anything," answered he, while his eyes dwelt with keen delight on her beautiful form. "But in my present position I can hardly afford to decline so flattering an offer."
"You mean to say that you would decline it if you were in a position to do so," said she, smiling.
"No, only that I should question my convenience more closely."
"Ah, never mind. I take all the responsibility. I shall cheerfully consent to being imposed upon by you."
Mrs. Van Kirk in the mean while had been examining the contents of a fragrant Russia-leather pocket-book, and she now drew out two crisp ten-dollar notes, and held them out toward him.
"I prefer to make sure of you by paying you in advance," said she, with a cheerfully familiar nod, and a critical glance at his attire, the meaning of which he did not fail to detect. "Somebody else might make the same discovery that we have made to-day, and outbid us. And we do not want to be cheated out of our good fortune in having been the first to secure so valuable a prize." "You need have no fear on that score, madam," retorted Halfdan, with a vivid blush, and purposely misinterpreting the polite subterfuge. "You may rely upon my promise. I shall be here again, as soon as you wish me to return." "Then, if you please, we shall look for you to-morrow morning at ten o'clock." And Mrs. Van Kirk hesitatingly folded up her notes and replaced them in her pocket-book.
To our idealist there was something extremely odious in this sudden offer of money. It was the first time any one had offered to pay him, and it seemed to put him on a level with a common day-laborer. His first impulse was to resent it as a gratuitous humiliation, but a glance at Mrs. Van Kirk's countenance, which was all aglow with officious benevolence, re-assured him, and his indignation died away. That same afternoon Olson, having been informed of his friend's good fortune, volunteered a loan of a hundred dollars, and accompanied him to a fashionable tailor, where he underwent a pleasing metamorphosis.
V.
In Norway the ladies dress with the innocent purpose of protecting themselves against the weather; if this purpose is still remotely present in the toilets of American women of to-day, it is, at all events, sufficiently disguised to challenge detection, very much like a primitive Sanscrit root in its French and English derivatives. This was the reflection which was uppermost in Halfdan's mind as Edith, ravishing to behold in the airy grace of her fragrant morning toilet, at the appointed time took her seat at his side before the piano. Her presence seemed so intense, so all-absorbing, that it left no thought for the music. A woman, with all the spiritual mysteries which that name implies, had always appeared to him rather a composite phenomenon, even apart from those varied accessories of dress, in which as by an inevitable analogy, she sees fit to express the inner multiformity of her being. Nevertheless, this former conception of his, when compared to that wonderful complexity of ethereal lines, colors, tints and half- tints which go to make up the modern New York girl, seemed inexpressibly simple, almost what plain arithmetic must appear to a man who has mastered calculus.
Edith had opened one of those small red- covered volumes of Chopin where the rich, wondrous melodies lie peacefully folded up like strange exotic flowers in an herbarium. She began to play the fantasia impromtu, which ought to be dashed off at a single "heat," whose passionate impulse hurries it on breathlessly toward its abrupt finale. But Edith toiled considerably with her fingering, and blurred the keen edges of each swift phrase by her indistinct ar- ticulation. And still there was a sufficiently ardent intention in her play to save it from being a failure. She made a gesture of disgust when she had finished, shut the book, and let her hands drop crosswise in her lap.
"I only wanted to give you a proof of my incapacity," she said, turning her large luminous gaze upon her instructor, "in order to make you duly appreciate what you have undertaken. Now, tell me truly and honestly, are you not discouraged?" "Not by any means," replied he, while the rapture of her presence rippled through his nerves, "you have fire enough in you to make an admirable musician. But your fingers, as yet, refuse to carry out your fine intentions. They only need discipline."
"And do you suppose you can discipline them? They are a fearfully obstinate set, and cause me infinite mortification."
"Would you allow me to look at your hand?"
She raised her right hand, and with a sort of impulsive heedlessness let it drop into his. An exclamation of surprise escaped him.
`{`}If you will pardon me," he said, "it is a superb hand--a hand capable of performing mira- cles--musical miracles I mean. Only look here" --(and he drew the fore and second fingers apart) --"so firmly set in the joint and still so flexible. I doubt if Liszt himself can boast a finer row of fingers. Your hands will surely not prevent you from becoming a second Von Bulow, which to my mind means a good deal more than a second Liszt."
"Thank you, that is quite enough," she exclaimed, with an incredulous laugh; "you have done bravely. That at all events throws the whole burden of responsibility upon myself, if I do not become a second somebody. I shall be perfectly satisfied, however, if you can only make me as good a musician as you are yourself, so that I can render a not too difficult piece without feeling all the while that I am committing sacrilege in mutilating the fine thoughts of some great composer." "You are too modest; you do not--"
"No, no, I am not modest," she interrupted him with an impetuosity which startled him. "I beg of you not to persist in paying me compliments. I get too much of that cheap article elsewhere. I hate to be told that I am better than I know I am. If you are to do me any good by your instruction, you must be perfectly sincere toward me, and tell me plainly of my short-comings. I promise you beforehand that I shall never be offended. There is my hand. Now, is it a bargain?"
His fingers closed involuntarily over the soft beautiful hand, and once more the luxury of her touch sent a thrill of delight through him.
"I have not been insincere," he murmured, "but I shall be on my guard in future, even against the appearance of insincerity."
"And when I play detestably, you will say so, and not smooth it over with unmeaning flatteries?"
"I will try."
"Very well, then we shall get on well together. Do not imagine that this is a mere feminine whim of mine. I never was more in earnest. Men, and I believe foreigners, to a greater degree than Americans, have the idea that women must be treated with gentle forbearance; that their follies, if they are foolish, must be glossed over with some polite name. They exert themselves to the utmost to make us mere playthings, and, as such, contemptible both in our own eyes and in theirs. No sincere respect can exist where the truth has to be avoided. But the majority of American women are made of too stern a stuff to be dealt with in that way. They feel the lurking insincerity even where politeness forbids them to show it, and it makes them disgusted both with themselves, and with the flatterer. And now you must pardon me for having spoken so plainly to you on so short an acquaintance; but you are a foreigner, and it may be an act of friendship to initiate you as soon as possible into our ways and customs."
He hardly knew what to answer. Her vehemence was so sudden, and the sentiments she had uttered so different from those which he had habitually ascribed to women, that he could only sit and gaze at her in mute astonishment. He could not but admit that in the main she had judged him rightly, and that his own attitude and that of other men toward her sex, were based upon an implied assumption of superiority.
"I am afraid I have shocked you," she resumed, noticing the startled expression of his countenance. "But really it was quite inevitable, if we were at all to understand each other. You will forgive me, won't you?"
"Forgive!" stammered he, "I have nothing to forgive. It was only your merciless truth- fulness which startled me. I rather owe you thanks, if you will allow me to be grateful to you. It seems an enviable privilege."
"Now," interrupted Edith, raising her forefinger in playful threat, "remember your promise."
The lesson was now continued without further interruption. When it was finished, a little girl, with her hair done up in curl-papers, and a very stiffly starched dress, which stood out on all sides almost horizontally, entered, accompanied by Mrs. Van Kirk. Halfdan immediately recognized his acquaintance from the park, and it appeared to him a good omen that this child, whose friendly interest in him had warmed his heart in a moment when his fortunes seemed so desperate, should continue to be associated with his life on this new continent. Clara was evidently greatly impressed by the change in his appearance, and could with difficulty be restrained from commenting upon it.
She proved a very apt scholar in music, and enjoyed the lessons the more for her cordial liking of her teacher.
It will be necessary henceforth to omit the less significant details in the career of our friend "Mr. Birch." Before a month was past, he had firmly established himself in the favor of the different members of the Van Kirk family. Mrs. Van Kirk spoke of him to her lady visitors as "a perfect jewel," frequently leaving them in doubt as to whether he was a cook or a coachman. Edith apostrophized him to her fashionable friends as "a real genius," leaving a dim impression upon their minds of flowing locks, a shiny velvet jacket, slouched hat, defiant neck-tie and a general air of disreputable pretentiousness. Geniuses of the foreign type were never, in the estimation of fashionable New York society, what you would call "exactly nice," and against prejudices of this order no amount of argument will ever prevail. Clara, who had by this time discovered that her teacher possessed an inexhaustible fund of fairy stories, assured her playmates across the street that he was "just splendid," and frequently invited them over to listen to his wonderful tales. Mr. Van Kirk himself, of course, was non-committal, but paid the bills unmurmuringly.
Halfdan in the meanwhile was vainly struggling against his growing passion for Edith; but the more he rebelled the more hopelessly he found himself entangled in its inextricable net. The fly, as long as it keeps quiet in the spider's web, may for a moment forget its situation; but the least effort to escape is apt to frustrate itself and again reveal the imminent peril. Thus he too "kicked against the pricks," hoped, feared, rebelled against his destiny, and again, from sheer weariness, relapsed into a dull, benumbed apathy. In spite of her friendly sympathy, he never felt so keenly his alienism as in her presence. She accepted the spontaneous homage he paid her, sometimes with impatience, as something that was really beneath her notice; at other times she frankly recognized it, bantered him with his "Old World chivalry," which would soon evaporate in the practical American atmosphere, and called him her Viking, her knight and her faithful squire. But it never occurred to her to regard his devotion in a serious light, and to look upon him as a possible lover had evidently never entered her head. As their intercourse grew more intimate, he had volunteered to read his favorite poets with her, and had gradually succeeded in imparting to her something of his own passionate liking for Heine and Bjrnson. She had in return called his attention to the works of American authors who had hitherto been little more than names to him, and they had thus managed to be of mutual benefit to each other, and to spend many a pleasant hour during the long winter afternoons in each other's company. But Edith had a very keen sense of humor, and could hardly restrain her secret amusement when she heard him reading Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" and Poe's "Raven" (which had been familiar to her from her babyhood), often with false accent, but always with intense enthusiasm. The reflection that he had had no part of his life in common with her,--that he did not love the things which she loved,--could not share her prejudices (and women have a feeling akin to contempt for a man who does not respond to their prejudices)--removed him at times almost beyond the reach of her sympathy.
It was interesting enough as long as the experience was novel, to be thus unconsciously exploring another person's mind and finding so many strange objects there; but after a while the thing began to assume an uncomfortably serious aspect, and then there seemed to be something almost terrible about it. At such times a call from a gentleman of her own nation, even though he were one of the placidly stupid type, would be a positive relief; she could abandon herself to the secure sense of being at home; she need fear no surprises, and in the smooth shallows of their talk there were no unsuspected depths to excite and to baffle her ingenuity. And, again, reverting in her thought to Halfdan, his conversational brilliancy would almost repel her, as something odious and unAmerican, the cheap result of outlandish birth and unrepublican education. Not that she had ever valued republicanism very highly; she was one of those who associated politics with noisy vulgarity in speech and dress, and therefore thanked fortune that women were permitted to keep aloof from it. But in the presence of this alien she found herself growing patriotic; that much-discussed abstraction, which we call our country (and which is nothing but the aggregate of all the slow and invisible influences which go toward making up our own being), became by degrees a very palpable and intelligible fact to her.
Frequently while her American self was thus loudly asserting itself, Edith inflicted many a cruel wound upon her foreign adorer. Once,-- it was the Fourth of July, more than a year after Halfdan's arrival, a number of young ladies and gentlemen, after having listened to a patriotic oration, were invited in to an informal luncheon. While waiting, they naturally enough spent their time in singing national songs, and Halfdan's clear tenor did good service in keeping the straggling voices together. When they had finished, Edith went up to him and was quite effusive in her expressions of gratitude.
"I am sure we ought all to be very grateful to you, Mr. Birch," she said, "and I, for my part, can assure you that I am."
"Grateful? Why?" demanded Halfdan, looking quite unhappy.
"For singing OUR national songs, of course. Now, won't you sing one of your own, please? We should all be so delighted to hear how a Swedish--or Norwegian, is it?--national song sounds."
"Yes, Mr. Birch, DO sing a Swedish song," echoed several voices. They, of course, did not even remotely suspect their own cruelty. He had, in his enthusiasm for the day allowed himself to forget that he was not made of the same clay as they were, that he was an exile and a stranger, and must ever remain so, that he had no right to share their joy in the blessing of liberty. Edith had taken pains to dispel the happy illusion, and had sent him once more whirling toward his cold native Pole. His passion came near choking him, and, to conceal his impetuous emotion, he flung himself down on the piano-stool, and struck some introductory chords with perhaps a little superfluous emphasis. Suddenly his voice burst out into the Swedish national anthem, "Our Land, our Land, our Fatherland," and the air shook and palpitated with strong martial melody. His indignation, his love and his misery, imparted strength to his voice, and its occasional tremble in the PIANO passages was something more than an artistic intention. He was loudly applauded as he arose, and the young ladies thronged about him to ask if he "wouldn't please write out the music for them." Thus month after month passed by, and every day brought its own misery. Mrs. Van Kirk's patronizing manners, and ostentatious kindness, often tested his patience to the utmost. If he was guilty of an innocent witticism or a little quaintness of expression, she always assumed it to be a mistake of terms and corrected him with an air of benign superiority. At times, of course, her corrections were legitimate, as for instance, when he spoke of WEARING a cane, instead of CARRYING one, but in nine cases out of ten the fault lay in her own lack of imagination and not in his ignorance of English. On such occasions Edith often took pity on him, defended him against her mother's criticism, and insisted that if this or that expression was not in common vogue, that was no reason why it should not be used, as it was perfectly grammatical, and, moreover, in keeping with the spirit of the language. And he, listening passively in admiring silence to her argument, thanked her even for the momentary pain because it was followed by so great a happiness. For it was so sweet to be defended by Edith, to feel that he and she were standing together side by side against the outer world. Could he only show her in the old heroic manner how much he loved her! Would only some one that was dear to her die, so that he, in that breaking down of social barriers which follows a great calamity, might comfort her in her sorrow. Would she then, perhaps, weeping, lean her wonderful head upon his breast, feeling but that he was a fellow-mortal, who had a heart that was loyal and true, and forgetting, for one brief instant, that he was a foreigner. Then, to touch that delicate Elizabethan frill which wound itself so daintily about Edith's neck-- what inconceivable rapture! But it was quite impossible. It could never be. These were selfish thoughts, no doubt, but they were a lover's selfishness, and, as such, bore a close kinship to all that is purest and best in human nature.
It is one of the tragic facts of this life, that a relation so unequal as that which existed between Halfdan and Edith, is at all possible. As for Edith, I must admit that she was well aware that her teacher was in love with her. Women have wonderfully keen senses for phenomena of that kind, and it is an illusion if any one imagines, as our Norseman did, that he has locked his secret securely in the hidden chamber of his heart. In fleeting intonations, unconscious glances and attitudes, and through a hundred other channels it will make its way out, and the bereaved jailer may still clasp his key in fierce triumph, never knowing that he has been robbed. It was of course no fault of Edith's that she had become possessed of Halfdan's heart-secret. She regarded it as on the whole rather an absurd affair, and prized it very lightly. That a love so strong and yet so humble, so destitute of hope and still so unchanging, reverent and faithful, had something grand and touching in it, had never occurred to her. It is a truism to say that in our social code the value of a man's character is determined by his position; and fine traits in a foreigner (unless he should happen to be something very great) strike us rather as part of a supposed mental alienism, and as such, naturally suspicious. It is rather disgraceful than otherwise to have your music teacher in love with you, and critical friends will never quite banish the suspicion that you have encouraged him.
Edith had, in her first delight at the discovery of Halfdan's talent, frankly admitted him to a relation of apparent equality. He was a man of culture, had the manners and bearing of a gentleman, and had none of those theatrical airs which so often raise a sort of invisible wall between foreigners and Americans. Her mother, who loved to play the patron, especially to young men, had invited him to dinnerparties and introduced him to their friends, until almost every one looked upon him as a protege of the family. He appeared so well in a parlor, and had really such a distinguished presence, that it was a pleasure to look at him. He was remarkably free from those obnoxious traits which generalizing American travelers have led us to believe were inseparable from foreign birth; his fingernails were in no way conspicuous; he did not, as a French count, a former adorer of Edith's, had done, indulge an unmasculine taste for diamond rings (possibly because he had none); his politeness was unobtrusive and subdued, and of his accent there was just enough left to give an agreeable color of individuality to his speech. But, for all that, Edith could never quite rid herself of the impression that he was intensely un-American. There was a certain idyllic quiescence about him, a child-like directness and simplicity, and a total absence of "push," which were startlingly at variance with the spirit of American life. An American could never have been content to remain in an inferior position without trying, in some way, to better his fortunes. But Halfdan could stand still and see, without the faintest stirring of envy, his plebeian friend Olson, whose education and talents could bear no comparison with his own, rise rapidly above him, and apparently have no desire to emulate him. He could sit on a cricket in a corner, with Clara on his lap, and two or three little girls nestling about him, and tell them fairy stories by the hour, while his kindly face beamed with innocent happiness. And if Clara, to coax him into continuing the entertainment, offered to kiss him, his measure of joy was full. This fair child, with her affectionate ways, and her confiding prattle, wound herself ever more closely about his homeless heart, and he clung to her with a touching devotion. For she was the only one who seemed to be unconscious of the difference of blood, who had not yet learned that she was an American and he--a foreigner.
VI.
Three years had passed by and still the situation was unchanged. Halfdan still taught music and told fairy stories to the children. He had a good many more pupils now than three years ago, although he had made no effort to solicit patronage, and had never tried to advertise his talent by what he regarded as vulgar and inartistic display. But Mrs. Van Kirk, who had by this time discovered his disinclination to assert himself, had been only the more active; had "talked him up" among her aristocratic friends; had given musical soirees, at which she had coaxed him to play the principal role, and had in various other ways exerted herself in his behalf. It was getting to be quite fashionable to admire his quiet, unostentatious style of playing, which was so far removed from the noisy bravado and clap-trap then commonly in vogue. Even professional musicians began to indorse him, and some, who had discovered that "there was money in him," made him tempting offers for a public engagement. But, with characteristic modesty, he distrusted their verdict; his sensitive nature shrank from anything which had the appearance of self-assertion or display.
But Edith--ah, if it had not been for Edith he might have found courage to enter at the door of fortune, which was now opened ajar. That fame, if he should gain it, would bring him any nearer to her, was a thought that was alien to so unworldly a temperament as his. And any action that had no bearing upon his relation to her, left him cold--seemed unworthy of the effort. If she had asked him to play in public; if she had required of him to go to the North Pole, or to cut his own throat, I verily believe he would have done it. And at last Edith did ask him to play. She and Olson had plotted together, and from the very friendliest motives agreed to play into each other's hands.
"If you only WOULD consent to play," said she, in her own persuasive way, one day as they had finished their lesson, "we should all be so happy. Only think how proud we should be of your success, for you know there is nothing you can't do in the way of music if you really want to."
"Do you really think so?" exclaimed he, while his eyes suddenly grew large and luminous.
"Indeed I do," said Edith, emphatically.
"And if--if I played well," faltered he, "would it really please you?"
"Of course it would," cried Edith, laughing; "how can you ask such a foolish question?"
"Because I hardly dared to believe it."
"Now listen to me," continued the girl, leaning forward in her chair, and beaming all over with kindly officiousness; "now for once you must be rational and do just what I tell you. I shall never like you again if you oppose me in this, for I have set my heart upon it; you must promise beforehand that you will be good and not make any objection. Do you hear?"
When Edith assumed this tone toward him, she might well have made him promise to perform miracles. She was too intent upon her benevolent scheme to heed the possible inferences which he might draw from her sudden display of interest.
"Then you promise?" repeated she, eagerly, as he hesitated to answer. "Yes, I promise."
"Now, you must not be surprised; but mamma and I have made arrangements with Mr. S---- that you are to appear under his auspices at a concert which is to be given a week from to-night. All our friends are going, and we shall take up all the front seats, and I have already told my gentlemen friends to scatter through the audience, and if they care anything for my favor, they will have to applaud vigorously."
Halfdan reddened up to his temples, and began to twist his watch-chain nervously.
"You must have small confidence in my ability," he murmured, "since you resort to precautions like these."
"But my dear Mr. Birch," cried Edith, who was quick to discover that she had made a mistake, "it is not kind in you to mistrust me in that way. If a New York audience were as highly cultivated in music as you are, I admit that my precautions would be superfluous. But the papers, you know, will take their tone from the audience, and therefore we must make use of a little innocent artifice to make sure of it. Everything depends upon the success of your first public appearance, and if your friends can in this way help you to establish the reputation which is nothing but your right, I am sure you ought not to bind their hands by your foolish sensitiveness. You don't know the American way of doing things as well as I do, therefore you must stand by your promise, and leave everything to me."
It was impossible not to believe that anything Edith chose to do was above reproach. She looked so bewitching in her excited eagerness for his welfare that it would have been inhuman to oppose her. So he meekly succumbed, and began to discuss with her the programme for the concert.
During the next week there was hardly a day that he did not read some startling paragraph in the newspapers about "the celebrated Scandinavian pianist," whose appearance at S---- Hall was looked forward to as the principal event of the coming season. He inwardly rebelled against the well-meant exaggerations; but as he suspected that it was Edith's influence which was in this way asserting itself in his behalf, he set his conscience at rest and remained silent. The evening of the concert came at last, and, as the papers stated the next morning, "the large hall was crowded to its utmost capacity with a select and highly appreciative audience." Edith must have played her part of the performance skillfully, for as he walked out upon the stage, he was welcomed with an enthusiastic burst of applause, as if he had been a world- renowned artist. At Edith's suggestion, her two favorite nocturnes had been placed first upon the programme; then followed one of those ballads of Chopin, whose rhythmic din and rush sweep onward, beleaguering the ear like eager, melodious hosts, charging in thickening ranks and columns, beating impetuous retreats, and again uniting with one grand emotion the wide-spreading army of sound for the final victory. Besides these, there was one of Liszt's "Rhapsodies Hongroises," an impromptu by Schubert, and several orchestral pieces; but the greater part of the programme was devoted to Chopin, because Halfdan, with his great, hopeless passion laboring in his breast, felt that he could interpret Chopin better than he could any other composer. He carried his audience by storm. As he retired to the dressing-room, after having finished the last piece, his friends, among whom Edith and Mrs. Van Kirk were the most conspicuous, thronged about him, showering their praises and congratulations upon him. They insisted with much friendly urging upon taking him home in their carriage; Clara kissed him, Mrs. Van Kirk introduced him to her lady acquaintances as "our friend, Mr. Birch," and Edith held his hand so long in hers that he came near losing his presence of mind and telling her then and there that he loved her. As his eyes rested on her, they became suddenly suffused with tears, and a vast bewildering happiness vibrated through his frame. At last he tore himself away and wandered aimlessly through the long, lonely streets. Why could he not tell Edith that he loved her? Was there any disgrace in loving? This heavenly passion which so suddenly had transfused his being, and year by year deadened the substance of his old self, creating in its stead something new and wild and strange which he never could know, but still held infinitely dear --had it been sent to him merely as a scourge to test his capacity for suffering?
Once, while he was a child, his mother had told him that somewhere in this wide world there lived a maiden whom God had created for him, and for him alone, and when he should see her, he should love her, and his life should thenceforth be all for her. It had hardly occurred to him, then, to question whether she would love him in return, it had appeared so very natural that she should. Now he had found this maiden, and she had been very kind to him; but her kindness had been little better than cruelty, because he had demanded something more than kindness. And still he had never told her of his love. He must tell her even this very night while the moon rode high in the heavens and all the small differences between human beings seemed lost in the vast starlit stillness. He knew well that by the relentless glare of the daylight his own insignificance would be cruelly conspicuous in the presence of her splendor; his scruples would revive, and his courage fade.
The night was clear and still. A clock struck eleven in some church tower near by. The Van Kirk mansion rose tall and stately in the moonlight, flinging a dense mass of shadow across the street. Up in the third story he saw two windows lighted; the curtains were drawn, but the blinds were not closed. All the rest of the house was dark. He raised his voice and sang a Swedish serenade which seemed in perfect concord with his own mood. His clear tenor rose through the silence of the night, and a feeble echo flung it back from the mansion opposite: [3] "Star, sweet star, that brightly beamest,

Glittering on the skies nocturnal,
Hide thine eye no more from me,
Hide thine eye no more from me!"

[3] Free translation of a Swedish serenade, the name of whose author I have forgotten.

H. H. B.
The curtain was drawn aside, the window cautiously raised, and the outline of Edith's beautiful head appeared dark and distinct against the light within. She instantly recognized him.
"You must go away, Mr. Birch," came her voice in an anxious whisper out of the shadow. "Pray go away. You will wake up the people."
Her words were audible enough, but they failed to convey any meaning to his excited mind. Once more his voice floated upward to her opened window:

"And I yearn to reach thy dwelling,
Yearn to rise from earth's fierce turmoil;
Sweetest star upward to thee,
Yearn to rise, bright star to thee."

"Dear Mr. Birch," she whispered once more in tones of distress. "Pray DO go away. Or perhaps," she interrupted herself "--wait one moment and I will come down."
Presently the front door was noiselessly opened, and Edith's tall, lithe form, dressed in a white flowing dress, and with her blonde hair rolling loosely over her shoulders, appeared for an instant, and then again vanished. With one leap Halfdan sprang up the stairs and pushed through the half-opened door. Edith closed the door behind him, then with rapid steps led the way to the back parlor where the moon broke feebly through the bars of the closed shutters. "Now Mr. Birch," she said, seating herself upon a lounge, "you may explain to me what this unaccountable behavior of yours means. I should hardly think I had deserved to be treated in this way by you."
Halfdan was utterly bewildered; a nervous fit of trembling ran through him, and he endeavored in vain to speak. He had been prepared for passionate reproaches, but this calm severity chilled him through, and he could only gasp and tremble, but could utter no word in his defense.
"I suppose you are aware," continued Edith, in the same imperturbable manner, "that if I had not interrupted you, the policeman would have h*eard you, and you would have been arrested for street disturbance. Then to-morrow we should have seen it in all the newspapers, and I should have been the laughing-stock of the whole town."
No, surely he had never thought of it in that light; the idea struck him as entirely new. There was a long pause. A cock crowed with a drowsy remoteness in some neighboring yard, and the little clock on the mantel-piece ticked on patiently in the moonlit dusk.
"If you have nothing to say," resumed Edith, while the stern indifference in her voice perceptibly relaxed, "then I will bid you good- night."
She arose, and with a grand sweep of her drapery, moved toward the door. "Miss Edith," cried he, stretching his hands despairingly after her, "you must not leave me."
She paused, tossed her hair back with her hands, and gazed at him over her shoulder. He threw himself on his knees, seized the hem of her dress, and pressed it to his lips. It was a gesture of such inexpressible humility that even a stone would have relented.
"Do not be foolish, Mr. Birch," she said, try- ing to pull her dress away from him. "Get up, and if you have anything rational to say to me, I will stay and listen." "Yes, yes," he whispered, hoarsely, "I shall be rational. Only do not leave me." She again sank down wearily upon the lounge, and looked at him in expectant silence.
"Miss Edith," pleaded he in the same hoarse, passionate undertone, "have pity on me, and do not despise me. I love you--oh--if you would but allow me to die for you, I should be the happiest of men."
Again he shuddered, and stood long gazing at her with a mute, pitiful appeal. A tear stole into Edith's eye and trickled down over her cheek.
"Ah, Mr. Birch," she murmured, while a sigh shook her bosom, "I am sorry--very sorry that this misfortune has happened to you. You have deserved a better fate than to love me--to love a woman who can never give you anything in return for what you give her."
"Never?" he repeated mournfully, "never?"
"No, never! You have been a good friend to me, and as such I value you highly, and I had hoped that you would always remain so. But I see that it cannot be. It will perhaps be best for you henceforth not to see me, at least not until--pardon the expression--you have out- lived this generous folly. And now, you know, you will need me no more. You have made a splendid reputation, and if you choose to avail yourself of it, your fortune is already made. I shall always rejoice to hear of your success, and --and if you should ever need a FRIEND, you must come to no one but me. I know that these are feeble words, Mr. Birch, and if they seem cold to you, you must pardon me. I can say nothing more."
They were indeed feeble words, although most cordially spoken. He tried to weigh them, to measure their meaning, but his mind was as if benumbed, and utterly incapable of thought. He walked across the floor, perhaps only to do something, not feeling where he trod, but still with an absurd sensation that he was taking immoderately long steps. Then he stopped abruptly, wrung his hands, and gazed at Edith. And suddenly, like a flash in a vacuum, the thought shot through his brain that he had seen this very scene somewhere--in a dream, in a remote childhood, in a previous existence, he did not know when or where. It seemed strangely familiar, and in the next instant strangely mean- ingless and unreal. The walls, the floor-- everything began to move, to whirl about him; he struck his hands against his forehead, and sank down into a damask-covered easy-chair. With a faint cry of alarm, Edith sprang up, seized a bottle of cologne which happened to be within reach, and knelt down at his side. She put her arm around his neck, and raised his head.
"Mr. Birch, dear Mr. Birch," she cried, in a frightened whisper, "for God's sake come to yourself! O God, what have I done?"
She blew the eau-de-cologne into his face, and, as he languidly opened his eyes, he felt the touch of her warm hand upon his cheeks and his forehead. "Thank heaven! he is better," she murmured, still continuing to bathe his temples. "How do you feel now, Mr. Birch?" she added, in a tone of anxious inquiry. "Thank you, it was an unpardonable weakness," he muttered, without changing his attitude. "Do not trouble yourself about me. I shall soon be well." It was so sweet to be conscious of her gentle ministry, that it required a great effort, an effort of conscience, to rouse him once more, as his strength returned. "Had you not better stay?" she asked, as he rose to put on his overcoat. "I will call one of the servants and have him show you a room. We will say to-morrow morning that you were taken ill, and nobody will wonder."
"No, no," he responded, energetically. "I am perfectly strong now." But he still had to lean on a chair, and his face was deathly pale.
"Farewell, Miss Edith," he said; and a tender sadness trembled in his voice. "Farewell. We shall--probably--never meet again."
"Do not speak so," she answered, seizing his hand. "You will try to forget this, and you will still be great and happy. And when fortune shall again smile upon you, and--and-- you will be content to be my friend, then we shall see each other as before."
"No, no," he broke forth, with a sudden hoarseness. "It will never be." He walked toward the door with the motions of one who feels death in his limbs; then stopped once more and his eyes lingered with inexpressible sadness on the wonderful, beloved form which stood dimly outlined before him in the twilight. Then Edith's measure of misery, too, seemed full. With the divine heedlessness which belongs to her sex, she rushed up toward him, and remembering only that he was weak and unhappy, and that he suffered for her sake, she took his face between her hands and kissed him. He was too generous a man to misinterpret the act; so he whispered but once more: "Farewell," and hastened away. VII.
After that eventful December night, America was no more what it had been to Halfdan Bjerk. A strange torpidity had come over him; every rising day gazed into his eyes with a fierce unmeaning glare. The noise of the street annoyed him and made him childishly fretful, and the solitude of his own room seemed still more dreary and depressing. He went mechanically through the daily routine of his duties as if the soul had been taken out of his work, and left his life all barrenness and desolation. He moved restlessly from place to place, roamed at all times of the day and night through the city and its suburbs, trying vainly to exhaust his physical strength; gradually, as his lethargy deepened into a numb, helpless despair, it seemed somehow to impart a certain toughness to his otherwise delicate frame. Olson, who was now a junior partner in the firm of Remsen, Van Kirk and Co., stood by him faithfully in these days of sorrow. He was never effusive in his sympathy, but was patiently forbearing with his friend's whims and moods, and humored him as if he had been a sick child intrusted to his custody. That Edith might be the moving cause of Olson's kindness was a thought which, strangely enough, had never occurred to Halfdan.
At last, when spring came, the vacancy of his mind was suddenly invaded with a strong desire to revisit his native land. He disclosed his plan to Olson, who, after due deliberation and several visits to the Van Kirk mansion, decided that the pleasure of seeing his old friends and the scenes of his childhood might push the painful memories out of sight, and renew his interest in life. So, one morning, while the May sun shone with a soft radiance upon the beautiful harbor, our Norseman found himself standing on the deck of a huge black-hulled Cunarder, shivering in spite of the warmth, and feeling a chill loneliness creeping over him at the sight of the kissing and affectionate leave- takings which were going on all around him. Olson was running back and forth, attending to his baggage; but he himself took no thought, and felt no more responsibility than if he had been a helpless child. He half regretted that his own wish had prevailed, and was inclined to hold his friend responsible for it; and still he had not energy enough to protest now when the journey seemed inevitable. His heart still clung to the place which held the corpse of his ruined life, as a man may cling to the spot which hides his beloved dead.
About two weeks later Halfdan landed in Norway. He was half reluctant to leave the steamer, and the land of his birth excited no emotion in his breast. He was but conscious of a dim regret that he was so far away from Edith. At last, however, he betook himself to a hotel, where he spent the afternoon sitting with half-closed eyes at a window, watching listlessly the drowsy slow-pulsed life which dribbled languidly through the narrow thoroughfare. The noisy uproar of Broadway chimed remotely in his ears, like the distant roar of a tempest-tossed sea, and what had once been a perpetual annoyance was now a sweet memory. How often with Edith at his side had he threaded his way through the surging crowds that pour, on a fine afternoon, in an unceasing current up and down the street between Union and Madison Squares. How friendly, and sweet, and gracious, Edith had been at such times; how fresh her voice, how witty and animated her chance remarks when they stopped to greet a passing acquaintance; and, above all, how inspiring the sight of her heavenly beauty. Now that was all past. Perhaps he should never see Edith again.
The next day he sauntered through the city, meeting some old friends, who all seemed changed and singularly uninteresting. They were all engaged or married, and could talk of nothing but matrimony, and their prospects of advancement in the Government service. One had an influential uncle who had been a chum of the present minister of finance; another based his hopes of future prosperity upon the family connections of his betrothed, and a third was waiting with a patient perseverance, worthy of a better cause, for the death or resignation of an antiquated chef-de-bureau, which, according to the promise of some mighty man, would open a position for him in the Department of Justice. All had the most absurd theories about American democracy, and indulged freely in prophecies of coming disasters; but about their own government they had no opinion whatever. If Halfdan attempted to set them right, they at once grew excited and declamatory; their opinions were based upon conviction and a charming ignorance of facts, and they were not to be moved. They knew all about Tweed and the Tammany Ring, and believed them to be representative citizens of New York, if not of the United States; but of Charles Sumner and Carl Schurz they had never heard. Halfdan, who, in spite of his misfortunes in the land of his adoption, cherished a very tender feeling for it, was often so thoroughly aroused at the foolish prejudices which everywhere met him, that his torpidity gradually thawed away, and he began to look more like his former self.
Toward autumn he received an invitation to visit a country clergyman in the North, a distant relative of his father's, and there whiled away his time, fishing and shooting, until winter came. But as Christmas drew near, and the day wrestled feebly with the all-conquering night, the old sorrow revived. In the darkness which now brooded over land and sea, the thoughts needed no longer be on guard against themselves; they could roam far and wide as they listed. Where was Edith now, the sweet, the wonderful Edith? Was there yet the same dancing light in her beautiful eyes, the same golden sheen in her hair, the same merry ring in her voice? And had she not said that when he was content to be only her friend, he might return to her, and she would receive him in the old joyous and confiding way? Surely there was no life to him apart from her: why should he not be her friend? Only a glimpse of her lovely face--ah, it was worth a lifetime; it would consecrate an age of misery, a glimpse of Edith's face. Thus ran his fancies day by day, and the night only lent a deeper intensity to the yearnings of the day. He walked about as in a dream, seeing nothing, heeding nothing, while this one strong desire--to see Edith once more --throbbed and throbbed with a slow, feverish perseverance within him. Edith--Edith, the very name had a strange, potent fascination. Every thought whispered "Edith,"--his pulse beat "Edith,"--and his heart repeated the beloved name. It was his pulse-beat,--his heartbeat,--his life-beat.
And one morning as he stood absently looking at his fingers against the light-and they seemed strangely wan and transparent--the thought at last took shape. It rushed upon him with such vehemence, that he could no more resist it. So he bade the clergyman good-bye, gathered his few worldly goods together and set out for Bergen. There he found an English steamer which carried him to Hull, and a few weeks later, he was once more in New York.
It was late one evening in January that a tug-boat arrived and took the cabin passengers ashore. The moon sailed tranquilly over the deep blue dome of the sky, the stars traced their glittering paths of light from the zenith downward, and it was sharp, bitter cold. Northward over the river lay a great bank of cloud, dense, gray and massive, the spectre of the coming snow-storm. There it lay so huge and fantastically human, ruffling itself up, as fowls do, in defense against the cold. Halfdan walked on at a brisk rate--strange to say, all the street- cars he met went the wrong way--startling every now and then some precious memory, some word or look or gesture of Edith's which had hovered long over those scenes, waiting for his recognition. There was the great jewel-store where Edith had taken him so often to consult his taste whenever a friend of hers was to be married. It was there that they had had an amicable quarrel over that bronze statue of Faust which she had found beautiful, while he, with a rudeness which seemed now quite incomprehensible, had insisted that it was not. And when he had failed to convince her, she had given him her hand in token of reconciliation-- and Edith had a wonderful way of giving her hand, which made any one feel that it was a peculiar privilege to press it--and they had walked out arm in arm into the animated, gas- lighted streets, with a delicious sense of snugness and security, being all the more closely united for their quarrel. Here, farther up the avenue, they had once been to a party, and he had danced for the first time in his life with Edith. Here was Delmonico's, where they had had such fascinating luncheons together; where she had got a stain on her dress, and he had been forced to observe that her dress was then not really a part of herself, since it was a thing that could not be stained. Her dress had always seemed to him as something absolute and final, exalted above criticism, incapable of improvement. As I have said, Halfdan walked briskly up the avenue, and it was something after eleven when he reached the house which he sought. The great cloud-bank in the north had then begun to expand and stretched its long misty arms eastward and westward over the heavens. The windows on the ground-floor were dark, but the sleeping apartments in the upper stories were lighted. In Edith's room the inside shutters were closed, but one of the windows was a little down at the top. And as he stood gazing with tremulous happiness up to that window, a stanza from Heine which he and Edith had often read together, came into his head. It was the story of the youth who goes to the Madonna at Kevlar and brings her as a votive offering a heart of wax, that she may heal him of his love and his sorrow.

"I bring this waxen image,
The image of my heart,
Heal thou my bitter sorrow,
And cure my deadly smart!"[4]

[4] Translation, from "Exotics. By J. F. C. & C. L."
Then came the thought that for him, too, as for the poor youth of Cologne, there was healing only in death. And still in this moment he was so near Edith, should see her perhaps, and the joy at this was stronger than all else, stronger even than death. So he sat down beside the steps of the mansion opposite, where there was some shelter from the wind, and waited patiently till Edith should close her win- dow. He was cold, perhaps, but, if so, he hardly knew it, for the near joy of seeing her throbbed warmly in his veins. Ah, there--the blinds were thrown open; Edith, in all the lithe magnificence of her wonderful form, stood out clear and beautiful against the light within; she pushed up the lower window in order to reach the upper one, and for a moment leaned out over the sill. Once more her wondrous profile traced itself in strong relief against the outer gloom. There came a cry from the street below, a feeble involuntary one, but still distinctly audible. Edith peered anxiously out into the darkness, but the darkness had grown denser and she could see nothing. The window was fastened, the shutters closed, and the broad pathway of light which she had flung out upon the night had vanished. Halfdan closed his eyes trying to retain the happy vision. Yes, there she stood still, and there was a heavenly smile upon her lips--ugh, he shivered--the snow swept in a wild whirl up the street. He wrapped his plaid more closely about him, and strained his eyes to catch one more glimpse of the beloved Edith. Ah, yes; there she was again; she came nearer and nearer, and she touched his cheek, gently, warily smiling all the while with a strange wistful smile which was surely not Edith's. There, she bent over him,--touched him again,--how cold her hands were; the touch chilled him to the heart. The snow had now begun to fall in large scattered flakes, whirling fitfully through the air, following every chance gust of wind, but still falling, falling, and covering the earth with its white, death-like shroud.
But surely--there was Edith again,--how wonderful!--in a long snow-white robe, grave and gracious, still with the wistful smile on her lips. See, she beckons to him with her hand, and he rises to follow, but something heavy clings to his feet and he cannot stir from the spot. He tries to cry for help, but he cannot,-- can only stretch out his hands to her, and feel very unhappy that he cannot follow her. But now she pauses in her flight, turns about, and he sees that she wears a myrtle garland in her hair like a bride. She comes toward him, her countenance all radiant with love and happiness, and she stoops down over him and speaks: "Come; they are waiting for us. I will follow thee in life and in death, wherever thou goest. Come," repeats Edith, "they have long been waiting. They are all here."
And he imagines he knows who they all are, although he has never heard of them, nor can he recall their names.
"But--but," he stammers, "I--I--am a foreigner "
It appeared then that for some reason this was an insurmountable objection. And Edith's happiness dies out of her beautiful face, and she turns away weeping. "Edith, beloved!"
Then she is once more at his side.
"Thou art no more a foreigner to me, beloved. Whatever thou art, I am." And she presses her lips to his--it was the sweetest kiss of his life--the kiss of death.
The next morning, as Edith, after having put the last touch to her toilet, threw the shutters open, a great glare of sun-smitten snow burst upon her and for a moment blinded her eyes. On the sidewalk opposite, half a dozen men with snow-shovels in their hands and a couple of policeman had congregated, and, judging by their manner, were discussing some object of interest. Presently they were joined by her father, who had just finished his breakfast and was on his way to the office. Now he stooped down and gazed at something half concealed in the snow, then suddenly started back, and as she caught a glimpse of his face, she saw that it was ghastly white. A terrible foreboding seized her. She threw a shawl about her shoulders and rushed down-stairs. In the hall she was met by her father, who was just entering, followed by four men, carrying something between them. She well knew what it was. She would fain have turned away, but she could not: grasping her father's arm and pressing it hard, she gazed with blank, frightened eyes at the white face, the lines of which Death had so strangely emphasized. The snow-flakes which hung in his hair had touched him with their sudden age, as if to bridge the gulf between youth and death. And still he was beautiful--the clear brow, the peaceful, happy indolence, the frozen smile which death had perpetuated. Smiling, he had departed from the earth which had no place for him, and smiling entered the realm where, among the many mansions, there is, perhaps, also one for a gentle, simple-hearted enthusiast.

The Story Of An Outcast

THERE was an ancient feud between the families; and Bjarne Blakstad was not the man to make it up, neither was Hedin Ullern. So they looked askance at each other whenever they met on the highway, and the one took care not to cross the other's path. But on Sundays, when the church- bells called the parishioners together, they could not very well avoid seeing each other on the church-yard; and then, one day, many years ago, when the sermon had happened to touch Bjarne's heart, he had nodded to Hedin and said: "Fine weather to-day;" and Hedin had returned the nod and answered: "True is that." "Now I have done my duty before God and men," thought Bjarne, "and it is his turn to take the next step." "The fellow is proud," said Hedin to himself, "and he wants to show off his generosity. But I know the wolf by his skin, even if he has learned to bleat like a ewe-lamb."
What the feud really was about, they had both nearly forgotten. All they knew was that some thirty years ago there had been a quarrel between the pastor and the parish about the right of carrying arms to the church. And then Bjarne's father had been the spokesman of the parish, while Hedin's grandsire had been a staunch defender of the pastor. There was a rumor, too, that they had had a fierce encounter somewhere in the woods, and that the one had stabbed the other with a knife; but whether that was really true, no one could tell. Bjarne was tall and grave, like the weather- beaten fir-trees in his mast-forest. He had a large clean-shaven face, narrow lips, and small fierce eyes. He seldom laughed, and when he did, his laugh seemed even fiercer than his frown. He wore his hair long, as his fathers had done, and dressed in the styles of two centuries ago; his breeches were clasped with large silver buckles at the knees, and his red jerkin was gathered about his waist with a leathern girdle. He loved everything that was old, in dress as well as in manners, took no newspapers, and regarded railroads and steamboats as inventions of the devil. Bjarne had married late in life, and his marriage had brought him two daughters, Brita and Grimhild. Hedin Ullern was looked upon as an upstart. He could only count three generations back, and he hardly knew himself how his grandfather had earned the money that had enabled him to buy a farm and settle down in the valley. He had read a great deal, and was well informed on the politics of the day; his name had even been mentioned for storthingsmand, or member of parliament from the district, and it was the common opinion, that if Bjarne Blakstad had not so vigorously opposed him, he would have been elected, being the only "cultivated" peasant in the valley. Hedin was no unwelcome guest in the houses of gentlefolks, and he was often seen at the judge's and the pastor's omber parties. And for all this Bjarne Blakstad only hated him the more. Hedin's wife, Thorgerda, was fair-haired, tall and stout, and it was she who managed the farm, while her husband read his books, and studied politics in the newspapers; but she had a sharp tongue and her neighbors were afraid of her. They had one son, whose name was Halvard.
Brita Blakstad, Bjarne's eldest daughter, was a maid whom it was a joy to look upon. They called her "Glitter-Brita," because she was fond of rings and brooches, and everything that was bright; while she was still a child, she once took the old family bridal-crown out from the storehouse and carried it about on her head. "Beware of that crown, child," her father had said to her, "and wear it not before the time. There is not always blessing in the bridal silver." And she looked wonderingly up into his eyes and answered: "But it glitters, father;" and from that time forth they had named her Glitter-Brita.
And Glitter-Brita grew up to be a fair and winsome maiden, and wherever she went the wooers flocked on her path. Bjarne shook his head at her, and often had harsh words upon his lips, when he saw her braiding field- flowers into her yellow tresses or clasping the shining brooches to her bodice; but a look of hers or a smile would completely disarm him. She had a merry way of doing things which made it all seem like play; but work went rapidly from her hands, while her ringing laughter echoed through the house, and her sunny presence made it bright in the dusky ancestral halls. In her kitchen the long rows of copper pots and polished kettles shone upon the walls, and the neatly scoured milk-pails stood like soldiers on parade about the shelves under the ceiling. Bjarne would often sit for hours watching her, and a strange spring-feeling would steal into his heart. He felt a father's pride in her stately growth and her rich womanly beauty. "Ah!" he would say to himself, "she has the pure blood in her veins and, as true as I live, the farm shall be hers." And then, quite contrary to his habits, he would indulge in a little reverie, imagining the time when he, as an aged man, should have given the estate over into her hands, and seeing her as a worthy matron preside at the table, and himself rocking his grandchildren on his knee. No wonder, then, that he eyed closely the young lads who were beginning to hover about the house, and that he looked with suspicion upon those who selected Saturday nights for their visits.[5] When Brita was twenty years old, however, her father thought that it was time for her to make her choice. There were many fine, brave lads in the valley, and, as Bjarne thought, Brita would have the good sense to choose the finest and the bravest. So, when the winter came, he suddenly flung his doors open to the youth of the parish, and began to give parties with ale and mead in the grand old style. He even talked with the young men, at times, encouraged them to manly sports, and urged them to taste of his home-brewed drinks and to tread the spring-dance briskly. And Brita danced and laughed so that her hair flew around her and the silver brooches tinkled and rang on her bosom. But when the merriment was at an end, and any one of the lads remained behind to offer her his hand, she suddenly grew grave, told him she was too young, that she did not know herself, and that she had had no time as yet to decide so serious a question. Thus the winter passed and the summer drew near.
[5] In the country districts of Norway Saturday evening is regarded as "the wooer's eve."
In the middle of June, Brita went to the saeter[6] with the cattle; and her sister, Grimhild, remained at home to keep house on the farm. She loved the life in the mountains; the great solitude sometimes made her feel sad, but it was not an unpleasant sadness, it was rather a gentle toning down of all the shrill and noisy feelings of the soul. Up there, in the heart of the primeval forest, her whole being seemed to herself a symphony of melodious whispers with a vague delicious sense of remoteness and mystery in them, which she only felt and did not attempt to explain. There, those weird legends which, in former days, still held their sway in the fancy of every Norsewoman, breathed their secrets into her ear, and she felt her nearness and kinship to nature, as at no other time. [6] The saeter is a place in the mountains where the Norwegian peasants spend their summers pasturing their cattle. Every large farm has its own saeter, consisting of one or more chalets, hedged in by a fence of stone or planks. One night, as the sun was low, and a purple bluish smoke hung like a thin veil over the tops of the forest, Brita had taken out her knitting and seated herself on a large moss-grown stone, on the croft. Her eyes wandered over the broad valley which was stretched out below, and she could see the red roofs of the Blakstad mansion peeping forth between the fir-trees. And she wondered what they were doing down there, whether Grimhild had done milking, and whether her father had returned from the ford, where it was his habit at this hour to ride with the footmen to water the horses. As she sat thus wondering, she was startled by a creaking in the dry branches hard by, and lifting her eye, she saw a tall, rather clumsily built, young man emerging from the thicket. He had a broad but low forehead, flaxen hair which hung down over a pair of dull ox-like eyes; his mouth was rather large and, as it was half open, displayed two massive rows of shining white teeth. His red peaked cap hung on the back of his head and, although it was summer, his thick wadmal vest was buttoned close up to his throat; over his right arm he had flung his jacket, and in his hand he held a bridle. "Good evening," said Brita, "and thanks for last meeting;" although she was not sure that she had ever seen him before.
"It was that bay mare, you know," stammered the man in a half apologetic tone, and shook the bridle, as if in further explanation.
"Ah, you have lost your mare," said the girl, and she could not help smiling at his helplessness and his awkward manner.
"Yes, it was the bay mare," answered he, in the same diffident tone; then, encouraged by her smile, he straightened himself a little and continued rather more fluently: "She never was quite right since the time the wolves were after her. And then since they took the colt away from her the milk has been troubling her, and she hasn't been quite like herself."
"I haven't seen her anywhere hereabouts," said Brita; "you may have to wander far, before you get on the track of her."
"Yes, that is very likely. And I am tired already."
"Won't you sit down and rest yourself?"
He deliberately seated himself in the grass, and gradually gained courage to look her straight in the face; and his dull eye remained steadfastly fixed on her in a way which bespoke unfeigned surprise and admiration. Slowly his mouth broadened into a smile; but his smile had more of sadness than of joy in it. She had, from the moment she saw him, been possessed of a strangely patronizing feeling toward him. She could not but treat him as if he had been a girl or some person inferior to her in station. In spite of his large body, the impression he made upon her was that of weakness; but she liked the sincerity and kindness which expressed themselves in his sad smile and large, honest blue eyes. His gaze reminded her of that of an ox, but it had not only the ox's dullness, but also its simplicity and good-nature.
They sat talking on for a while about the weather, the cattle, and the prospects of the crops.
"What is your name?" she asked, at last.
"Halvard Hedinson Ullern."
A sudden shock ran through her at the sound of that name; in the next moment a deep blush stole over her countenance.
"And my name," she said, slowly, "is Brita Bjarne's daughter Blakstad." She fixed her eyes upon him, as if to see what effect her words produced. But his features wore the same sad and placid expression; and no line in his face seemed to betray either surprise or ill-will. Then her sense of patronage grew into one of sympathy and pity. "He must either be weak-minded or very unhappy," thought she, "and what right have I then to treat him harshly." And she continued her simple, straightforward talk with the young man, until he, too, grew almost talkative, and the sadness of his smile began to give way to something which almost resembled happiness. She noticed the change and rejoiced. At last, when the sun had sunk behind the western mountain tops, she rose and bade him good- night; in another moment the door of the saeter- cottage closed behind her, and he heard her bolting it on the inside. But for a long time he remained sitting on the grass, and strange thoughts passed through his head. He had quite forgotten his bay mare.
The next evening when the milking was done, and the cattle were gathered within the saeter enclosure, Brita was again sitting on the large stone, looking out over the valley. She felt a kind of companionship with the people when she saw the smoke whirling up from their chimneys, and she could guess what they were going to have for supper. As she sat there, she again heard a creaking in the branches, and Halvard Ullern stood again before her, with his jacket on his arm, and the same bridle in his hand.
"You have not found your bay mare yet?" she exclaimed, laughingly. "And you think she is likely to be in this neighborhood?"
"I don't know," he answered; "and I don't care if she isn't."
He spread his jacket on the grass, and sat down on the spot where he had sat the night before. Brita looked at him in surprise and remained silent; she didn't know how to interpret this second visit.
"You are very handsome," he said, suddenly, with a gravity which left no doubt as to his sincerity.
"Do you think so?" she answered, with a merry laugh. He appeared to her almost a child, and it never entered her mind to feel offended. On the contrary, she was not sure but that she felt pleased.
"I have thought of you ever since yesterday," he continued, with the same imperturbable manner. "And if you were not angry with me, I thought I would like to look at you once more. You are so different from other folks."
"God bless your foolish talk," cried Brita, with a fresh burst of merriment. "No, indeed I am not angry with you; I should just as soon think of being angry with-with that calf," she added for want of another comparison.
"You think I don't know much," he stammered. "And I don't." The sad smile again settled on his countenance.
A feeling of guilt sent the blood throbbing through her veins. She saw that she had done him injustice. He evidently possessed more sense, or at least a finer instinct, than she had given him credit for.
"Halvard," she faltered, "if I have offended you, I assure you I didn't mean to do it; and a thousand times I beg your pardon."
"You haven't offended me, Brita," answered he, blushing like a girl. "You are the first one who doesn't make me feel that I am not so wise as other folks." She felt it her duty to be open and confiding with him in return; and in order not to seem ungenerous, or rather to put them on an equal footing by giving him also a peep into her heart, she told him about her daily work, about the merry parties at her father's house, and about the lusty lads who gathered in their halls to dance the Halling and the spring-dance. He listened attentively while she spoke, gazing earnestly into her face, but never interrupting her. In his turn he described to her in his slow deliberate way, how his father constantly scolded him because he was not bright, and did not care for politics and newspapers, and how his mother wounded him with her sharp tongue by making merry with him, even in the presence of the servants and strangers. He did not seem to imagine that there was anything wrong in what he said, or that he placed himself in a ludicrous light; nor did he seem to speak from any unmanly craving for sympathy. His manner was so simple and straightforward that what Brita probably would have found strange in another, she found perfectly natural in him.
It was nearly midnight when they parted{.} She hardly slept at all that night, and she was half vexed with herself for the interest she took in this simple youth. The next morning her father came up to pay her a visit and to see how the flocks were thriving. She understood that it would be dangerous to say anything to him about Halvard, for she knew his temper and feared the result, if he should ever discover her secret. Therefore, she shunned an opportunity to talk with him, and only busied herself the more with the cattle and the cooking. Bjarne soon noticed her distraction, but, of course, never suspected the cause. Before he left her, he asked her if she did not find it too lonely on the saeter, and if it would not be well if he sent her one of the maids for a companion. She hastened to assure him that that was quite unnecessary; the cattle-boy who was there to help her was all the company she wanted. Toward evening, Bjarne Blakstad loaded his horses with buckets, filled with cheese and butter, and started for the valley. Brita stood long looking after him as he descended the rocky slope, and she could hardly conceal from herself that she felt relieved, when, at last, the forest hid him from her sight. All day she had been walking about with a heavy heart; there seemed to be something weighing on her breast, and she could not throw it off. Who was this who had come between her and her father? Had she ever been afraid of him before, had she been glad to have him leave her? A sudden bitterness took possession of her, for in her distress, she gave Halvard the blame for all that had happened. She threw herself down on the grass and burst into a passionate fit of weeping; she was guilty, wretchedly miserable, and all for the sake of one whom she had hardly known for two days. If he should come in this moment, she would tell him what he had done toward her; and her wish must have been heard, for as she raised her eyes, he stood there at her side, the sad feature about his mouth and his great honest eyes gazing wonderingly at her. She felt her purpose melt within her; he looked so good and so unhappy. Then again came the thought of her father and of her own wrong, and the bitterness again revived. "Go away," cried she, in a voice half reluctantly tender and half defiant. "Go away, I say; I don't want to see you any more."
"I will go to the end of the world if you wish it," he answered, with a strange firmness.
He picked up his jacket which he had dropped on the ground, then turned slowly, gave her mother long look, an infinitely sad and hopeless one, and went. Her bosom heaved violently --remorse, affection and filial duty wrestled desperately in her heart.
"No, no," she cried, "why do you go? I did not mean it so. I only wanted--" He paused and returned as deliberately as he had gone.
Why should I dwell upon the days that followed-- how her heart grew ever more restless, how she would suddenly wake up at nights and see those large blue eyes sadly gazing at her, how by turns she would condemn herself and him, and how she felt with bitter pain that she was growing away from those who had hitherto been nearest and dearest to her. And strange to say, this very isolation from her father made her cling only the more desperately to him. It seemed to her as if Bjarne had deliberately thrown her off; that she herself had been the one who took the first step had hardly occurred to her. Alas, her grief was as irrational as her love. By what strange devious process of reasoning these convictions became settled in her mind, it is difficult to tell. It is sufficient to know that she was a woman and that she loved. She even knew herself that she was irrational, and this very sense drew her more hopelessly into the maze of the labyrinth from which she saw no escape.
His visits were as regular as those of the sun. She knew that there was only a word of hers needed to banish him from her presence forever. And how many times did she not resolve to speak that word? But the word was never spoken. At times a company of the lads from the valley would come to spend a merry evening at the saeter; but she heeded them not, and they soon disappeared. Thus the summer went amid passing moods of joy and sorrow. She had long known that he loved her, and when at last his slow confession came, it added nothing to her happiness; it only increased her fears for the future. They laid many plans together in those days; but winter came as a surprise to both, the cattle were removed from the mountains, and they were again separated. Bjarne Blakstad looked long and wistfully at his daughter that morning, when he came to bring her home. She wore no more rings and brooches, and it was this which excited Bjarne's suspicion that everything was not right with her. Formerly he was displeased because she wore too many; now he grumbled because she wore none.
II.
The winter was half gone; and in all this time Brita had hardly once seen Halvard. Yes, once,--it was Christmas-day,--she had ventured to peep over to his pew in the church, and had seen him, sitting at his father's side, and gazing vacantly out into the empty space; but as he had caught her glance, he had blushed, and began eagerly to turn the leaves of his hymn- book. It troubled her that he made no effort to see her; many an evening she had walked alone down at the riverside, hoping that he might come; but it was all in vain. She could not but believe that his father must have made some discovery, and that he was watched. In the mean time the black cloud thickened over her head; for a secret gnawed at the very roots of her heart. It was a time of terrible suspense and suffering--such as a man never knows, such as only a woman can endure. It was almost a relief when the cloud burst, and the storm broke loose, as presently it did.
One Sunday, early in April, Bjarne did not return at the usual hour from church. His daughters waited in vain for him with the dinner, and at last began to grow uneasy. It was not his habit to keep irregular hours. There was a great excitement in the valley just then; the America-fever had broken out. A large vessel was lying out in the fjord, ready to take the emigrants away; and there was hardly a family that did not mourn the loss of some brave-hearted son, or of some fair and cherished daughter. The old folks, of course, had to remain behind; and when the children were gone, what was there left for them but to lie down and die? America was to them as distant as if it were on another planet. The family feeling, too, has ever been strong in the Norseman's breast; he lives for his children, and seems to live his life over again in them. It is his greatest pride to be able to trace his blood back into the days of Sverre and St. Olaf, and with the same confidence he expects to see his race spread into the future in the same soil where once it has struck root. Then comes the storm from the Western seas, wrestles with the sturdy trunk, and breaks it; and the shattered branches fly to all the four corners of the heavens. No wonder, then, like a tree that has lost its crown, his strength is broken and he expects but to smoulder into the earth and die.
Bjarne Blakstad, like the sturdy old patriot that he was, had always fiercely denounced the America rage; and it was now the hope of his daughters that, perhaps, he had stayed behind to remind the restless ones among the youth of their duty toward their land, or to frighten some bold emigration agent who might have been too loud in his declamations. But it was already eight o'clock and Bjarne was not yet to be seen. The night was dark and stormy; a cold sleet fiercely lashed the window-panes, and the wind roared in the chimney. Grimhild, the younger sister, ran restlessly out and in and slammed the doors after her. Brita sat tightly pressed up against the wall in the darkest corner of the room. Every time the wind shook the house she started up; then again seated herself and shuddered. Dark forebodings filled her soul.
At last,--the clock had just struck ten,--there was a noise heard in the outer hall. Grimhild sprang to the door and tore it open. A tall, stooping figure entered, and by the dress she at once recognized her father.
"Good God," cried she, and ran up to him.
"Go away, child," muttered he, in a voice that sounded strangely unfamiliar, and he pushed her roughly away. For a moment he stood still, then stalked up to the table, and, with a heavy thump, dropped down into a chair. There he remained with his elbows resting on his knees, and absently staring on the floor. His long hair hung in wet tangles down over his face, and the wrinkles about his mouth seemed deeper and fiercer than usual. Now and then he sighed, or gave vent to a deep groan. In a while his eyes began to wander uneasily about the room; and as they reached the corner where Brita was sitting, he suddenly darted up, as if stung by something poisonous, seized a brand from the hearth, and rushed toward her.
"Tell me I did not see it," he broke forth, in a hoarse whisper, seizing her by the arm and thrusting the burning brand close up to her face. "Tell me it is a lie--a black, poisonous lie."
She raised her eyes slowly to his and gazed steadfastly into his face. "Ah," he continued in the same terrible voice, "it was what I told them down there at the church--a lie--an infernal lie. And I drew blood--blood, I say--I did--from the slanderer. Ha, ha, ha! What a lusty sprawl that was!"
The color came and departed from Brita's cheeks. And still she was strangely self possessed. She even wondered at her own calmness. Alas, she did not know that it was a calmness that is more terrible than pain, the corpse of a forlorn and hopeless heart.
"Child," continued Bjarne, and his voice assumed a more natural tone, "why dost thou not speak? They have lied about thee, child, because thou art fair, they have envied thee." Then, almost imploringly, "Open thy mouth, Brita, and tell thy father that thou art pure-- pure as the snow, child--my own--my beautiful child." There was a long and painful pause, in which the crackling of the brand, and the heavy breathing of the old man were the only sounds to break the silence. Pale like a marble image stood she before him; no word of excuse, no prayer for forgiveness escaped her; only a convulsive quivering of the lips betrayed the life that struggled within her. With every moment the hope died in Bjarne's bosom. His visage was fearful to behold. Terror and fierce indomitable hatred had grimly distorted his features, and his eyes burned like fire-coals beneath his bushy brows.
"Harlot," he shrieked, "harlot!"
A cold gust of wind swept through the room. The windows shook, the doors flew open, as if touched by a strong invisible hand--and the old man stood alone, holding the flickering brand above his head.
It was after midnight, the wind had abated, but the snow still fell, thick and silent, burying paths and fences under its cold white mantle. Onward she fled--onward and ever onward. And whither, she knew not. A cold numbness had chilled her senses, but still her feet drove her irresistibly onward. A dark current seemed to have seized her, she only felt that she was adrift, and she cared not whither it bore her. In spite of the stifling dullness which oppressed her, her body seemed as light as air. At last,-- she knew not where,--she heard the roar of the sea resounding in her ears, a genial warmth thawed the numbness of her senses, and she floated joyfully among the clouds--among golden, sun-bathed clouds. When she opened her eyes, she found herself lying in a comfortable bed, and a young woman with a kind motherly face was sitting at her side. It was all like a dream, and she made no effort to account for what appeared so strange and unaccountable.
What she afterward heard was that a fisher- man had found her in a snow-drift on the strand, and that he had carried her home to his cottage and had given her over to the charge of his wife. This was the second day since her arrival. They knew who she was, but had kept the doors locked and had told no one that she was there. She heard the story of the good woman without emotion; it seemed an intolerable effort to think. But on the third day, when her child was born, her mind was suddenly aroused from its lethargy, and she calmly matured her plans; and for the child's sake she resolved to live and to act. That same evening there came a little boy with a bundle for her. She opened it and found therein the clothes she had left behind, and-- her brooches. She knew that it was her sister who had sent them; then there was one who still thought of her with affection. And yet her first impulse was to send it all back, or to throw it into the ocean; but she looked at her child and forbore.
A week passed, and Brita recovered. Of Halvard she had heard nothing. One night, as she lay in a half doze, she thought she had Seen a pale, frightened face pressed up against the window-pane, and staring fixedly at her and her child; but, after all, it might have been merely a dream. For her fevered fancy had in these last days frequently beguiled her into similar visions. She often thought of him, but, strangely enough, no more with bitterness, but with pity. Had he been strong enough to be wicked, she could have hated him, but he was weak, and she pitied him. Then it was that; one evening, as she heard that the American vessel was to sail at daybreak, she took her little boy and wrapped him carefully in her own clothes, bade farewell to the good fisherman and his wife, and walked alone down to the strand. Huge clouds of fantastic shapes chased each other desperately along the horizon, and now and then the slender new moon glanced forth from the deep blue gulfs between. She chose a boat at random and was about to unmoor it, when she saw the figure of a man tread carefully over the stones and hesitatingly approach her.
"Brita," came in a whisper from the strand.
"Who's there?"
"It is I. Father knows it all, and he has nearly killed me; and mother, too." "Is that what you have come to tell me?"
"No, I would like to help you some. I have been trying to see you these many days." And he stepped close up to the boat.
"Thank you; I need no help."
"But, Brita," implored he, "I have sold my gun and my dog, and everything I had, and this is what I have got for it." He stretched out his hand and reached her a red handkerchief with something heavy bound up in a corner. She took it mechanically, held it in her hand for a moment, then flung it far out into the water. A smile of profound contempt and pity passed over her countenance. "Farewell, Halvard," said she, calmly, and pushed the boat into the water. "But, Brita," cried he, in despair, "what would you have me do?"
She lifted the child in her arms, then pointed to the vacant seat at her side. He understood what she meant, and stood for a moment wavering. Suddenly, he covered his face with his hands and burst into tears. Within half an hour, Brita boarded the vessel, and as the first red stripe of the dawn illumined the horizon, the wind filled the sails, and the ship glided westward toward that land where there is a home for them whom love and misfortune have exiled.
It was a long and wearisome voyage. There was an old English clergyman on board, who collected curiosities; to him she sold her rings and brooches, and thereby obtained more than sufficient money to pay her passage. She hardly spoke to any one except her child. Those of her fellow-parishioners who knew her, and perhaps guessed her history, kept aloof from her, and she was grateful to them that they did. From morning till night, she sat in a corner between a pile of deck freight and the kitchen skylight, and gazed at her little boy who was lying in her lap. All her hopes, her future, and her life were in him. For herself, she had ceased to hope.
"I can give thee no fatherland, my child," she said to him. "Thou shalt never know the name of him who gave thee life. Thou and I, we shall struggle together, and, as true as there is a God above, who sees us, He will not leave either of us to perish. But let us ask no questions, child, about that which is past. Thou shalt grow and be strong, and thy mother must grow with thee."
During the third week of the voyage, the English clergyman baptized the boy, and she called him Thomas, after the day in the almanac on which he was born. He should never know that Norway had been his mother's home; therefore she would give him no name which might betray his race. One morning, early in the month of June, they hailed land, and the great New World lay before them. III.
Why should I speak of the ceaseless care, the suffering, and the hard toil, which made the first few months of Brita's life on this continent a mere continued struggle for existence? They are familiar to every emigrant who has come here with a brave heart and an empty purse. Suffice it to say that at the end of the second month, she succeeded in obtaining service as milkmaid with a family in the neighborhood of New York. With the linguistic talent peculiar to her people, she soon learned the English language and even spoke it well. From her countrymen, she kept as far away as possible, not for her own sake, but for that of her boy; for he was to grow great and strong, and the knowledge of his birth might shatter his strength and break his courage. For the same reason she also exchanged her picturesque Norse costume for that of the people among whom she was living. She went commonly by the name of Mrs. Brita, which pronounced in the English way, sounded very much like Mrs. Bright, and this at last became the name by which she was known in the neighborhood.
Thus five years passed; then there was a great rage for emigrating to the far West, and Brita, with many others, started for Chicago. There she arrived in the year 1852, and took up her lodgings with an Irish widow, who was living in a little cottage in what was then termed the outskirts of the city. Those who saw her in those days, going about the lumber-yards and doing a man's work, would hardly have recognized in her the merry Glitter-Brita, who in times of old trod the springdance so gayly in the well-lighted halls of the Blakstad mansion. And, indeed, she was sadly changed! Her features had become sharper, and the firm lines about her mouth expressed severity, almost sternness. Her clear blue eyes seemed to have grown larger, and their glance betrayed secret, ever-watchful care. Only her yellow hair had resisted the force of time and sorrow; for it still fell in rich and wavy folds over a smooth white forehead. She was, indeed, half ashamed of it, and often took pains to force it into a sober, matronly hood. Only at nights, when she sat alone talking with her boy, she would allow it to escape from its prison; and he would laugh and play with it, and in his child's way even wonder at the contrast between her stern face and her youthful maidenly tresses. This Thomas, her son, was a strange child. He had a Norseman's taste for the fabulous and fantastic, and although he never heard a tale of Necken or the Hulder, he would often startle his mother by the most fanciful combinations of imagined events, and by bolder personifications than ever sprung from the legendary soil of the Norseland. She always took care to check him whenever he indulged in these imaginary flights, and he at last came to look upon them as something wrong and sinful. The boy, as he grew up, often strikingly reminded her of her father, as, indeed, he seemed to have inherited more from her own than from Halvard's race. Only the bright flaxen hair and his square, somewhat clumsy stature might have told him to be the latter's child. He had a hot temper, and often distressed his mother by his stubbornness; and then there would come a great burst of repentance afterwards, which distressed her still more. For she was afraid it might be a sign of weakness. "And strong he must be," said she to herself, "strong enough to overcome all resistance, and to conquer a great name for himself, strong enough to bless a mother who brought him into the world nameless."
Strange to say, much as she loved this child, she seldom caressed him. It was a penance she had imposed upon herself to atone for her guilt. Only at times, when she had been sitting up late, and her eyes would fall, as it were, by accident upon the little face on the pillow, with the sweet unconsciousness of sleep resting upon it like a soft, invisible veil, would she suddenly throw herself down over him, kiss him, and whisper tender names in his ear, while her tears fell hot and fast on his yellow hair and his rosy countenance. Then the child would dream that he was sailing aloft over shining forests, and that his mother, beaming with all the beauty of her lost youth, flew before him, showering golden flowers on his path. These were the happiest moments of Brita's joyless life, and even these were not unmixed with bitterness; for into the midst of her joy would steal a shy anxious thought which was the more terrible because it came so stealthily, so soft-footed and unbidden. Had not this child been given her as a punishment for her guilt? Had she then a right to turn God's scourge into a blessing? Did she give to God "that which belongeth unto God," as long as all her hopes, her thoughts, and her whole being revolved about this one earthly thing, her son, the child of her sorrow? She was not a nature to shrink from grave questions; no, she met them boldly, when once they were there, wrestled fiercely with them, was defeated, and again with a martyr's zeal rose to renew the combat. God had Himself sent her this perplexing doubt and it was her duty to bear His burden. Thus ran Brita's reasoning. In the mean while the years slipped by, and great changes were wrought in the world about her.
The few hundred dollars which Brita had been able to save, during the first three years of her stay in Chicago, she had invested in a piece of land. In the mean while the city had grown, and in the year 1859 she was offered five thousand dollars for her lot; this offer she accepted and again bought a small piece of property at a short distance from the city. The boy had since his eighth year attended the public school, and had made astonishing progress. Every day when school was out, she would meet him at the gate, take him by the hand and lead him home. If any of the other boys dared to make sport of her, or to tease him for his dependence upon her, it was sure to cost that boy a black eye{.} He soon succeeded in establishing himself in the respect of his school-mates, for he was the strongest boy of his own age, and ever ready to protect and defend the weak and defenseless. When Thomas Bright (for that was the name by which he was known) was fifteen years old he was offered a position as clerk in the office of a lumber-merchant, and with his mother's consent he accepted it. He was a fine young lad now, large and well-knit, and with a clear earnest countenance. In the evening he would bring home books to read, and as it had always been Brita's habit to interest herself in whatever interested him, she soon found herself studying and discussing with him things which had in former years been far beyond the horizon of her mind. She had at his request reluctantly given up her work in the lumber-yards, and now spent her days at home, busying herself with sewing and reading and such other things as women find to fill up a vacant hour. One evening, when Thomas was in his nineteenth year, he returned from his office with a graver face than usual. His mother's quick eye immediately saw that something had agitated him, but she forbore to ask.
"Mother," said he at last, "who is my father? Is he dead or alive?" "God is your father, my son," answered she, tremblingly. "If you love me, ask me no more."
"I do love you, mother," he said, and gave her a grave look, in which she thought she detected a mingling of tenderness and reproach. "And it shall be as you have said."
It was the first time she had had reason to blush before him, and her emotion came near overwhelming her; but with a violent effort she stifled it, and remained outwardly calm. He began pacing up and down the floor with his head bent and his hands on his back. It suddenly occurred to her that he was a grown man, and that she could no longer hold the same relation to him as his supporter and protector. "Alas," thought she, "if God will but let me remain his mother, I shall bless and thank Him."
It was the first time this subject had been broached, and it gave rise to many a doubt and many a question in the anxious mother's mind. Had she been right in concealing from him that which he might justly claim to know? What had been her motive in keeping him ignorant of his origin and of the land of his birth? She had wished him to grow to the strength of man- hood, unconscious of guilt, so that he might bear his head upright, and look the world fearlessly in the face. And still, had there not in all this been a lurking thought of herself, a fear of losing his love, a desire to stand pure and perfect in his eye? She hardly dared to answer these questions, for, alas, she knew not that even our purest motives are but poorly able to bear a searching scrutiny. She began to suspect that her whole course with her son had been wrong from the very beginning. Why had she not told him the stern truth, even if he should despise her for it, even if she should have to stand a blushing culprit in his presence? Often, when she heard his footsteps in the hall, as he returned from the work of the day, she would man herself up and the words hovered upon her lips: "Son, thou art a bastard born, a child of guilt, and thy mother is an outcast upon the earth." But when she met those calm blue eyes of his, saw the unsuspecting frankness of his manner and the hopefulness with which he looked to the future, her womanly heart shrank from its duty, and she hastened out of the room, threw herself on her bed, and wept. Fiercely she wrestled with God in prayer, until she thought that even God had deserted her. Thus months passed and years, and the constant care and anxiety began to affect her health. She grew pale and nervous, and the slightest noise would annoy her. In the mean while, her manner toward the young man had become strangely altered, and he soon noticed it, although he forbore to speak. She was scrupulously mindful of his comfort, anxiously anticipated his wants, and observed toward him an ever vigilant consideration, as if he had been her master instead of her son.
When Thomas was twenty-two years of age, he was offered a partnership in his employer's business, and with every year his prospects brightened. The sale of his mother's property brought him a very handsome little fortune, which enabled him to build a fine and comfortable house in one of the best portions of the city. Thus their outward circumstances were greatly improved, and of comfort and luxury Brita had all and more than she had ever desired; but her health was broken down, and the physicians declared that a year of foreign travel and a continued residence in Italy might possibly restore her. At last, Thomas, too, began to urge her, until she finally yielded. It was on a bright morning in May that they both started for New York, and three days later they took the boat for Europe. What countries they were to visit they had hardly decided, but after a brief stay in England we find them again on a steamer bound for Norway. IV.
Warm and gentle as it is, June often comes to the fjord-valleys of Norway with the voice and the strength of a giant. The glaciers totter and groan, as if in anger at their own weakness, and send huge avalanches of stones and ice down into the valleys. The rivers swell and rush with vociferous brawl out over the mountain- sides, and a thousand tiny brooks join in the general clamor, and dance with noisy chatter over the moss-grown birch-roots. But later, when the struggle is at an end, and June has victoriously seated herself upon her throne, her voice becomes more richly subdued and brings rest and comfort to the ear and to the troubled heart. It was while the month was in this latter mood that Brita and her son entered once more the valley whence, twenty-five years ago, they had fled. Many strange, turbulent emotions stirred the mother's bosom, as she saw again the great snow-capped mountains, and the calm, green valley, her childhood's home, lying so snugly sheltered in their mighty embrace. Even Thomas's breast was moved with vaguely sympathetic throbs, as this wondrous scene spread itself before him. They soon succeeded in hiring a farm-house, about half an hour's walk from Blakstad, and, according to Brita's wish, established themselves there for the summer. She had known the people well, when she was young, but they never thought of identifying her with the merry maid, who had once startled the parish by her sudden flight; and she, although she longed to open her heart to them, let no word fall to betray her real character. Her conscience accused her of playing a false part, but for her son's sake she kept silent.
Then, one day,--it was the second Sunday after their arrival,--she rose early in the morning, and asked Thomas to accompany her on a walk up through the valley. There was Sabbath in the air; the soft breath of summer, laden with the perfume of fresh leaves and field-flowers, gently wafted into their faces. The sun glittered in the dewy grass, the crickets sung with a remote voice of wonder, and the air seemed to be half visible, and moved in trem- bling wavelets on the path before them. Resting on her son's arm, Brita walked slowly up through the flowering meadows; she hardly knew whither her feet bore her, but her heart beat violently, and she often was obliged to pause and press her hands against her bosom, as if to stay the turbulent emotions.
"You are not well, mother," said the son. "It was imprudent in me to allow you to exert yourself in this way."
"Let us sit down on this stone," answered she. "I shall soon be better. Do not look so anxiously at me. Indeed, I am not sick."
He spread his light summer coat on the stone and carefully seated her. She lifted her veil and raised her eyes to the large red-roofed mansion, whose dark outlines drew themselves dimly on the dusky background of the pine forest. Was he still alive, he whose life-hope she had wrecked, he who had once driven her out into the night with all but a curse upon his lips? How would he receive her, if she were to return? Ah, she knew him, and she trembled at the very thought of meeting him. But was not the guilt hers? Could she depart from this valley, could she die in peace, without having thrown herself at his feet and implored his for- giveness? And there, on the opposite side of the valley, lay the home of him who had been the cause of all her misery. What had been his fate, and did he still remember those long happy summer days, ah! so long, long ago? She had dared to ask no questions of the people with whom she lived, but now a sudden weakness had overtaken her, and she felt that to-day must decide her fate; she could no longer bear this torture of uncertainty. Thomas remained standing at her side and looked at her with anxiety and wonder. He knew that she had concealed many things from him, but whatever her reasons might be, he was confident that they were just and weighty. It was not for him to question her about what he might have no right to know. He felt as if he had never loved her as in this moment, when she seemed to be most in need of him, and an overwhelming tenderness took possession of his heart. He suddenly stooped down, took her pale, thin face between his hands and kissed her. The long pent-up emotion burst forth in a flood of tears; she buried her face in her lap and wept long and silently. Then the church-bells began to peal down in the valley, and the slow mighty sound floated calmly and solemnly up to them. How many long-forgotten memories of childhood and youth did they not wake in her bosom --memories of the time when the merry Glitter- Brita, decked with her shining brooches, wended her way to the church among the gayly-dressed lads and maidens of the parish? A cluster of white-stemmed birches threw its shadow over the stone where the penitent mother was sitting, and the tall grass on both sides of the path nearly hid her from sight. Presently the church-folk began to appear, and Brita raised her head and drew her veil down over her face. No one passed without greeting the strangers, and the women and maidens, according to old fashion, stopped and courtesied. At last, there came an old white-haired man, leaning on the arm of a middle-aged woman. His whole figure was bent forward, and he often stopped and drew his breath heavily.
"Oh, yes, yes," he said, ill a hoarse, broken voice, as he passed before them, "age is gaining on me fast. I can't move about any more as of old. But to church I must this day. God help me! I have done much wrong and need to pray for forgiveness."
"You had better sit down and rest, father," said the woman. "Here is a stone, and the fine lady, I am sure, will allow a weak old man to sit down beside her." Thomas rose and made a sign to the old man to take his seat.
"O yes, yes," he went on murmuring, as if talking to himself. "Much wrong--much forgiveness. God help us all--miserable sinners. He who hateth not father and mother--and daughter is not worthy of me. O, yes--yes-- God comfort us all. Help me up, Grimhild. I think I can move on again, now."
Thomas, of course, did not understand a word of what he said, but seeing that he wished to rise, he willingly offered his assistance, supported his arm and raised him.
"Thanks to you, young man," said the peasant. "And may God reward your kindness."
And the two, father and daughter, moved on, slowly and laboriously, as they had come. Thomas stood following them with his eyes, until a low, half-stifled moan suddenly called him to his mother's side. Her frame trembled violently. "Mother, mother," implored he, stooping over her, "what has happened? Why are you no more yourself?"
"Ah, my son, I can bear it no longer," sobbed she. "God forgive me--thou must know it all."
He sat down at her side and drew her closely up to him and she hid her face on his bosom. There was a long silence, only broken by the loud chirruping of the crickets.
"My son," she began at last, still hiding her face, "thou art a child of guilt." "That has been no secret to me, mother," answered he, gravely and tenderly, "since I was old enough to know what guilt was."
She quickly raised her head, and a look of amazement, of joyous surprise, shone through the tears that veiled her eyes. She could read nothing but filial love and confidence in those grave, manly features, and she saw in that moment that all her doubts had been groundless, that her long prayerful struggle had been for naught.
"I brought thee into the world nameless," she whispered, "and thou hast no word of reproach for me?"
"With God's help, I am strong enough to conquer a name for myself, mother," was his answer.
It was the very words of her own secret wish, and upon his lips they sounded like a blessed assurance, like a miraculous fulfillment of her motherly prayer. "Still, another thing, my child," she went on in a more confident voice. "This is thy native land,--and the old man who was just sitting here at my side was--my father."
And there, in the shadow of the birch-trees, in the summer stillness of that hour, she told him the story of her love, of her flight, and of the misery of these long, toilsome five and twenty years.
Late in the afternoon, Brita and her son were seen returning to the farm-house. A calm, subdued happiness beamed from the mother's countenance; she was again at peace with the world and herself, and her heart was as light as in the days of her early youth. But her bodily strength had given out, and her limbs almost refused to support her. The strain upon her nerves and the constant effort had hitherto enabled her to keep up, but now, when that strain was removed, exhausted nature claimed its right. The next day--she could not leave her bed, and with every hour her strength failed. A physician was sent for. He gave medicine, but no hope. He shook his head gravely, as he went, and both mother and son knew what that meant.
Toward evening, Bjarne Blakstad was summoned, and came at once. Thomas left the room, as the old man entered, and what passed in that hour between father and daughter, only God knows. When the door was again opened, Brita's eyes shone with a strange brilliancy, and Bjarne lay on his knees before the bed, pressing her hand convulsively between both of his.
"This is my son, father," said she, in a language which her son did not understand; and a faint smile of motherly pride and happiness flitted over her pale features. "I would give him to thee in return for what thou hast lost; but God has laid his future in another land."
Bjarne rose, grasped his grandson's hand, and pressed it; and two heavy tears ran down his furrowed cheeks. "Alas," murmured he, "my son, that we should meet thus."
There they stood, bound together by the bonds of blood, but, alas, there lay a world between them.
All night they sat together at the dying woman's bedside. Not a word was spoken. Toward morning, as the sun stole into the darkened chamber, Brita murmured their names, and they laid their hands in hers.
"God be praised," whispered she, scarcely audibly, "I have found you both--my father and my son." A deep pallor spread over her countenance. She was dead. Two days later, when the body was laid out, Thomas stood alone in the room. The windows were covered with white sheets, and a subdued light fell upon the pale, lifeless countenance. Death had dealt gently with her, she seemed younger than before, and her light wavy hair fell softly over the white forehead. Then there came a middle-aged man, with a dull eye, and a broad forehead, and timidly approached the lonely mourner. He walked on tip-toe and his figure stooped heavily. For a long while he stood gazing at the dead body, then he knelt down at the foot of the coffin, and began to sob violently. At last he arose, took two steps toward the young man, paused again, and departed silently as he had come. It was Halvard.
Close under the wall of the little red-painted church, they dug the grave; and a week later her father was laid to rest at his daughter's side.
But the fresh winds blew over the Atlantic and beckoned the son to new fields of labor in the great land of the future.