BOYHOOD IN NORWAY
Stories Of Boy-Life In The Land Of The Midnight Sun
By Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen
THE BATTLE OF THE RAFTS THE CLASH OF ARMS BICEPS GRIMLUND'S CHRISTMAS VACATION THE NIXY'S STRAIN THE WONDER CHILD "THE SONS OF THE VIKINGS" PAUL JESPERSEN'S MASQUERADE LADY CLARE THE STORY OF A HORSE BONNYBOY THE CHILD OF LUCK THE BEAR THAT HAD A BANK ACCOUNT
THE BATTLE OF THE RAFTS
I. THE ORIGIN OF THE WAR
A deadly feud was raging among the boys of Numedale. The East-Siders hated the West-Siders, and thrashed them when they got a chance; and the West-Siders, when fortune favored them, returned the compliment with interest. It required considerable courage for a boy to venture, unattended by comrades, into the territory of the enemy; and no one took the risk unless dire necessity compelled him.
The hostile parties had played at war so long that they had forgotten that it was play; and now were actually inspired with the emotions which they had formerly simulated. Under the leadership of their chieftains, Halvor Reitan and Viggo Hook, they held councils of war, sent out scouts, planned midnight surprises, and fought at times mimic battles. I say mimic battles, because no one was ever killed; but broken heads and bruised limbs many a one carried home from these engagements, and unhappily one boy, named Peer Oestmo, had an eye put out by an arrow.
It was a great consolation to him that he became a hero to all the West-Siders and was promoted for bravery in the field to the rank of first lieutenant. He had the sympathy of all his companions in arms and got innumerable bites of apples, cancelled postage stamps, and colored advertising-labels in token of their esteem.
But the principal effect of this first serious wound was to invest the war with a breathless and all-absorbing interest. It was now no longer "make believe," but deadly earnest. Blood had flowed; insults had been exchanged in due order, and offended honor cried for vengeance.
It was fortunate that the river divided the West-Siders from the East-Siders, or it would have been difficult to tell what might have happened. Viggo Hook, the West-Side general, was a handsome, high-spirited lad of fifteen, who was the last person to pocket an injury, as long as red blood flowed in his veins, as he was wont to express it. He was the eldest son of Colonel Hook of the regular army, and meant some day to be a Von Moltke or a Napoleon. He felt in his heart that he was destined for something great; and in conformity with this conviction assumed a superb behavior, which his comrades found very admirable.
He had the gift of leadership in a marked degree, and established his authority by a due mixture of kindness and severity. Those boys whom he honored with his confidence were absolutely attached to him. Those whom, with magnificent arbitrariness, he punished and persecuted, felt meekly that they had probably deserved it; and if they had not, it was somehow in the game.
There never was a more absolute king than Viggo, nor one more abjectly courted and admired. And the amusing part of it was that he was at heart a generous and good-natured lad, but possessed with a lofty ideal of heroism, which required above all things that whatever he said or did must be striking. He dramatized, as it were, every phrase he uttered and every act he performed, and modelled himself alternately after Napoleon and Wellington, as he had seen them represented in the old engravings which decorated the walls in his father's study.
He had read much about heroes of war, ancient and modern, and he lived about half his own life imagining himself by turns all sorts of grand characters from history or fiction.
His costume was usually in keeping with his own conception of these characters, in so far as his scanty opportunities permitted. An old, broken sword of his father's, which had been polished until it "flashed" properly, was girded to a brass-mounted belt about his waist; an ancient, gold-braided, military cap, which was much too large, covered his curly head; and four tarnished brass buttons, displaying the Golden Lion of Norway, gave a martial air to his blue jacket, although the rest were plain horn.
But quite independently of his poor trappings Viggo was to his comrades an august personage. I doubt if the Grand Vizier feels more flattered and gratified by the favor of the Sultan than little Marcus Henning did, when Viggo condescended to be civil to him.
Marcus was small, round-shouldered, spindle-shanked, and freckle-faced. His hair was coarse, straight, and the color of maple sirup; his nose was broad and a little flattened at the point, and his clothes had a knack of never fitting him. They were made to grow in and somehow he never caught up with them, he once said, with no intention of being funny. His father, who was Colonel Hook's nearest neighbor, kept a modest country shop, in which you could buy anything, from dry goods and groceries to shoes and medicines. You would have to be very ingenious to ask for a thing which Henning could not supply. The smell in the store carried out the same idea; for it was a mixture of all imaginable smells under the sun.
Now, it was the chief misery of Marcus that, sleeping, as he did, in the room behind the store, he had become so impregnated with this curious composite smell that it followed him like an odoriferous halo, and procured him a number of unpleasant nicknames. The principal ingredient was salted herring; but there was also a suspicion of tarred ropes, plug tobacco, prunes, dried codfish, and oiled tarpaulin.
It was not so much kindness of heart as respect for his own dignity which made Viggo refrain from calling Marcus a "Muskrat" or a "Smelling-Bottle." And yet Marcus regarded this gracious forbearance on his part as the mark of a noble soul. He had been compelled to accept these offensive nicknames, and, finding rebellion vain, he had finally acquiesced in them.
He never loved to be called a "Muskrat," though he answered to the name mechanically. But when Viggo addressed him as "base minion," in his wrath, or as "Sergeant Henning," in his sunnier moods, Marcus felt equally complimented by both terms, and vowed in his grateful soul eternal allegiance and loyalty to his chief.
He bore kicks and cuffs with the same admirable equanimity; never complained when he was thrown into a dungeon in a deserted pigsty for breaches of discipline of which he was entirely guiltless, and trudged uncomplainingly through rain and sleet and snow, as scout or spy, or what-not, at the behest of his exacting commander.
It was all so very real to him that he never would have thought of doubting the importance of his mission. He was rather honored by the trust reposed in him, and was only intent upon earning a look or word of scant approval from the superb personage whom he worshipped.
Halvor Reitan, the chief of the East-Siders, was a big, burly peasant lad, with a pimpled face, fierce blue eyes, and a shock of towy hair. But he had muscles as hard as twisted ropes, and sinews like steel.
He had the reputation, of which he was very proud, of being the strongest boy in the valley, and though he was scarcely sixteen years old, he boasted that he could whip many a one of twice his years. He had, in fact, been so praised for his strength that he never neglected to accept, or even to create, opportunities for displaying it.
His manner was that of a bully; but it was vanity and not malice which made him always spoil for a fight. He and Viggo Hook had attended the parson's "Confirmation Class," together, and it was there their hostility had commenced.
Halvor, who conceived a dislike of the tall, rather dainty, and disdainful Viggo, with his aquiline nose and clear, aristocratic features, determined, as he expressed it, to take him down a peg or two; and the more his challenges were ignored the more persistent he grew in his insults.
He dubbed Viggo "Missy." He ran against him with such violence in the hall that he knocked his head against the wainscoting; he tripped him up on the stairs by means of canes and sticks; and he hired his partisans who sat behind Viggo to stick pins into him, while he recited his lessons. And when all these provocations proved unavailing he determined to dispense with any pretext, but simply thrash his enemy within an inch of his life at the first opportunity which presented itself. He grew to hate Viggo and was always aching to molest him.
Halvor saw plainly enough that Viggo despised him, and refused to notice his challenges, not so much because he was afraid of him, as because he regarded himself as a superior being who could afford to ignore insults from an inferior, without loss of dignity.
During recess the so-called "genteel boys," who had better clothes and better manners than the peasant lads, separated themselves from the rest, and conversed or played with each other. No one will wonder that such behavior was exasperating to the poorer boys. I am far from defending Viggo's behavior in this instance. He was here, as everywhere, the acknowledged leader; and therefore more cordially hated than the rest. It was the Roundhead hating the Cavalier; and the Cavalier making merry at the expense of the Roundhead.
There was only one boy in the Confirmation Class who was doubtful as to what camp should claim him, and that was little Marcus Henning. He was a kind of amphibious animal who, as he thought, really belonged nowhere. His father was of peasant origin, but by his prosperity and his occupation had risen out of the class to which he was formerly attached, without yet rising into the ranks of the gentry, who now, as always, looked with scorn upon interlopers. Thus it came to pass that little Marcus, whose inclinations drew him toward Viggo's party, was yet forced to associate with the partisans of Halvor Reitan.
It was not a vulgar ambition "to pretend to be better than he was" which inspired Marcus with a desire to change his allegiance, but a deep, unreasoning admiration for Viggo Hook. He had never seen any one who united so many superb qualities, nor one who looked every inch as noble as he did.
It did not discourage him in the least that his first approaches met with no cordial reception. His offer to communicate to Viggo where there was a hawk's nest was coolly declined, and even the attractions of fox dens and rabbits' burrows were valiantly resisted. Better luck he had with a pair of fan-tail pigeons, his most precious treasure, which Viggo rather loftily consented to accept, for, like most genteel boys in the valley, he was an ardent pigeon-fancier, and had long vainly importuned his father to procure him some of the rarer breeds.
He condescended to acknowledge Marcus's greeting after that, and to respond to his diffident "Good-morning" and "Good-evening," and Marcus was duly grateful for such favors. He continued to woo his idol with raisins and ginger-snaps from the store, and other delicate attentions, and bore the snubs which often fell to his lot with humility and patience.
But an event soon occurred which was destined to change the relations of the two boys. Halvor Reitan called a secret meeting of his partisans, among whom he made the mistake to include Marcus, and agreed with them to lie in ambush at the bend of the road, where it entered the forest, and attack Viggo Hook and his followers. Then, he observed, he would "make him dance a jig that would take the starch out of him."
The others declared that this would be capital fun, and enthusiastically promised their assistance. Each one selected his particular antipathy to thrash, though all showed a marked preference for Viggo, whom, however, for reason of politeness, they were obliged to leave to the chief. Only one boy sat silent, and made no offer to thrash anybody, and that was Marcus Henning.
"Well, Muskrat," cried Halvor Reitan, "whom are you going to take on your conscience?"
"No one," said Marcus.
"Put the Muskrat in your pocket, Halvor," suggested one of the boys; "he is so small, and he has got such a hard bullet head, you might use him as a club."
"Well, one thing is sure," shouted Halvor, as a dark suspicion shot through his brain, "if you don't keep mum, you will be a mighty sick coon the day after to-morrow."
Marcus made no reply, but got up quietly, pulled a rubber sling from his pocket, and began, with the most indifferent manner in the world, to shoot stones down the river. He managed during this exercise, which everybody found perfectly natural, to get out of the crowd, and, without seeming to have any purpose whatever, he continued to put a couple of hundred yards between himself and his companion.
"Look a-here, Muskrat," he heard Halvor cry, "you promised to keep mum."
Marcus, instead of answering, took to his heels and ran.
"Boys, the scoundrel is going to betray us!" screamed the chief. "Now come, boys! We've got to catch him, dead or alive."
A volley of stones, big and little, was hurled after the fugitive, who now realizing his position ran for dear life. The stones hailed down round about him; occasionally one vicious missile would whiz past his ear, and send a cold shudder through him. The tramp of his pursuers sounded nearer and nearer, and his one chance of escape was to throw himself into the only boat, which he saw on this side of the river, and push out into the stream before he was overtaken.
He had his doubts as to whether he could accomplish this, for the blood rushed and roared in his ears, the hill-side billowed under his feet, and it seemed as if the trees were all running a race in the opposite direction, in order to betray him to his enemies.
A stone gave him a thump in the back, but though he felt a gradual heat spreading from the spot which it hit, he was conscious of no pain.
Presently a larger missile struck him in the neck, and he heard a breathless snorting close behind him. That was the end; he gave himself up for lost, for those boys would have no mercy on him if they captured him.
But in the next moment he heard a fall and an oath, and the voice was that of Halvor Reitan. He breathed a little more freely as he saw the river run with its swelling current at his feet. Quite mechanically, without clearly knowing what he did, he sprang into the boat, grabbed a boat-hook, and with three strong strokes pushed himself out into the deep water.
At that instant a dozen of his pursuers reached the river bank, and he saw dimly their angry faces and threatening gestures, and heard the stones drop into the stream about him. Fortunately the river was partly dammed, in order to accumulate water for the many saw-mills under the falls. It would therefore have been no very difficult feat to paddle across, if his aching arms had had an atom of strength left in them. As soon as he was beyond the reach of flying stones he seated himself in the stern, took an oar, and after having bathed his throbbing forehead in the cold water, managed, in fifteen minutes, to make the further bank. Then he dragged himself wearily up the hill-side to Colonel Hook's mansion, and when he had given his message to Viggo, fell into a dead faint.
How could Viggo help being touched by such devotion? He had seen the race through a fieldglass from his pigeon-cot, but had been unable to make out its meaning, nor had he remotely dreamed that he was himself the cause of the cruel chase. He called his mother, who soon perceived that Marcus's coat was saturated with blood in the back, and undressing him, she found that a stone, hurled by a sling, had struck him, slid a few inches along the rib, and had lodged in the fleshy part of his left side.
A doctor was now sent for; the stone was cut out without difficulty, and Marcus was invited to remain as Viggo's guest until he recovered. He felt so honored by this invitation that he secretly prayed he might remain ill for a month; but the wound showed an abominable readiness to heal, and before three days were past Marcus could not feign any ailment which his face and eye did not belie.
He then, with a heavy heart, betook himself homeward, and installed himself once more among his accustomed smells behind the store, and pondered sadly on the caprice of the fate which had made Viggo a high-nosed, handsome gentleman, and him—Marcus Henning—an under-grown, homely, and unrefined drudge. But in spite of his failure to answer this question, there was joy within him at the thought that he had saved this handsome face of Viggo's from disfigurement, and—who could know?—perhaps would earn a claim upon his gratitude.
It was this series of incidents which led to the war between the East-Siders and the West-Siders. It was a mere accident that the partisans of Viggo Hook lived on the west side of the river, and those of Halvor Reitan mostly on the east side.
Viggo, who had a chivalrous sense of fair play, would never have molested any one without good cause; but now his own safety, and, as he persuaded himself, even his life, was in danger, and he had no choice but to take measures in self-defence. He surrounded himself with a trusty body-guard, which attended him wherever he went. He sent little Marcus, in whom he recognized his most devoted follower, as scout into the enemy's territory, and swelled his importance enormously by lending him his field-glass to assist him in his perilous observations.
Occasionally an unhappy East-Sider was captured on the west bank of the river, court-martialed, and, with much solemnity, sentenced to death as a spy, but paroled for an indefinite period, until it should suit his judges to execute the sentence. The East-Siders, when they captured a West-Sider, went to work with less ceremony; they simply thrashed their captive soundly and let him run, if run he could.
Thus months passed. The parson's Confirmation Class ceased, and both the opposing chieftains were confirmed on the same day; but Viggo stood at the head of the candidates, while Halvor had his place at the bottom. 
During the following winter the war was prosecuted with much zeal, and the West-Siders, in imitation of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, armed themselves with cross-bows, and lay in ambush in the underbrush, aiming their swift arrows against any intruder who ventured to cross the river.
Nearly all the boys in the valley between twelve and sixteen became enlisted on the one side or the other, and there were councils of war, marches, and counter-marches without number, occasional skirmishes, but no decisive engagements. Peer Oestmo, to be sure, had his eye put out by an arrow, as has already been related, for the East-Siders were not slow to imitate the example of their enemies, in becoming expert archers.
Marcus Henning was captured by a hostile outpost, and was being conducted to the abode of the chief, when, by a clever stratagem, he succeeded in making his escape.
The East-Siders despatched, under a flag of truce, a most insulting caricature of General Viggo, representing him as a rooster that seemed on the point of bursting with an excess of dignity.
These were the chief incidents of the winter, though there were many others of less consequence that served to keep the boys in a delightful state of excitement. They enjoyed the war keenly, though they pretended to themselves that they were being ill-used and suffered terrible hardships. They grumbled at their duties, brought complaints against their officers to the general, and did, in fact, all the things that real soldiers would have been likely to do under similar circumstances.
II. THE CLASH OF ARMS
When the spring is late in Norway, and the heat comes with a sudden rush, the mountain streams plunge with a tremendous noise down into the valleys, and the air is filled far and near with the boom and roar of rushing waters. The glaciers groan, and send their milk-white torrents down toward the ocean. The snow-patches in the forest glens look gray and soiled, and the pines perspire a delicious resinous odor which cheers the soul with the conviction that spring has come.
But the peasant looks anxiously at the sun and the river at such times, for he knows that there is danger of inundation. The lumber, which the spring floods set afloat in enormous quantities, is carried by the rivers to the cities by the sea; there it is sorted according to the mark it bears, showing the proprietor, and exported to foreign countries.
In order to prevent log-jams, which are often attended with terrible disasters, men are stationed night and day at the narrows of the rivers. The boys, to whom all excitement is welcome, are apt to congregate in large numbers at such places, assisting or annoying the watchers, riding on the logs, or teasing the girls who stand up on the hillside, admiring the daring feats of the lumbermen.
It was on such a spring day, when the air was pungent with the smell of sprouting birch and pine, that General Viggo and his trusty army had betaken themselves to the cataract to share in the sport. They were armed with their bows, as usual, knowing that they were always liable to be surprised by their vigilant enemy. Nor were they in this instance disappointed, for Halvor Reitan, with fifty or sixty followers, was presently visible on the east side, and it was a foregone conclusion that if they met there would be a battle.
The river, to be sure, separated them, but the logs were at times so densely packed that it was possible for a daring lad to run far out into the river, shoot his arrow and return to shore, leaping from log to log. The Reitan party was the first to begin this sport, and an arrow hit General Viggo's hat before he gave orders to repel the assault.
Cool and dignified as he was, he could not consent to skip and jump on the slippery logs, particularly as he had no experience in this difficult exercise, while the enemy apparently had much. Paying no heed to the jeers of the lumbermen, who supposed he was afraid, he drew his troops up in line and addressed them as follows:
"Soldiers: You have on many previous occasions given me proof of your fidelity to duty and your brave and fearless spirit. I know that I can, now as always, trust you to shed glory upon our arms, and to maintain our noble fame and honorable traditions.
"The enemy is before us. You have heard and seen his challenge. It behooves us to respond gallantly. To jump and skip like rabbits is unmilitary and unsoldierlike. I propose that each of us shall select two large logs, tie them together, procure, if possible, a boat-hook or an oar, and, sitting astride the logs, boldly push out into the river. If we can advance in a tolerably even line, which I think quite possible, we can send so deadly a charge into the ranks of our adversaries that they will be compelled to flee. Then we will land on the east side, occupy the heights, and rout our foe.
"Now let each man do his duty. Forward, march!"
The lumbermen, whose sympathies were with the East-Siders, found this performance highly diverting, but Viggo allowed himself in nowise to be disturbed by their laughter or jeers. He marched his troops down to the river-front, commanded "Rest arms!" and repeated once more his instructions; then, flinging off his coat and waistcoat, he seized a boat-hook and ran some hundred yards along the bank of the stream.
The river-bed was here expanded to a wide basin, in which the logs floated lazily down to the cataract below. Trees and underbrush, which usually stood on dry land, were half-submerged in the yellow water, and the current gurgled slowly about their trunks with muddy foam and bubbles. Now and then a heap of lumber would get wedged in between the jutting rocks above the waterfall, and then the current slackened, only to be suddenly accelerated, when the exertions of the men had again removed the obstruction.
It was an exciting spectacle to see these daring fellows leap from log to log, with birch-bark shoes on their feet. They would ride on a heap of lumber down to the very edge of the cataract, dexterously jump off at the critical moment, and after half a dozen narrow escapes, reach the shore, only to repeat the dangerous experiment, as soon as the next opportunity offered itself.
It was the example of these hardy and agile lumbermen, trained from childhood to sport with danger, which inspired Viggo and his followers with a desire to show their mettle.
"Sergeant Henning," said the General to his ever-faithful shadow, "take a squad of five men with you, and cut steering-poles for those for whom boat-hooks cannot be procured. You will be the last to leave shore. Report to me if any one fails to obey orders."
"Shall be done, General," Marcus responded, with a deferential military salute.
"The bows, you understand, will be slung by the straps across the backs of the men, while they steer and push with their poles."
"Certainly, General," said Marcus, with another salute.
"You may go."
"All right, General," answered Marcus, with a third salute.
And now began the battle. The East-Siders, fearing that a stratagem was intended, when they saw the enemy moving up the stream, made haste to follow their example, capturing on their way every stray log that came along. They sent ineffectual showers of arrows into the water, while the brave General Viggo, striding two big logs which he had tied together with a piece of rope, and with a boat-hook in his hand, pushed proudly at the head of his army into the middle of the wide basin.
Halvor Reitan was clever enough to see what it meant, and he was not going to allow the West-Siders to gain the heights above him, and attack him in the rear. He meant to prevent the enemy from landing, or, still better, he would meet him half-way, and drive him back to his own shore.
The latter, though not the wiser course, was the plan which Halvor Reitan adopted. To have a tussle with the high-nosed Viggo in the middle of the basin, to dislodge him from his raft—that seemed to Halvor a delightful project. He knew that Viggo was a good swimmer, so he feared no dangerous consequences; and even if he had, it would not have restrained him. He was so much stronger than Viggo, and here was his much-longed-for opportunity.
With great despatch he made himself a raft of two logs, and seating himself astride them, with his legs in the water, put off from shore. He shouted to his men to follow him, and they needed no urging. Viggo was now near the middle of the basin, with twenty or thirty picked archers close behind him. They fired volley after volley of arrows against the enemy, and twice drove him back to the shore.
But Halvor Reitan, shielding his face with a piece of bark which he had picked up, pushed forward in spite of their onslaught, though one arrow knocked off his red-peaked cap, and another scratched his ear. Now he was but a dozen feet from his foe. He cared little for his bow now; the boat-hook was a far more effectual weapon.
Viggo saw at a glance that he meant to pull his raft toward him, and, relying upon his greater strength, fling him into the water.
His first plan would therefore be to fence with his own boat-hook, so as to keep his antagonist at a distance.
When Halvor made the first lunge at the nose of his raft, he foiled the attempt with his own weapon, and managed dexterously to give the hostile raft a downward push, which increased the distance between them.
"Take care, General!" said a respectful voice close to Viggo's ear. "There is a small log jam down below, which is getting bigger every moment. When it is got afloat, it will be dangerous out here."
"What are you doing here, Sergeant?" asked the General, severely. "Did I not tell you to be the last to leave the shore?"
"You did, General," Marcus replied, meekly, "and I obeyed. But I have pushed to the front so as to be near you."
"I don't need you, Sergeant," Viggo responded, "you may go to the rear."
The booming of the cataract nearly drowned his voice and Marcus pretended not to hear it. A huge lumber mass was piling itself up among the rocks jutting out of the rapids, and a dozen men hanging like flies on the logs, sprang up and down with axes in their hands. They cut one log here and another there; shouted commands; and fell into the river amid the derisive jeers of the spectators; they scrambled out again and, dripping wet, set to work once more with a cheerful heart, to the mighty music of the cataract, whose thundering rhythm trembled and throbbed in the air.
The boys who were steering their rafts against each other in the comparatively placid basin were too absorbed in their mimic battle to heed what was going on below. Halvor and Viggo were fighting desperately with their boat-hooks, the one attacking and the other defending himself with great dexterity. They scarcely perceived, in their excitement, that the current was dragging them slowly toward the cataract; nor did they note the warning cries of the men and women on the banks.
Viggo's blood was hot, his temples throbbed, his eyes flashed. He would show this miserable clown who had dared to insult him, that the trained skill of a gentleman is worth more than the rude strength of a bully. With beautiful precision he foiled every attack; struck Halvor's boat-hook up and down, so that the water splashed about him, manoeuvring at the same time his own raft with admirable adroitness.
Cheer upon cheer rent the air, after each of his successful sallies, and his comrades, selecting their antagonists from among the enemy, now pressed forward, all eager to bear their part in the fray.
Splash! splash! splash! one East-Sider was dismounted, got an involuntary bath, but scrambled up on his raft again. The next time it was a West-Sider who got a ducking, but seemed none the worse for it. There was a yelling and a cheering, now from one side and now from the other, which made everyone forget that something was going on at that moment of greater importance than the mimic warfare of boys.
All the interest of the contending parties was concentrated on the duel of their chieftains. It seemed now really that Halvor was getting the worst of it. He could not get close enough to use his brawny muscles; and in precision of aim and adroitness of movement he was not Viggo's match.
Again and again he thrust his long-handled boat-hook angrily against the bottom (for the flooded parts of the banks were very shallow), to push the raft forward, but every time Viggo managed to turn it sideward, and Halvor had to exert all his presence of mind to keep his seat. Wild with rage he sprang up on his slender raft and made a vicious lunge at his opponent, who warded the blow with such force that the handle of the boat-hook broke, and Halvor lost his balance and fell into the water.
At this same instant a tremendous crash was heard from below, followed by a long rumble as of mighty artillery. A scream of horror went up from the banks, as the great lumber mass rolled down into the cataract, making a sudden suction which it seemed impossible that the unhappy boys could resist.
The majority of both sides, seeing their danger, beat, by means of their boat-hooks, a hasty retreat, and as they were in shallow water were hauled ashore by the lumbermen, who sprang into the river to save them.
When the clouds of spray had cleared away, only three figures were visible. Viggo, still astride of his raft, was fighting, not for his own life, but for that of his enemy, Halvor, who was struggling helplessly in the white rapids. Close behind his commander stood little Marcus on his raft, holding on, with one hand to the boat-hook which he had hewn, with all his might, into Viggo's raft, and with the other grasping the branch of a half-submerged tree.
"Save yourself, General!" he yelled, wildly. "Let go there. I can't hold on much longer."
But Viggo did not heed. He saw nothing but the pale, frightened face of his antagonist, who might lose his life. With a desperate effort he flung his boat-hook toward him and succeeded this time in laying hold of the leather girdle about his waist. One hundred feet below yawned the foaming, weltering abyss, from which the white smoke ascended. If Marcus lost his grip, if the branch snapped no human power could save them; they were all dead men.
By this time the people on the shore had discovered that three lives were hanging on the brink of eternity. Twenty men had waded waist-deep into the current and had flung a stout rope to the noble little fellow who was risking his own life for his friend.
"Keep your hold, my brave lad!" they cried; "hold on another minute!"
"Grab the rope!" screamed others.
Marcus clinched his teeth, and his numb arms trembled, mist gathered in his eyes—his heart stood still. But with a clutch that seemed superhuman he held on. He had but one thought—Viggo, his chief! Viggo, his idol! Viggo, his general! He must save him or die with him. One end of the rope was hanging on the branch and was within easy reach; but he did not venture to seize it, lest the wrench caused by his motion might detach his hold on Viggo's raft.
Viggo, who just now was pulling Halvor out of the water, saw in an instant that he had by adding his weight to the raft, increased the chance of both being carried to their death. With quick resolution he plunged the beak of his own boat-hook into Marcus's raft, and shouted to Halvor to save himself. The latter, taking in the situation at a glance, laid hold of the handle of the boat-hook and together they pulled up alongside of Marcus and leaped aboard his raft, whereupon Viggo's raft drifted downward and vanished in a flash in the yellow torrent.
At that very instant Marcus's strength gave out; he relaxed his grip on the branch, which slid out of his hand, and they would inevitably have darted over the brink of the cataract if Viggo had not, with great adroitness, snatched the rope from the branch of the half-submerged tree.
A wild shout, half a cheer, half a cry of relief, went up from the banks, as the raft with the three lads was slowly hauled toward the shore by the lumbermen who had thrown the rope.
Halvor Reitan was the first to step ashore. But no joyous welcome greeted him from those whose sympathies had, a little while ago, been all on his side. He hung around uneasily for some minutes, feeling perhaps that he ought to say something to Viggo who had saved his life, but as he could not think of anything which did not seem foolish, he skulked away unnoticed toward the edge of the forest.
But when Viggo stepped ashore, carrying the unconscious Marcus in his arms, how the crowd rushed forward to gaze at him, to press his hands, to call down God's blessing upon him! He had never imagined that he was such a hero. It was Marcus, not he, to whom their ovation was due. But poor Marcus—it was well for him that he had fainted from over-exertion; for otherwise he would have fainted from embarrassment at the honors which would have been showered upon him.
The West-Siders, marching two abreast, with their bows slung across their shoulders, escorted their general home, cheering and shouting as they went. When they were half-way up the hillside, Marcus opened his eyes, and finding himself so close to his beloved general, blushed crimson, scarlet, and purple, and all the other shades that an embarrassed blush is capable of assuming.
"Please, General," he stammered, "don't bother about me."
Viggo had thought of making a speech exalting the heroism of his faithful follower. But he saw at a glance that his praise would be more grateful to Marcus, if he received it in private.
When, however, the boys gave him a parting cheer, in front of his father's mansion, he forgot his resolution, leaped up on the steps, and lifting the blushing Marcus above his head; called out:
"Three cheers for the bravest boy in Norway!"
BICEPS GRIMLUND'S CHRISTMAS VACATION
The great question which Albert Grimlund was debating was fraught with unpleasant possibilities. He could not go home for the Christmas vacation, for his father lived in Drontheim, which is so far away from Christiania that it was scarcely worth while making the journey for a mere two-weeks' holiday. Then, on the other hand, he had an old great-aunt who lived but a few miles from the city. She had, from conscientious motives, he feared, sent him an invitation to pass Christmas with her. But Albert had a poor opinion of Aunt Elsbeth. He thought her a very tedious person. She had a dozen cats, talked of nothing but sermons and lessons, and asked him occasionally, with pleasant humor, whether he got many whippings at school. She failed to comprehend that a boy could not amuse himself forever by looking at the pictures in the old family Bible, holding yarn, and listening to oft-repeated stories, which he knew by heart, concerning the doings and sayings of his grandfather. Aunt Elsbeth, after a previous experience with her nephew, had come to regard boys as rather a reprehensible kind of animal, who differed in many of their ways from girls, and altogether to the boys' disadvantage.
Now, the prospect of being "caged" for two weeks with this estimable lady was, as I said, not at all pleasant to Albert. He was sixteen years old, loved out-door sports, and had no taste for cats. His chief pride was his muscle, and no boy ever made his acquaintance without being invited to feel the size and hardness of his biceps. This was a standing joke in the Latin school, and Albert was generally known among his companions as "Biceps" Grimlund. He was not very tall for his age, but broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with something in his glance, his gait, and his manners which showed that he had been born and bred near the sea. He cultivated a weather-beaten complexion, and was particularly proud when the skin "peeled" on his nose, which it usually did in the summer-time, during his visits to his home in the extreme north. Like most blond people, when sunburnt, he was red, not brown; and this became a source of great satisfaction when he learned that Lord Nelson had the same peculiarity. Albert's favorite books were the sea romances of Captain Marryat, whose "Peter Simple" and "Midshipman Easy" he held to be the noblest products of human genius. It was a bitter disappointment to him that his father forbade his going to sea and was educating him to be a "landlubber," which he had been taught by his boy associates to regard as the most contemptible thing on earth.
Two days before Christmas, Biceps Grimlund was sitting in his room, looking gloomily out of the window. He wished to postpone as long as possible his departure for Aunt Elsbeth's country-place, for he foresaw that both he and she were doomed to a surfeit of each other's company during the coming fortnight. At last he heaved a deep sigh and languidly began to pack his trunk. He had just disposed the dear Marryat books on top of his starched shirts, when he heard rapid footsteps on the stairs, and the next moment the door burst open, and his classmate, Ralph Hoyer, rushed breathlessly into the room.
"Biceps," he cried, "look at this! Here is a letter from my father, and he tells me to invite one of my classmates to come home with me for the vacation. Will you come? Oh, we shall have grand times, I tell you! No end of fun!"
Albert, instead of answering, jumped up and danced a jig on the floor, upsetting two chairs and breaking the wash-pitcher.
"Hurrah!" he cried, "I'm your man. Shake hands on it, Ralph! You have saved me from two weeks of cats and yarn and moping! Give us your paw! I never was so glad to see anybody in all my life."
And to prove it, he seized Ralph by the shoulders, gave him a vigorous whirl and forced him to join in the dance.
"Now, stop your nonsense," Ralph protested, laughing; "if you have so much strength to waste, wait till we are at home in Solheim, and you'll have a chance to use it profitably."
Albert flung himself down on his old rep-covered sofa. It seemed to have some internal disorder, for its springs rattled and a vague musical twang indicated that something or other had snapped. It had seen much maltreatment, that poor old piece of furniture, and bore visible marks of it. When, after various exhibitions of joy, their boisterous delight had quieted down, both boys began to discuss their plans for the vacation.
"But I fear my groom may freeze, down there in the street," Ralph ejaculated, cutting short the discussion; "it is bitter cold, and he can't leave the horses. Hurry up, now, old man, and I'll help you pack."
It did not take them long to complete the packing. Albert sent a telegram to his father, asking permission to accept Ralph's invitation; but, knowing well that the reply would be favorable, did not think it necessary to wait for it. With the assistance of his friend he now wrapped himself in two overcoats, pulled a pair of thick woollen stockings over the outside of his boots and a pair of fur-lined top-boots outside of these, girded himself with three long scarfs, and pulled his brown otter-skin cap down over his ears. He was nearly as broad as he was long, when he had completed these operations, and descended into the street where the big double-sleigh (made in the shape of a huge white swan) was awaiting them. They now called at Ralph's lodgings, whence he presently emerged in a similar Esquimau costume, wearing a wolf-skin coat which left nothing visible except the tip of his nose and the steam of his breath. Then they started off merrily with jingling bells, and waved a farewell toward many a window, wherein were friends and acquaintances. They felt in so jolly a mood, that they could not help shouting their joy in the face of all the world, and crowing over all poor wretches who were left to spend the holidays in the city.
Solheim was about twenty miles from the city, and it was nine o'clock in the evening when the boys arrived there. The moon was shining brightly, and the Milky Way, with its myriad stars, looked like a luminous mist across the vault of the sky. The aurora borealis swept down from the north with white and pink radiations which flushed the dark blue sky for an instant, and vanished. The earth was white, as far as the eye could reach—splendidly, dazzlingly white. And out of the white radiance rose the great dark pile of masonry called Solheim, with its tall chimneys and dormer-windows and old-fashioned gables. Round about stood the tall leafless maples and chestnut-trees, sparkling with frost and stretching their gaunt arms against the heavens. The two horses, when they swung up before the great front-door, were so white with hoar-frost that they looked shaggy like goats, and no one could tell what was their original color. Their breath was blown in two vapory columns from their nostrils and drifted about their heads like steam about a locomotive.
The sleigh-bells had announced the arrival of the guests, and a great shout of welcome was heard from the hall of the house, which seemed alive with grownup people and children. Ralph jumped out of the sleigh, embraced at random half a dozen people, one of whom was his mother, kissed right and left, protesting laughingly against being smothered in affection, and finally managed to introduce his friend, who for the moment was feeling a trifle lonely.
"Here, father," he cried. "Biceps, this is my father; and, father, this is my Biceps——"
"What stuff you are talking, boy," his father exclaimed. "How can this young fellow be your biceps——"
"Well, how can a man keep his senses in such confusion?" said the son of the house. "This is my friend and classmate, Albert Grimlund, alias Biceps Grimlund, and the strongest man in the whole school. Just feel his biceps, mother, and you'll see."
"No, I thank you. I'll take your word for it," replied Mrs. Hoyer. "As I intend to treat him as a friend of my son should be treated, I hope he will not feel inclined to give me any proof of his muscularity."
When, with the aid of the younger children, the travellers had divested themselves of their various wraps and overcoats, they were ushered into the old-fashioned sitting-room. In one corner roared an enormous, many-storied, iron stove. It had a picture in relief, on one side, of Diana the Huntress, with her nymphs and baying hounds. In the middle of the room stood a big table, and in the middle of the table a big lamp, about which the entire family soon gathered. It was so cosey and homelike that Albert, before he had been half an hour in the room, felt gratefully the atmosphere of mutual affection which pervaded the house. It amused him particularly to watch the little girls, of whom there were six, and to observe their profound admiration for their big brother. Every now and then one of them, sidling up to him while he sat talking, would cautiously touch his ear or a curl of his hair; and if he deigned to take any notice of her, offering her, perhaps, a perfunctory kiss, her pride and pleasure were charming to witness.
Presently the signal was given that supper was ready, and various savory odors, which escaped, whenever a door was opened, served to arouse the anticipations of the boys to the highest pitch. Now, if I did not have so much else to tell you, I should stop here and describe that supper. There were twenty-two people who sat down to it; but that was nothing unusual at Solheim, for it was a hospitable house, where every wayfarer was welcome, either to the table in the servants' hall or to the master's table in the dining-room.
At the stroke of ten all the family arose, and each in turn kissed the father and mother good-night; whereupon Mr. Hoyer took the great lamp from the table and mounted the stairs, followed by his pack of noisy boys and girls. Albert and Ralph found themselves, with four smaller Hoyers, in an enormous low-ceiled room with many windows. In three corners stood huge canopied bedsteads, with flowered-chintz curtains and mountainous eiderdown coverings which swelled up toward the ceiling. In the middle of the wall, opposite the windows, a big iron stove, like the one in the sitting-room (only that it was adorned with a bunch of flowers, peaches, and grapes, and not with Diana and her nymphs), was roaring merrily, and sending a long red sheen from its draught-hole across the floor.
Around the big warm stove the boys gathered (for it was positively Siberian in the region of the windows), and while undressing played various pranks upon each other, which created much merriment. But the most laughter was provoked at the expense of Finn Hoyer, a boy of fourteen, whose bare back his brother insisted upon exhibiting to his guest; for it was decorated with a facsimile of the picture on the stove, showing roses and luscious peaches and grapes in red relief. Three years before, on Christmas Eve, the boys had stood about the red-hot stove, undressing for their bath, and Finn, who was naked, had, in the general scrimmage to get first into the bath-tub, been pushed against the glowing iron, the ornamentation of which had been beautifully burned upon his back. He had to be wrapped in oil and cotton after that adventure, and he recovered in due time, but never quite relished the distinction he had acquired by his pictorial skin.
It was long before Albert fell asleep; for the cold kept up a continual fusillade, as of musketry, during the entire night. The woodwork of the walls snapped and cracked with loud reports; and a little after midnight a servant came in and stuffed the stove full of birch-wood, until it roared like an angry lion. This roar finally lulled Albert to sleep, in spite of the startling noises about him.
The next morning the boys were aroused at seven o'clock by a servant, who brought a tray with the most fragrant coffee and hot rolls. It was in honor of the guest that, in accordance with Norse custom, this early meal was served; and all the boys, carrying pillows and blankets, gathered on Albert's and Ralph's bed and feasted right royally. So it seemed to them, at least; for any break in the ordinary routine, be it ever so slight, is an event to the young. Then they had a pillow-fight, thawed at the stove the water in the pitchers (for it was frozen hard), and arrayed themselves to descend and meet the family at the nine o'clock breakfast. When this repast was at an end, the question arose how they were to entertain their guest, and various plans were proposed. But to all Ralph's propositions his mother interposed the objection that it was too cold.
"Mother is right," said Mr. Hoyer; "it is so cold that 'the chips jump on the hill-side.' You'll have to be content with indoor sports to-day."
"But, father, it is not more than twenty degrees below zero," the boy demurred. "I am sure we can stand that, if we keep in motion. I have been out at thirty without losing either ears or nose."
He went to the window to observe the thermometer; but the dim daylight scarcely penetrated the fantastic frost-crystals, which, like a splendid exotic flora, covered the panes. Only at the upper corner, where the ice had commenced to thaw, a few timid sunbeams were peeping in, making the lamp upon the table seem pale and sickly. Whenever the door to the hall was opened a white cloud of vapor rolled in; and every one made haste to shut the door, in order to save the precious heat. The boys, being doomed to remain indoors, walked about restlessly, felt each other's muscle, punched each other, and sometimes, for want of better employment, teased the little girls. Mr. Hoyer, seeing how miserable they were, finally took pity on them, and, after having thawed out a window-pane sufficiently to see the thermometer outside, gave his consent to a little expedition on skees  down to the river.
And now, boys, you ought to have seen them! Now there was life in them! You would scarcely have dreamed that they were the same creatures who, a moment ago, looked so listless and miserable. What rollicking laughter and fun, while they bundled one another in scarfs, cardigan-jackets, fur-lined top-boots, and overcoats!
"You had better take your guns along, boys," said the father, as they stormed out through the front door; "you might strike a couple of ptarmigan, or a mountain-cock, over on the west side."
"I am going to take your rifle, if you'll let me," Ralph exclaimed. "I have a fancy we might strike bigger game than mountain-cock. I shouldn't object to a wolf or two."
"You are welcome to the rifle," said his father; "but I doubt whether you'll find wolves on the ice so early in the day."
Mr. Hoyer took the rifle from its case, examined it carefully, and handed it to Ralph. Albert, who was a less experienced hunter than Ralph, preferred a fowling-piece to the rifle; especially as he had no expectation of shooting anything but ptarmigan. Powder-horns, cartridges, and shot were provided; and quite proudly the two friends started off on their skees, gliding over the hard crust of the snow, which, as the sun rose higher, was oversown with thousands of glittering gems. The boys looked like Esquimaux, with their heads bundled up in scarfs, and nothing visible except their eyes and a few hoary locks of hair which the frost had silvered.
"What was that?" cried Albert, startled by a sharp report which reverberated from the mountains. They had penetrated the forest on the west side, and ranged over the ice for an hour, in a vain search for wolves.
"Hush," said Ralph, excitedly; and after a moment of intent listening he added, "I'll be drawn and quartered if it isn't poachers!"
"How do you know?"
"These woods belong to father, and no one else has any right to hunt in them. He doesn't mind if a poor man kills a hare or two, or a brace of ptarmigan; but these chaps are after elk; and if the old gentleman gets on the scent of elk-hunters, he has no more mercy than Beelzebub."
"How can you know that they are after elk?"
"No man is likely to go to the woods for small game on a day like this. They think the cold protects them from pursuit and capture."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I am going to play a trick on them. You know that the sheriff, whose duty it is to be on the lookout for elk-poachers, would scarcely send out a posse when the cold is so intense. Elk, you know, are becoming very scarce, and the law protects them. No man is allowed to shoot more than one elf a year, and that one on his own property. Now, you and I will play deputy-sheriffs, and have those poachers securely in the lock-up before night."
"But suppose they fight?"
"Then we'll fight back."
Ralph was so aglow with joyous excitement at the thought of this adventure, that Albert had not the heart to throw cold water on his enthusiasm. Moreover, he was afraid of being thought cowardly by his friend if he offered objections. The recollection of Midshipman Easy and his daring pranks flashed through his brain, and he felt an instant desire to rival the exploits of his favorite hero. If only the enterprise had been on the sea he would have been twice as happy, for the land always seemed to him a prosy and inconvenient place for the exhibition of heroism.
"But, Ralph," he exclaimed, now more than ready to bear his part in the expedition, "I have only shot in my gun. You can't shoot men with bird-shot."
"Shoot men! Are you crazy? Why, I don't intend to shoot anybody. I only wish to capture them. My rifle is a breech-loader and has six cartridges. Besides, it has twice the range of theirs (for there isn't another such rifle in all Odalen), and by firing one shot over their heads I can bring them to terms, don't you see?"
Albert, to be frank, did not see it exactly; but he thought it best to suppress his doubts. He scented danger in the air, and his blood bounded through his veins.
"How do you expect to track them?" he asked, breathlessly.
"Skee-tracks in the snow can be seen by a bat, born blind," answered Ralph, recklessly.
They were now climbing up the wooded slope on the western side of the river. The crust of the frozen snow was strong enough to bear them; and as it was not glazed, but covered with an inch of hoar-frost, it retained the imprint of their feet with distinctness. They were obliged to carry their skees, on account both of the steepness of the slope and the density of the underbrush. Roads and paths were invisible under the white pall of the snow, and only the facility with which they could retrace their steps saved them from the fear of going astray. Through the vast forest a deathlike silence reigned; and this silence was not made up of an infinity of tiny sounds, like the silence of a summer day when the crickets whirr in the treetops and the bees drone in the clover-blossoms. No; this silence was dead, chilling, terrible. The huge pine-trees now and then dropped a load of snow on the heads of the bold intruders, and it fell with a thud, followed by a noiseless, glittering drizzle. As far as their eyes could reach, the monotonous colonnade of brown tree-trunks, rising out of the white waste, extended in all directions. It reminded them of the enchanted forest in "Undine," through which a man might ride forever without finding the end. It was a great relief when, from time to time, they met a squirrel out foraging for pine-cones or picking up a scanty living among the husks of last year's hazel-nuts. He was lively in spite of the weather, and the faint noises of his small activities fell gratefully upon ears already ap-palled by the awful silence. Occasionally they scared up a brace of grouse that seemed half benumbed, and hopped about in a melancholy manner under the pines, or a magpie, drawing in its head and ruffling up its feathers against the cold, until it looked frowsy and disreputable.
"Biceps," whispered Ralph, who had suddenly discovered something interesting in the snow, "do you see that?"
"Je-rusalem!" ejaculated Albert, with thoughtless delight, "it is a hoof-track!"
"Hold your tongue, you blockhead," warned his friend, too excited to be polite, "or you'll spoil the whole business!"
"But you asked me," protested Albert, in a huff.
"But I didn't shout, did I?"
Again the report of a shot tore a great rent in the wintry stillness and rang out with sharp reverberations.
"We've got them," said Ralph, examining the lock of his rifle. "That shot settles them."
"If we don't look out, they may get us instead," grumbled Albert, who was still offended.
Ralph stood peering into the underbrush, his eyes as wild as those of an Indian, his nostrils dilated, and all his senses intensely awake. His companion, who was wholly unskilled in woodcraft, could see no cause for his agitation, and feared that he was yet angry. He did not detect the evidences of large game in the immediate neighborhood. He did not see, by the bend of the broken twigs and the small tufts of hair on the briar-bush, that an elk had pushed through that very copse within a few minutes; nor did he sniff the gamy odor with which the large beast had charged the air. In obedience to his friend's gesture, he flung himself down on hands and knees and cautiously crept after him through the thicket. He now saw without difficulty a place where the elk had broken through the snow crust, and he could also detect a certain aimless bewilderment in the tracks, owing, no doubt, to the shot and the animal's perception of danger on two sides. Scarcely had he crawled twenty feet when he was startled by a noise of breaking branches, and before he had time to cock his gun, he saw an enormous bull-elk tearing through the underbrush, blowing two columns of steam from his nostrils, and steering straight toward them. At the same instant Ralph's rifle blazed away, and the splendid beast, rearing on its hind legs, gave a wild snort, plunged forward and rolled on its side in the snow. Quick as a flash the young hunter had drawn his knife, and, in accordance with the laws of the chase, had driven it into the breast of the animal. But the glance from the dying eyes—that glance, of which every elk-hunter can tell a moving tale—pierced the boy to the very heart! It was such a touching, appealing, imploring glance, so soft and gentle and unresentful.
"Why did you harm me," it seemed to say, "who never harmed any living thing—who claimed only the right to live my frugal life in the forest, digging up the frozen mosses under the snow, which no mortal creature except myself can eat?"
The sanguinary instinct—the fever for killing, which every boy inherits from savage ancestors—had left Ralph, before he had pulled the knife from the bleeding wound. A miserable feeling of guilt stole over him. He never had shot an elk before; and his father, who was anxious to preserve the noble beasts from destruction, had not availed himself of his right to kill one for many years. Ralph had, indeed, many a time hunted rabbits, hares, mountain-cock, and capercaillie. But they had never destroyed his pleasure by arousing pity for their deaths; and he had always regarded himself as being proof against sentimental emotions.
"Look here, Biceps," he said, flinging the knife into the snow, "I wish I hadn't killed that bull."
"I thought we were hunting for poachers," answered Albert, dubiously; "and now we have been poaching ourselves."
"By Jiminy! So we have; and I never once thought of it," cried the valiant hunter. "I am afraid we are off my father's preserves too. It is well the deputy sheriffs are not abroad, or we might find ourselves decorated with iron bracelets before night."
"But what did you do it for?"
"Well, I can't tell. It's in the blood, I fancy. The moment I saw the track and caught the wild smell, I forgot all about the poachers, and started on the scent like a hound."
The two boys stood for some minutes looking at the dead animal, not with savage exultation, but with a dim regret. The blood which was gushing from the wound in the breast froze in a solid lump the very moment it touched the snow, although the cold had greatly moderated since the morning.
"I suppose we'll have to skin the fellow," remarked Ralph, lugubriously; "it won't do to leave that fine carcass for the wolves to celebrate Christmas with."
"All right," Albert answered, "I am not much of a hand at skinning, but I'll do the best I can."
They fell to work rather reluctantly at the unwonted task, but had not proceeded far when they perceived that they had a full day's job before them.
"I've no talent for the butcher's trade," Ralph exclaimed in disgust, dropping his knife into the snow. "There's no help for it, Biceps, we'll have to bury the carcass, pile some logs on the top of it, and send a horse to drag it home to-morrow. If it were not Christmas Eve to-night we might take a couple of men along and shoot a dozen wolves or more. For there is sure to be pandemonium here before long, and a concert in G-flat that'll curdle the marrow of your bones with horror."
"Thanks," replied the admirer of Midshipman Easy, striking a reckless naval attitude. "The marrow of my bones is not so easily curdled. I've been on a whaling voyage, which is more than you have."
Ralph was about to vindicate his dignity by referring to his own valiant exploits, when suddenly his keen eyes detected a slight motion in the underbrush on the slope below.
"Biceps," he said, with forced composure, "those poachers are tracking us."
"What do you mean?" asked Albert, in vague alarm.
"Do you see the top of that young birch waving?"
"Well, what of that!"
"Wait and see. It's no good trying to escape. They can easily overtake us. The snow is the worst tell-tale under the sun."
"But why should we wish to escape? I thought we were going to catch them."
"So we were; but that was before we turned poachers ourselves. Now those fellows will turn the tables on us—take us to the sheriff and collect half the fine, which is fifty dollars, as informers."
"Je-rusalem!" cried Biceps, "isn't it a beautiful scrape we've gotten into?"
"Rather," responded his friend, coolly.
"But why meekly allow ourselves to be captured? Why not defend ourselves?"
"My dear Biceps, you don't know what you are talking about. Those fellows don't mind putting a bullet into you, if you run. Now, I'd rather pay fifty dollars any day, than shoot a man even in self-defence."
"But they have killed elk too. We heard them shoot twice. Suppose we play the same game on them that they intend to play on us. We can play informers too, then we'll at least be quits."
"Biceps, you are a brick! That's a capital idea! Then let us start for the sheriff's; and if we get there first, we'll inform both on ourselves and on them. That'll cancel the fine. Quick, now!"
No persuasions were needed to make Albert bestir himself. He leaped toward his skees, and following his friend, who was a few rods ahead of him, started down the slope in a zigzag line, cautiously steering his way among the tree trunks. The boys had taken their departure none too soon; for they were scarcely five hundred yards down the declivity, when they heard behind them loud exclamations and oaths. Evidently the poachers had stopped to roll some logs (which were lying close by) over the carcass, probably meaning to appropriate it; and this gave the boys an advantage, of which they were in great need. After a few moments they espied an open clearing which sloped steeply down toward the river. Toward this Ralph had been directing his course; for although it was a venturesome undertaking to slide down so steep and rugged a hill, he was determined rather to break his neck than lower his pride, and become the laughing-stock of the parish.
One more tack through alder copse and juniper jungle—hard indeed, and terribly vexatious—and he saw with delight the great open slope, covered with an unbroken surface of glittering snow. The sun (which at midwinter is but a few hours above the horizon) had set; and the stars were flashing forth with dazzling brilliancy. Ralph stopped, as he reached the clearing, to give Biceps an opportunity to overtake him; for Biceps, like all marine animals, moved with less dexterity on the dry land.
"Ralph," he whispered breathlessly, as he pushed himself up to his companion with a vigorous thrust of his skee-staff, "there are two awful chaps close behind us. I distinctly heard them speak."
"Fiddlesticks," said Ralph; "now let us see what you are made of! Don't take my track, or you may impale me like a roast pig on a spit. Now, ready!—one, two, three!"
"Hold on there, or I shoot," yelled a hoarse voice from out of the underbrush; but it was too late; for at the same instant the two boys slid out over the steep slope, and, wrapped in a whirl of loose snow, were scudding at a dizzying speed down the precipitous hill-side. Thump, thump, thump, they went, where hidden wood-piles or fences obstructed their path, and out they shot into space, but each time came down firmly on their feet, and dashed ahead with undiminished ardor. Their calves ached, the cold air whistled in their ears, and their eyelids became stiff and their sight half obscured with the hoar-frost that fringed their lashes. But onward they sped, keeping their balance with wonderful skill, until they reached the gentler slope which formed the banks of the great river. Then for the first time Ralph had an opportunity to look behind him, and he saw two moving whirls of snow darting downward, not far from his own track. His heart beat in his throat; for those fellows had both endurance and skill, and he feared that he was no match for them. But suddenly—he could have yelled with delight—the foremost figure leaped into the air, turned a tremendous somersault, and, coming down on his head, broke through the crust of the snow and vanished, while his skees started on an independent journey down the hill-side. He had struck an exposed fence-rail, which, abruptly checking his speed, had sent him flying like a rocket.
The other poacher had barely time to change his course, so as to avoid the snag; but he was unable to stop and render assistance to his fallen comrade. The boys, just as they were shooting out upon the ice, saw by his motions that he was hesitating whether or not he should give up the chase. He used his staff as a brake for a few moments, so as to retard his speed; but discovering, perhaps, by the brightening starlight, that his adversaries were not full-grown men, he took courage, started forward again, and tried to make up for the time he had lost. If he could but reach the sheriff's house before the boys did, he could have them arrested and collect the informer's fee, instead of being himself arrested and fined as a poacher. It was a prize worth racing for! And, moreover, there were two elks, worth twenty-five dollars apiece, buried in the snow under logs. These also would belong to the victor! The poacher dashed ahead, straining every nerve, and reached safely the foot of the steep declivity. The boys were now but a few hundred yards ahead of him.
"Hold on there," he yelled again, "or I shoot!"
He was not within range, but he thought he could frighten the youngsters into abandoning the race. The sheriff's house was but a short distance up the river. Its tall, black chimneys could he seen looming up against the starlit sky. There was no slope now to accelerate their speed. They had to peg away for dear life, pushing themselves forward with their skee-staves, laboring like plough-horses, panting, snorting, perspiring. Ralph turned his head once more. The poacher was gaining upon them; there could be no doubt of it. He was within the range of Ralph's rifle; and a sturdy fellow he was, who seemed good for a couple of miles yet. Should Ralph send a bullet over his head to frighten him? No; that might give the poacher an excuse for sending back a bullet with a less innocent purpose. Poor Biceps, he was panting and puffing in his heavy wraps like a steamboat! He did not once open his mouth to speak; but, exerting his vaunted muscle to the utmost, kept abreast of his friend, and sometimes pushed a pace or two ahead of him. But it cost him a mighty effort! And yet the poacher was gaining upon him! They could see the long broadside of windows in the sheriff's mansion, ablaze with Christmas candles. They came nearer and nearer! The church-bells up on the bend were ringing in the festival. Five minutes more and they would be at their goal. Five minutes more! Surely they had strength enough left for that small space of time. So had the poacher, probably! The question was, which had the most. Then, with a short, sharp resonance, followed by a long reverberation, a shot rang out and a bullet whizzed past Ralph's ear. It was the poacher who had broken the peace. Ralph, his blood boiling with wrath, came to a sudden stop, flung his rifle to his cheek and cried, "Drop that gun!"
The poacher, bearing down with all his might on the skee-staff, checked his speed. In the meanwhile Albert hurried on, seeing that the issue of the race depended upon him.
"Don't force me to hurt ye!" shouted the poacher, threateningly, to Ralph, taking aim once more.
"You can't," Ralph shouted back. "You haven't another shot."
At that instant sounds of sleigh-bells and voices were heard, and half a dozen people, startled by the shot, were seen rushing out from the sheriff's mansion. Among them was Mr. Bjornerud himself, with one of his deputies.
"In the name of the law, I command you to cease," he cried, when he saw down the two figures in menacing attitudes. But before he could say another word, some one fell prostrate in the road before him, gasping:
"We have shot an elk; so has that man down on the ice. We give ourselves up."
Mr. Bjornerud, making no answer, leaped over the prostrate figure, and, followed by the deputy, dashed down upon the ice.
"In the name of the law!" he shouted again, and both rifles were reluctantly lowered.
"I have shot an elk," cried Ralph, eagerly, "and this man is a poacher, we heard him shoot."
"I have killed an elk," screamed the poacher, in the same moment, "and so has this fellow."
The sheriff was too astonished to speak. Never before, in his experience, had poachers raced for dear life to give themselves into custody. He feared that they were making sport of him; in that case, however, he resolved to make them suffer for their audacity.
"You are my prisoners," he said, after a moment's hesitation. "Take them to the lock-up, Olsen, and handcuff them securely," he added, turning to his deputy.
There were now a dozen men—most of them guests and attendants of the sheriff's household—standing in a ring about Ralph and the poacher. Albert, too, had scrambled to his feet and had joined his comrade.
"Will you permit me, Mr. Sheriff," said Ralph, making the officer his politest bow, "to send a message to my father, who is probably anxious about us?"
"And who is your father, young man?" asked the sheriff, not unkindly; "I should think you were doing him an ill-turn in taking to poaching at your early age."
"My father is Mr. Hoyer, of Solheim," said the boy, not without some pride in the announcement.
"What—you rascal, you! Are you trying to, play pranks on an old man?" cried the officer of the law, grasping Ralph cordially by the hand. "You've grown to be quite a man, since I saw you last. Pardon me for not recognizing the son of an old neighbor."
"Allow me to introduce to you my friend, Mr. Biceps—I mean, Mr. Albert Grimlund."
"Happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Biceps Albert; and now you must both come and eat the Christmas porridge with us. I'll send a messenger to Mr. Hoyer without delay."
The sheriff, in a jolly mood, and happy to have added to the number of his Christmas guests, took each of the two young men by the arm, as if he were going to arrest them, and conducted them through the spacious front hall into a large cosey room, where, having divested themselves of their wraps, they told the story of their adventure.
"But, my dear sir," Mr. Bjornerud exclaimed, "I don't see how you managed to go beyond your father's preserves. You know he bought of me the whole forest tract, adjoining his own on the south, about three months ago. So you were perfectly within your rights; for your father hasn't killed an elk on his land for three years."
"If that is the case, Mr. Sheriff," said Ralph, "I must beg of you to release the poor fellow who chased us. I don't wish any informer's fee, nor have I any desire to get him into trouble."
"I am sorry to say I can't accommodate you," Bjornerud replied. "This man is a notorious poacher and trespasser, whom my deputies have long been tracking in vain. Now that I have him I shall keep him. There's no elk safe in Odalen so long as that rascal is at large."
"That may be; but I shall then turn my informer's fee over to him, which will reduce his fine from fifty dollars to twenty-five dollars."
"To encourage him to continue poaching?"
"Well, I confess I have a little more sympathy with poachers, since we came so near being poachers ourselves. It was only an accident that saved us!"
THE NIXY'S STRAIN
Little Nils had an idea that he wanted to be something great in the world, but he did not quite know how to set about it. He had always been told that, having been born on a Sunday, he was a luck-child, and that good fortune would attend him on that account in whatever he undertook.
He had never, so far, noticed anything peculiar about himself, though, to be sure, his small enterprises did not usually come to grief, his snares were seldom empty, and his tiny stamping-mill, which he and his friend Thorstein had worked at so faithfully, was now making a merry noise over in the brook in the Westmo Glen, so that you could hear it a hundred yards away.
The reason of this, his mother told him, according to the superstition of her people, was that the Nixy and the Hulder  and the gnomes favored him because he was a Sunday child. What was more, she assured him, that he would see them some day, and then, if he conducted himself cleverly, so as to win their favor, he would, by their aid, rise high in the world, and make his fortune.
Now this was exactly what Nils wanted, and therefore he was not a little anxious to catch a glimpse of the mysterious creatures who had so whimsical a reason for taking an interest in him. Many and many a time he sat at the waterfall where the Nixy was said to play the harp every midsummer night, but although he sometimes imagined that he heard a vague melody trembling through the rush and roar of the water, and saw glimpses of white limbs flashing through the current, yet never did he get a good look at the Nixy.
Though he roamed through the woods early and late, setting snares for birds and rabbits, and was ever on the alert for a sight of the Hulder's golden hair and scarlet bodice, the tricksy sprite persisted in eluding him.
He thought sometimes that he heard a faint, girlish giggle, full of teasing provocation and suppressed glee, among the underbrush, and once he imagined that he saw a gleam of scarlet and gold vanish in a dense alder copse.
But very little good did that do him, when he could not fix the vision, talk with it face to face, and extort the fulfilment of the three regulation wishes.
"I am probably not good enough," thought Nils. "I know I am a selfish fellow, and cruel, too, some-times, to birds and beasts. I suppose she won't have anything to do with me, as long as she isn't satisfied with my behavior."
Then he tried hard to be kind and considerate; smiled at his little sister when she pulled his hair, patted Sultan, the dog, instead of kicking him, when he was in his way, and never complained or sulked when he was sent on errands late at night or in bad weather.
But, strange to say, though the Nixy's mysterious melody still sounded vaguely through the water's roar, and the Hulder seemed to titter behind the tree-trunks and vanish in the underbrush, a real, unmistakable view was never vouchsafed to Nils, and the three wishes which were to make his fortune he had no chance of propounding.
He had fully made up his mind what his wishes were to be, for he was determined not to be taken by surprise. He knew well the fate of those foolish persons in the fairy tales who offend their benevolent protectors by bouncing against them head foremost, as it were, with a greedy cry for wealth.
Nils was not going to be caught that way. He would ask first for wisdom—that was what all right-minded heroes did—then for good repute among men, and lastly—and here was the rub—lastly he was inclined to ask for a five-bladed knife, like the one the parson's Thorwald had got for a Christmas present.
But he had considerable misgiving about the expediency of this last wish. If he had a fair renown and wisdom, might he not be able to get along without a five-bladed pocket-knife? But no; there was no help for it. Without that five-bladed pocket-knife neither wisdom nor fame would satisfy him. It would be the drop of gall in his cup of joy.
After many days' pondering, it occurred to him, as a way out of the difficulty, that it would, perhaps, not offend the Hulder if he asked, not for wealth, but for a moderate prosperity. If he were blessed with a moderate prosperity, he could, of course, buy a five-bladed pocket-knife with corkscrew and all other appurtenances, and still have something left over.
He had a dreadful struggle with this question, for he was well aware that the proper things to wish were long life and happiness for his father and mother, or something in that line. But, though he wished his father and mother well, he could not make up his mind to forego his own precious chances on their account. Moreover, he consoled himself with the reflection that if he attained the goal of his own desires he could easily bestow upon them, of his bounty, a reasonable prospect of long life and happiness.
You see Nils was by no means so good yet as he ought to be. He was clever enough to perceive that he had small chance of seeing the Hulder, as long as his heart was full of selfishness and envy and greed.
For, strive as he might, he could not help feeling envious of the parson's Thorwald, with his elaborate combination pocket-knife and his silver watch-chain, which he unfeelingly flaunted in the face of an admiring community. It was small consolation for Nils to know that there was no watch but only a key attached to it; for a silver watch-chain, even without a watch, was a sufficiently splendid possession to justify a boy in fording it over his less fortunate comrades.
Nils's father, who was a poor charcoal-burner, could never afford to make his son such a present, even if he worked until he was as black as a chimney-sweep. For what little money he earned was needed at once for food and clothes for the family; and there were times when they were obliged to mix ground birch-bark with their flour in order to make it last longer.
It was easy enough for a rich man's son to be good, Nils thought.
It was small credit to him if he was not envious, having never known want and never gone to bed on birch-bark porridge. But for a poor boy not to covet all the nice things which would make life so pleasant, if he had them, seemed next to impossible.
Still Nils kept on making good resolutions and breaking them, and then piecing them together again and breaking them anew.
If it had not been for his desire to see the Hulder and the Nixy, and making them promise the fulfilment of the three wishes, he would have given up the struggle, and resigned himself to being a bad boy because he was born so. But those teasing glimpses of the Hulder's scarlet bodice and golden hair, and the vague snatches of wondrous melody that rose from the cataract in the silent summer nights, filled his soul with an intense desire to see the whole Hulder, with her radiant smile and melancholy eyes, and to hear the whole melody plainly enough to be written down on paper and learned by heart.
It was with this longing to repeat the few haunting notes that hummed in his brain that Nils went to the schoolmaster one day and asked him for the loan of his fiddle. But the schoolmaster, hearing that Nils could not play, thought his request a foolish one and refused.
Nevertheless, that visit became an important event, and a turning-point in the boy's life. For he was moved to confide in the schoolmaster, who was a kindly old man, and fond of clever boys; and he became interested in Nils. Though he regarded Nils's desire to record the Nixy's strains as absurd, he offered to teach him to play. There was good stuff in the lad, he thought, and when he had out-grown his fantastic nonsense, he might, very likely, make a good fiddler.
Thus it came to pass that the charcoal-burner's son learned to play the violin. He had not had half a dozen lessons before he set about imitating the Nixy's notes which he had heard in the waterfall.
"It was this way," he said to the schoolmaster, pressing his ear against the violin, while he ran the bow lightly over the strings; "or rather it was this way," making another ineffectual effort. "No, no, that wasn't it, either. It's no use, schoolmaster: I shall never be able to do it!" he cried, flinging the violin on the table and rushing out of the door.
When he returned the next day he was heartily ashamed of his impatience. To try to catch the Nixy's notes after half a dozen lessons was, of course, an absurdity.
The master told him simply to banish such folly from his brain, to apply himself diligently to his scales, and not to bother himself about the Nixy.
That seemed to be sound advice and Nils accepted it with contrition. He determined never to repeat his silly experiment. But when the next midsummer night came, a wild yearning possessed him, and he stole out noiselessly into the forest, and sat down on a stone by the river, listening intently.
For a long while he heard nothing but the monotonous boom of the water plunging into the deep. But, strangely enough, there was a vague, hushed rhythm in this thundering roar; and after a while he seemed to hear a faint strain, ravishingly sweet, which vibrated on the air for an instant and vanished.
It seemed to steal upon his ear unawares, and the moment he listened, with a determination to catch it, it was gone. But sweet it was—inexpressibly sweet.
Let the master talk as much as he liked, catch it he would and catch it he must. But he must acquire greater skill before he would be able to render something so delicate and elusive.
Accordingly Nils applied himself with all his might and main to his music, in the intervals between his work.
He was big enough now to accompany his father to the woods, and help him pile turf and earth on the heap of logs that were to be burned to charcoal. He did not see the Hulder face to face, though he was constantly on the watch for her; but once or twice he thought he saw a swift flash of scarlet and gold in the underbrush, and again and again he thought he heard her soft, teasing laughter in the alder copses. That, too, he imagined he might express in music; and the next time he got hold of the schoolmaster's fiddle he quavered away on the fourth string, but produced nothing that had the remotest resemblance to melody, much less to that sweet laughter.
He grew so discouraged that he could have wept. He had a wild impulse to break the fiddle, and never touch another as long as he lived. But he knew he could not live up to any such resolution. The fiddle was already too dear to him to be renounced for a momentary whim. But it was like an unrequited affection, which brought as much sorrow as joy.
There was so much that Nils burned to express; but the fiddle refused to obey him, and screeched something utterly discordant, as it seemed, from sheer perversity.
It occurred to Nils again, that unless the Nixy took pity on him and taught him that marvellous, airy strain he would never catch it. Would he then ever be good enough to win the favor of the Nixy?
For in the fairy tales it is always the bad people who come to grief, while the good and merciful ones are somehow rewarded.
It was evidently because he was yet far from being good enough that both Hulder and Nixy eluded him. Sunday child though he was, there seemed to be small chance that he would ever be able to propound his three wishes.
Only now, the third wish was no longer a five-bladed pocket-knife, but a violin of so fine a ring and delicate modulation that it might render the Nixy's strain.
While these desires and fancies fought in his heart, Nils grew to be a young man; and he still was, what he had always been—a charcoal-burner. He went to the parson for half a year to prepare for confirmation; and by his gentleness and sweetness of disposition attracted not only the good man himself, but all with whom he came in contact. His answers were always thoughtful, and betrayed a good mind.
He was not a prig, by any means, who held aloof from sport and play; he could laugh with the merriest, run a race with the swiftest, and try a wrestling match with the strongest.
There was no one among the candidates for confirmation, that year, who was so well liked as Nils. Gentle as he was and soft-spoken, there was a manly spirit in him, and that always commands respect among boys.
He received much praise from the pastor, and no one envied him the kind words that were addressed to him; for every one felt that they were deserved. But the thought in Nils's mind during all the ceremony in the church and in the parsonage was this:
"Now, perhaps, I shall be good enough to win the Nixy's favor. Now I shall catch the wondrous strain."
It did not occur to him, in his eagerness, that such a reflection was out of place in church; nor was it, perhaps, for the Nixy's strain was constantly associated in his mind with all that was best in him; with his highest aspirations, and his constant strivings for goodness and nobleness in thought and deed.
It happened about this time that the old schoolmaster died, and in his will it was found that he had bequeathed his fiddle to Nils. He had very little else to leave, poor fellow; but if he had been a Croesus he could not have given his favorite pupil anything that would have delighted him more.
Nils played now early and late, except when he was in the woods with his father. His fame went abroad through all the valley as the best fiddler in seven parishes round, and people often came from afar to hear him. There was a peculiar quality in his playing—something strangely appealing, that brought the tears to one's eyes—yet so elusive that it was impossible to repeat or describe it.
It was rumored among the villagers that he had caught the Nixy's strain, and that it was that which touched the heart so deeply in his improvisations. But Nils knew well that he had not caught the Nixy's strain; though a faint echo—a haunting undertone—of that vaguely remembered snatch of melody, heard now and then in the water's roar, would steal at times into his music, when he was, perhaps, himself least aware of it.
Invitations now came to him from far and wide to play at wedding and dancing parties and funerals. There was no feast complete without Nils; and soon this strange thing was noticed, that quarrels and brawls, which in those days were common enough in Norway, were rare wherever Nils played.
It seemed as if his calm and gentle presence called forth all that was good in the feasters and banished whatever was evil. Such was his popularity that he earned more money by his fiddling in a week than his father had ever done by charcoal-burning in a month.