THE SWEDISH SCHOOLMISTRESS
And Other Stories.
THE SWEDISH SCHOOLMISTRESS
And Other Stories
MRS. WOODS BAKER
AUTHOR OF "THE BABES IN THE BASKET," "THE SWEDISH TWINS," "FIRESIDE SKETCHES FROM SWEDISH LIFE," ETC. ETC.
THOMAS NELSON AND SONS London, Edinburgh, and New York
A Swedish Schoolmistress.
I. LITTLE TORA, 13 II. FACING THE WORLD, 19 III. A NARROW ESCAPE, 32 IV. A HAPPY MORNING, 42 V. THE PERMANENT PUPIL, 50
A Week at Kulleby.
I. CHURCH SERVICE, 57 II. AT THE PASTOR'S, 63 III. A STRANGE MEETING, 69 IV. TOO LATE, 76 V. KARIN AND ELSA, 81 VI. CHRISTMAS EVE, 89
I. A FOOLISH RESOLVE, 97 II. AFTER THIRTY YEARS, 104 III. IN THE POORHOUSE, 110 IV. PREPARING FOR CONFIRMATION, 118 V. LED TO THE LIGHT, 128 VI. PAINFUL DISCLOSURES, 134 VII. A HAPPY CHRISTMAS, 145 VIII. THE BEATA CHARITY, 151
Transcriber's Note: Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note. Original spellings have been retained.
THE SWEDISH SCHOOLMISTRESS
The kindly doctor was entertaining his brother-in-law, and all the family were sitting round the table in state. The polished silver and shining glass, with porcelain, flowers, and fruit, seemed to be all that had been provided for the dinner.
The usual "grace" had hardly been said, when a trim maid announced that a little girl was at the door, who must see the doctor about something particular. "There is nobody sick more than usual," she says; "but she must come in," continued the irritated damsel-in-waiting.
"Let her come in here. You can never have your meals in peace!" said the doctor's wife affectionately.
The soup and the little girl came in together, the latterly evidently quite prepared to state her errand. She was a small, straight child, with a determined air and a cheery face, as if sure of success in her undertaking. Fresh in Monday cleanliness, her white cotton head-kerchief stood stiffly out in a point behind, and her calico apron was without spot or wrinkle. Her shoes, though they had been diligently blackened and were under high polish, did not correspond with the rest of her appearance. They had evidently been made for a boy, an individual much larger than their present wearer. Great wrinkles crossing each other shut off some low, unoccupied land near the toe, and showed how much of the sole had been too proud to touch the common ground. All this the observers saw at once.
"Well, Tora!" said the doctor pleasantly, after she had dropped her bob-courtesies, and "good-days" had been exchanged.
"May I sing for you?" said the little girl, without further hesitation, as she hastily took out a thin, black book from the small pocket handkerchief in which it had been carefully wrapped.
"Sing? yes, surely!" said the doctor. "Just the thing for us while we are taking our dinner. My brother-in-law here is a famous judge of music, so you must do your best."
Tora opened the book, took what she considered an imposing position, and announced the name of the song. It was a patriotic one, and in the full chorus of the schoolroom it had stirred the young Swedish hearts to their depths.
The first few notes were right, though tremblingly given; then came a quivering and a faltering and a falsity that made the doctor's boys cover their laughing mouths with their hands, while their eyes twinkled with suppressed merriment.
Just then there was a queer buzzing noise in the room, by which the tune was carried on, and Tora fell in with fresh courage. Most of the party were taking their soup, as well as listening; but the boys observed that their uncle quietly held his motionless spoon, and was looking at the singer as if lost in musical bliss. His mouth was closed, but his nostrils seemed undergoing a rhythmical contraction and distension most interesting and unusual.
Tora gave the closing notes in fine style, and the expression of applause was general. So encouraged, she volunteered a simple newly-published carol that she had that day been practising at school. Here it seemed the musical accompaniment could not be relied upon. Tora began, stopped, and began again, then was silent, while great tears stood in her eyes.
One of the before-smiling boys hastened to say,—
"Let her speak a piece, uncle. She can do that beautifully, her brother Karl says. He has taught her ever so many, and it costs her nothing to learn them. He likes to tell that she is the best scholar in her class."
The uncle seemed to be able to enjoy his dinner at the same time as the elocutionary treat with which it was now accompanied, and he warmly complimented the speaker on her performance at its close.
"What made you think of giving us this pleasure, little Tora?" said the doctor, with a humorous look in his kindly face.
"Why," said the little girl at once, "I don't like my shoes. They have been brother Karl's. When I asked father this morning to give me some new ones, he said this was a fine strong pair and did not let in water, and he could not think of letting them go to waste. Then he looked sorrowful, and I heard him say to mother, 'The poor children will have to earn all they have soon.' I made up my mind to begin at once, and earn my shoes, if I could. Our teacher told us to-day about Jenny Lind, who began to sing when she was a very little girl, and when she was older she made a great deal of money, and gave away ever so much, and was loved and admired wherever she went. I thought I should like to be loved and admired wherever I went, and have new shoes whenever I wanted them, and I would try singing too. I came here first because the doctor has always been so pleasant to me and so good to us all."
"You have made a real beginning," said the brother-in-law.—"Gustaf, take round the hat."
The doctor's son ran for his cap. There was a chinking and a silver flash as the uncle put his hand into the cap. Something of the same kind happened when it came to the doctor's turn to contribute. The mother fumbled confusedly in her pocket, and found only her handkerchief. The boys tossed in conspicuously some coppers of their own, perhaps with the idea of covering, by their munificence, the evident discomfiture of their mother.
"There! there!" said the uncle. "Hand the cap to the little girl. What is in it is for the singer. As for the shoes, I'll see about that.—I would not advise you, though, little Tora, to try singing to make money. It might do for Jenny Lind, but I hardly think it would suit for you."
The little girl's countenance fell. The friendly stranger went on, "How would you like to be a little schoolmistress? That would be a nice way for you to take care of yourself, and maybe help all at home, by-and-by. I know how that thing is done, and I think we could manage it."
The uncle did know "how that thing was done," and who meant to do it. Little Tora was provided for from that day; and so, if she did not sing like Jenny Lind, she sang herself into being a schoolmistress—a little schoolmistress of the very best order.
FACING THE WORLD.
It was five o'clock in the morning on one of the last days of August. This was no legally-sanctioned Swedish moving-day, and yet it was plain that with somebody a change of residence was in progress.
Before a low house on a winding "cobble-stone" paved street two long, narrow wagons were standing. Their horses faced in different directions, though in all other respects the two establishments were, even to their loading, like a pair of twins. In each was the furniture for one simple room, a sofa-bed being the striking article in the inventory. A carefully-packed basket of china, a few primitive cooking utensils, and some boxes and packages indicated, if not good cheer, at least something to keep soul and body together.
The outer door of the house was locked at last, and the key had been handed to a humble woman, who courtesied and took it as a matter of form; though both parties knew that she would soon be opening that door and coming into lawful possession of all the effects, remnants, and refuse left on the premises, and would be sure to hand that house over to the landlord in a superlatively clean and tidy condition.
Two stout men took their places as drivers, and two passengers stood on the low steps for a few parting words. They were by no means twins. The straight, slight girl, though not tall, yet fully grown, had been the little Tora, the singer of one public performance. Now she had in her pocket her greatest treasure—the paper that pronounced her a fully-fledged schoolmistress; who had completed with honour the prescribed course at the seminary duly authorized for the manufacture of teachers of unimpeachable character, and all pedagogical requisites in perfection.
At Tora's side stood "brother Karl," just about to start for Upsala University, with his arrangements complete for his bachelor housekeeping on the most simple principles.
There was no effusiveness in the parting. "Keep well, Karl, and don't study too hard," said the sister. "And don't have any 'food-days'; I could not bear that. But you must not live too low, and pull yourself down. Send to me if you get to the bottom of your purse. I shall be likely to have a few coppers in mine."
"I'll warrant that, Miss Prudence," was his reply. "Nobody but you would have managed to keep us both comfortably on what was only meant to carry you through the seminary. Don't be afraid for me! I shall clear my own way. I shall teach boys in the evening, and study after they have gone to bed. I have served a good apprenticeship with the doctor's chaps these years. I understand packing lessons into youngsters to be given out in the class next day. Then I am to write an article now and then for the paper here, with Upsala news for the country folks. As to 'food-days,' I am not exactly of your mind. I have made arrangements for one already."
"O Karl! how could you?" said Tora reproachfully.
"Gunner Steelhammer liked well enough to take porridge with us now and then when he was teaching here. His mother has told him to invite me to dine at their house on Sundays, and to call there whenever I feel like it. We are real friends, though he is a university tutor now. Anybody that I would be willing to help I am willing to let help me. Of course, I shall enjoy a good substantial dinner once a week, but I really care more to be with the family at that house. Gunner is a splendid fellow, as you know, and his father draws all kinds of nice people about him, I hear. I did not dare to tell you this before, little sister; but now I have made a clean breast of it. I was half teasing about it, too. Be sure, I'll work hard and live low before I shall let anybody help me. Well, good-bye," and he stretched out his hand to Tora, who took it hastily for a hearty shake, and then they parted.
Karl was wearing his white university cap, which, with the loading of the wagon, marked him as a student on the way to Upsala, and would ensure him many a friendly greeting by the way. Tora had prudently covered the fresh velvet with a fair cotton cover; but the blue-and-yellow rosette was in full sight—a token of the honours he had lately won at his examination, and would be striving to win at the old centre of learning. The kind neighbours whom he had known from boyhood had added to his equipment—here a cheese, and there a pat of butter or a bag of fresh biscuits; but he did not need to open his stores by the way. Now and again from the roadside houses kindly faces smiled on him, and homely fare was offered him by the elders; while flowers or wild berries came to his share from glad children who had been ranging the woods for treasures during these last days of their summer vacation.
As for Tora, sitting in a low chair in the midst of her possessions, she went rattling over the cobble-stones, if not more proud at least more happy of heart than a conqueror of old at the head of a Roman triumph. She had reached the goal towards which she had long been striving. She was now an independent worker, with a profession by which she could earn an honourable living. She was a teacher, "a teacher of the little school"—that is to say, of the school for little children. The state was her sure paymaster. If continued health were granted her, her path for the future was plain—her bread was sure.
The cobble-stones were soon passed, and over the smooth country road rumbled the clumsy vehicle, now through evergreen thickets, now through groves of bright birches, and at last out on the rolling meadows. The fences had disappeared, and but for a lone landmark here and there, the sea of green might have seemed the property of any strong-handed labourer who might choose to call it his own.
Down an unusually steep slope the wagon passed, then across the low meadow with a bright stream threading its midst, and then there was a triumphant sweep up to the little red schoolhouse where Tora was to have her abode and the sphere of her labours.
A low wooded point ran like a promontory out into the meadow, and there "the forefathers of the vale" had built the temple for the spelling-book and the slate.
On the opposite side from the meadow the schoolhouse was entered, after crossing the wide playground. Where "the field for sport" ended at the road there stood a lad, evidently looking out eagerly for the arrival of the new teacher.
"That's a life-member of the little school," said the driver, with a whimsical look. "Nils is not much at books, but he's a powerful singer."
The last words were spoken within the hearing of the frank-faced boy, who now pulled off his cap, and stepped up to the wagon to help Tora down. She shook his hand kindly, and said, "I hear you are a singer, Nils. I am glad of that, for in my certificate I got but a poor record for my singing."
"And 'great A' for everything else, mother said," he answered promptly, while his eyes beamed pleasantly on the new teacher, whose first friendly greeting had won his heart.
"I'll help you down with the heavy things first," said Nils to the driver, "and then if you'll set the rest here, we'll take them in together later. I want to show the schoolhouse to the mistress."
The one room set apart for the home of the teacher did not look dreary as she stepped into it. The table from the schoolroom stood in the centre covered with a white cloth, its edge outlined by bright birch leaves laid on it, loosely and tastefully, like a wreath. Then on a tray covered with a snowy napkin stood a shining coffee-pot, with cups for three, and a light saffron cake that might have sufficed for the whole school assembled.
"Mother thought perhaps you would like a taste of something warm after your ride," said Nils, as he proceeded to pour out a cup of coffee as if he were quite at home. At home he was in a way, for in that schoolhouse he had for years passed his days among the little ones, through a special permit from the school board.
Tora clasped her hands, and stood silent a moment before she tasted the first morsel of food in her new home, and her heart sent up really grateful thoughts to her heavenly Father, who had so blessed her, and would, she was sure, continue to bless her in her new surroundings.
"May I take out a cup to Petter?" asked Nils, while he cut the big cake into generous pieces, and offered the simple entertainment to the teacher. Of course the driver did not refuse the proposed refreshment, nor did Nils hesitate to help himself, while the mistress was taking her coffee and glancing round the premises.
All was fresh and clean about her. The windows had evidently been open since early morning, and the closets and shelves could well afford to be displayed through the doors more than half ajar.
"Thanks, Nils," said the mistress, as she took the boy's hand after the refreshment.
"Thanks and welcome to the new teacher!" was the reply.
"Now I shall go in and look at the schoolroom while Petter and you furnish my room for me. The sofa should stand there, and the bureau there. The rest I can leave to you," said Tora, as she disappeared.
Nils unfolded a strip of rag carpeting and "criss-crossed" it round the room, whispering to himself, "Mother said there were to be no footmarks left behind us."
The schoolroom was but a big, bare room—no maps on the walls, none of the modern aids for instruction, save that the space between the two windows that looked out towards the meadow had been painted, to be used as a blackboard: "a useless, new-fangled notion" the rustics had called this forward step in the way of education.
In front of the blackboard stood a wooden armchair for the teacher. The benches were low, and the desks were of the simplest sort, saving one, which was larger and higher, which the teacher at once understood was the permanent arrangement for Nils. Her heart went out towards the big, kind fellow, on whom so sore a trial had been laid in his youth.
Along one side of the schoolroom there were four horses standing silent, but not "saddled and bridled," as in old nursery stories. Without head or tail, they stood on four sprawling legs—supports for two long, "shallow boxes" that had been in the schoolroom for fifty years or more. Wood was abundant in the old days, and unskilful hands had done the work; so the boxes were but clumsy specimens of carpentry, and deep enough, it seemed, to hold sand for all the long winter through. The grandfathers of the neighbourhood could remember when these receptacles were their writing-desks, in which, stick in hand, they were taught to trace in the smoothed sand their names or any higher efforts of chirography that the teacher might demand. These superannuated articles of furniture were now used in winter as places of deposit for the children's folded outer garments, rather than the cold vestibule. There, too, the dinner-baskets had their rightful quarters.
The room was high, as it went up to the very roof. On the rafters were stored, in cold weather, the stilts for summer, and the bundles of ropes for the swings to be fastened to the tall trees by adventurous Nils, whose friendly hands delighted to send the laughing little ones flying far up into the fresh air like merry fairies. There, too, were the bows and arrows, and all other lawful things for summer sport.
The little schoolmistress took a full survey of her new kingdom, sat for a moment in her chair of state, and noticed a simple footstool put in front of it for her use, as she fancied, by that unknown "mother" who seemed to have her comfort so much at heart.
When the new mistress returned to her own private apartment, the furniture was all in place, the covers were taken from the boxes, and everything was ready for her personal arrangement of her property.
"The school board have had shutters put to the windows," said the driver, pointing to the late improvement. "They thought perhaps the new teacher might be afraid. This is a lonely place."
"Afraid!" said the little schoolmistress, wonderingly; "I am never afraid, night or day."
The driver opened his eyes wide as he answered,—
"The last teacher was as tall as I am, and she always kept a pistol at night by her on a chair, with an apron thrown over it, so the thieves could not find it and shoot her before she had a chance at them. This little mistress must be made of different stuff.—Well, good-bye, miss, and I wish you well."
Tora was about to put in his hand the usual payment for his services, when he shut his broad fist expressively, and then half raised it, as he said,—
"I never took pay for a mistress's things being brought to this schoolhouse yet, and I don't mean to do it now. Folks for the most part seem to like you, but I have a particular feeling. I knew your father once, and he was good to me."
The honest man could say no more just then, and he hurried out of the room. Nils followed with his best bow, but the pleasant words reached his ears,—
"We'll meet soon again. Thanks! thanks to you both.—I think we shall be real friends, Nils, you and I."
That little allusion to her father, coming so suddenly, had almost made Tora break down in the midst of her abounding courage. The past came up in vivid pictures where scenes of sorrow were predominant. Her weak, ever-ailing little baby sister had floated quietly across the dark river. The stricken mother sank, and soon followed her child to the churchyard. The father's hand, that had first guided an editor's pen, and then in his long decline that of a mere copyist, grew weaker and weaker, and finally the last loving pressure was given to his daughter, and then that hand lay still and white. Its work on earth was done, and the brother and sister were left alone. Courageous and loving, they had both struggled on. Her end was attained, but he was at the beginning of the steady conflict before him. How would he bear himself in the battle? If she could only know whether his surroundings would be as pleasant and homelike as her own, and his heart as full of hope and quiet trust! Would he be borne safely through the privations and temptations of his university life? A prayer went silently up to the Father of all for that absent brother, and then the practical little sister was soon deep in the stir of bringing all things to order in her new home. Physical effort brought back the resolute cheerfulness so natural to the little schoolmistress, and she hummed to herself a simple song of long ago, to which she could always hear the buzzing accompaniment of that stranger who had proved to her a faithful, untiring benefactor and friend.
A NARROW ESCAPE.
The winter had been unusually long. For nearly six months the ground had been continually white. Not that it had been clothed by an ever-smooth, fair mantle. The snow had been tossed and whirled by the wild winds till it was fitfully heaped, now in the meadows, and now banked up against the very hill-sides. But for the dark woods as landmarks, the face of the country would have seemed to be utterly changed. The ice-covered streams were hidden away out of sight, and the wide ponds appeared but as smooth pastures.
A path from the little-frequented road had been kept open to the schoolhouse. Week by week this narrow way to the seat of learning had been walled higher and higher, until at last the rustic scholars seemed passing through a stately white marble corridor as they filed along towards the well-known door.
The first days of April had come and gone without a flower-bud to greet them. The weather had suddenly grown soft and mild, and a drizzling rain had been falling all night.
Nils appeared early at school; but the tidy mistress had already cleared away all traces of her modest breakfast, and was ready to bid him welcome more as a visitor than a scholar. They had some pleasant chat together, and then the teacher said seriously, as she laid her hand on the boy's shoulder, "You must try as hard as you can, Nils, to do well, or I am afraid you will not 'go up' this year."
"I do try—I try as hard as I can!" he said. Tears suddenly filled his large eyes as he added, "I am not like other boys, and I know it."
"God knows what you can do, Nils," she said tenderly; "and He will not judge you for what is not your fault. It may be, 'Well done, good and faithful servant!' for you at the last, if you cannot be a great scholar."
Some merry voices at the door put an end to the conversation, and the school was soon going on in its usual routine.
Many weather-wise mothers had kept their children at home, and only eight scholars were in their places, not counting Nils, who occupied in many practical things a middle ground between the little ones and the teacher.
A heavy rain soon began to fall, and pattered cheerily on the roof, to the great delight of the small pupils. Towards noon the schoolmistress was hearing the class read aloud. She sat with her back to the windows, with the light falling on the book she held in her hand; but she did not see a letter. Suddenly she looked up and said, "Nils, please open the right-hand shutter in my room."
The boy obeyed instantly; but in another moment he said quickly, "Please come in here a moment, teacher."
She disappeared immediately, closing the door behind her. Nils pointed to the window with wide-open eyes, and said, "The meadow is all afloat!"
"I know it!" she answered calmly. "I saw it while the children were getting their books for the class. If the pond above breaks over the banks, we may be all swept away in a moment. There is no time to be lost. The children must not be frightened. I have thought just what to do. You can swim, Nils?"
"Yes," was his only answer.
"I can swim too," she said. "If anything goes wrong, we must do what we can for the children." She looked into the clear, calm eyes of the boy, and she knew she could trust him. They returned quietly to the schoolroom. The teacher had hardly taken her seat and closed the book she had held in her hand, when there was a loud crashing sound without, and a heavy thud against the outer door.
"It's all right," said Nils calmly, taking his cue from the teacher. "I put up the bar after the children came in. I supposed this might happen."
"We don't mind the snow falling against the door," said the teacher cheerfully. "We didn't mean to go out that way. We shall go home by boat anyhow. I've thought about that before."
"By boat!" exclaimed the children delightedly, for to them a row or a sail was the most charming thing in the world.
"But where's the boat?" asked a prudent little boy, with a sceptical look in his small countenance. "And where's the water?" he would have added if he had dared.
"Two boats—two boats are here! I see them now!" said the teacher, glancing at the sand-boxes.—"Nils, climb up into the rafters and bring down the oars."
Climbing to the rafters was a familiar exploit of Nils's. With one foot on his desk and his knee to the wall, he swung himself up in a moment.
"Hand down my oars and yours," she said, as she pointed at the stilts; for the little schoolmistress was a leader in the sports of her children, and often enjoyed them as much as they did.
The stilts were duly secured, and then the order followed, "And now the ropes for the launching," and another glance prompted the lowering of the summer swings for their new use.
"Give out the clothes, Nils, and call the names of the children as usual," said the teacher. Those were no dainty little ones, accustomed to be dressed like passive dolls by careful nurses or over-fond mammas. They had but to receive their garments in the daily orderly way, and to put them on as they well knew how. There might sometimes be an obstinate string or button, but Nils was sure to be able to help in any such difficulty, or even to tie a refractory kerchief over the light locks. The children now put on their wrappings mechanically, lost in watching the proceedings of the teacher and her obedient assistant.
The swings were cut in halves and attached to the strong handles of the empty sand-boxes of olden times. "And now we must launch the boats," said the teacher, with the nearest approach she could muster to the manner of a bluff sea-captain.
"Heave ho!" shouted Nils, as he put his strong shoulders to the work of moving the boats, while the mistress held on to the horses.
One by one the boats were put in what Tora deemed proper position, the square prows curiously tilted up to the broad window-seat. Then came the orders—"Climb to the top of the shutter, Nils! Pass that rope round the upper hinge; tie it fast! Now the other rope on the lower hinge. Right! The same with the other ropes—bind them fast to the other shutter-hinges!"
Every order was promptly and skilfully obeyed.
"Nils, are you sure the boats are perfectly watertight?" said the mistress, with, for the first time, a shadow of anxiety in her determined face.
"Tight as a bottle!" was the immediate reply. "We had them filled with water for the last examination, to float the boats the children had made. The ships and such like were here, and the row-boats and canoes in the other."
"I saw them! I saw them all!" exclaimed a little chap, with great delight. "My brother had the prize for his ship, and he made it every bit himself." The eager memories that came to the minds of the children were chatted about with an intensity that made the boats of the moment to be almost for the time forgotten.
Now came the real launching of the boats. With a proper amount of drawing in and letting out and holding fast on the part of Nils and the teacher, the long boxes sat at last on the water like a pair of contented swans.
"Get down into the boat you are to be captain of, and I will hand down the oars for us both. Lay mine across my boat and yours across yours. Your passengers are to come down first. There will be four for each of us."
The little schoolmistress, putting on her coat and fur cap, backed up to one of her little girls, saying, "Put your arms round my neck, and you shall ride to the boat."
Two chubby arms went willingly round the neck of the teacher, as they had done many a time before on a less momentous occasion. So the little one, with her eyes away from the window, was backed up to it, to be lifted down by Nils with a merry shout as he landed the first passenger. The others followed in the same style, and all the eight were cheerily deposited in high good-humour.
"Now I'll come down, too," said the schoolmistress, and she came down the rope as if she were in a gymnasium. She took her place in the centre of her boat, with two delighted children before her and two more behind her.
"Cut loose, Nils! One rope as long as you can, and the other short up to the stern; and then give me your knife, and I'll do the same for mine. Now start, Nils! I'll follow."
The orders were rapidly given and promptly obeyed, and then the little party started across the watery stretch that had taken the place of the meadow.
Nils, with his strong arms, got on rapidly, and his boat was soon far in advance of the other. He neared the bank, plunged in and drew the uncertain little craft to the shore, and then as a sledge up the long slope.
Nils had before decided that he would deposit his passengers in a sheepfold high on the bank, where he had seen in the morning a window left open under the projecting roof to give the poor creatures a little air. He knew that in the corner by the window there was a great bin that had been freshly filled with dried birch branches as food for the sheep. He left the children looking down at the pretty lambs and their mothers, and ran back himself to see what he could do for the rest of the party.
The little mistress was only half-way over, and evidently managing with difficulty her awkward oars in the thick, snow-encumbered water through which she was making her way.
Nils plunged in, swam to her boat, tied the loose rope round his body, and then struck out for the shore, while the oars were plied as well as they could be by the weary hands that held them. His feet had just touched bottom when there was a loud cheer from the top of the hill that sloped down to the meadow. Two great wagons, with a pair of strong horses attached to each, were coming to the rescue of the children.
As horses that were good forders and wagons suited to the purpose were to be selected, some time had been lost in the preparations after the first news of the condition of the meadow had been spread abroad. The question now was how to get the whole party under roof as soon as possible.
The drivers were for putting the children half in one wagon and half in the other; but Nils said in a tone most unusual for him, "All the children must go in one wagon, and you will see them safe home, Petter. We go the other way where the road forks. Of course, I take the mistress home with me. Mother wouldn't forgive me if I let her go anywhere else; and I think I have a kind of right to her too!"
"That you have," said the rough man, with a kind of little quiver round his lips. "You've earned that right, anyhow."
And away Nils and the teacher were borne, while from the other wagon there was a merry "Good-bye! good-bye! good-bye, teacher! good-bye, Nils!" and a hearty shout of "Hurrah for Nils!" from the driver, which came from the very depths of Petter's honest heart.
A HAPPY MORNING.
The home to which the little schoolmistress and Nils were bound had formerly been a wayside inn of most modest pretensions. It was but a one-story red building, with a row of white-framed windows looking out on the road close at hand. There was a storm-house, for stamping off the snow and depositing extra articles of carriage, and for dogs, who, like the Peri, must stand outside the paradise within. Next came one large, cheerful room, which served as kitchen, as well as general place of refreshment and assembly. On one side of this apartment of manifold uses were four small rooms for lodgers, furnished with almost as much simplicity as the prophet's chamber of the Scriptures, save that a plain sofa-bed was added in each, as a possible accommodation for an extra sleeper when there was a throng of guests.
On the death of Nils's father, the widow had resolved to retire into private life, as she was comfortably provided for. Not but that she was willing at times to give a meal or a bed to an old acquaintance; but such inmates must conform to the temperance arrangements of the establishment, for total abstinence was now the rule of the house. The widow had declared that her son should not be brought up with the fumes of spirituous liquors as his natural atmosphere. Perhaps this resolution had been prompted by the suspicion that her husband's life had been shortened by too frequent good meals and too frequent strong potations. Be that as it may, the determined woman had made it known that, now that she was mistress in her own house, she would manage it as she thought best. The tables for guests had been swept away (or rather sold discreetly at private sale) to make room for a spinning-wheel, a loom, and a sewing-machine, by which the prudent woman said she was sure she could add to her substance in a quiet way. "The clicking, the buzzing, and the slamming," she said, were nothing to her, and now she could choose what noises she would have in her ears.
It was not yet time for the usual return of her son from school, but the mother had begun to go to the door to see if Nils could possibly be coming. Perhaps the old habit of looking out occasionally up and down the road, to reconnoitre as to what customers might be expected, had lingered to keep the former hostess now constantly, as it were, on guard. In one of these excursions for inspection she was surprised to see a big wagon drawing up before the door, with the schoolmistress and Nils as passengers.
The driver hastened to tell in an abridged form the story of their experiences, and to hand over his charge, with as many orders that they should be well looked after as if he were the only person interested in the matter.
The doors to the little bedrooms were always kept ajar when unoccupied, that they might be at least not chilly when needed. Two of them were immediately put into requisition. Nils, as in the most desperate case, was stripped and rubbed down, and put into bed at once; and then the little schoolmistress was looked after. She had obeyed orders, and her pale face lay on the pillow when she was visited. The quondam hostess left her suddenly, and soon returned with a hot drink, which she assured the patient would make her "quite natural." To Nils a similar draught was administered, with the command that he should dash it down at once, with "no sipping," and go to sleep afterwards.
"Wasn't that whisky?" exclaimed Nils, in surprise.
"There was a drop in it," owned the mother; adding, "I would give it clear to anybody dying. I am not wild crazy about temperance, boy."
"Do you think I am dying?" said Nils; and then he hastily added, "I should not like to leave you and the schoolmistress; but for anything else I should not mind. Maybe I should be like other folks up there."
"Hush, child! You are not dying, nor likely to be; you are as strong as a bear. A little dip in cold water is not going to hurt you. That stuff has gone to your head and made you melancholy-like and weepish. It does sometimes; it don't generally, though, just in a minute. You go to sleep; and don't let me hear anything from you for one while."
The mother put down the thick paper shade, and set a pin here and there along the edge, to keep out any adventurous rays of light that might be peeping in at the sleeper—"a pin practice" she had sorely complained of when ventured upon by restless lodgers. The same process was gone through in the room where the mistress was lying. The locks and hinges of the doors were carefully oiled, and then the agitated woman sat down to meditate and be thankful. The meditation proved to be of the perambulatory sort, for she peeped into one room and then into the other, noiselessly appearing and retiring. She listened to see if her patients were alive. The schoolmistress lay pale and still; her hands, loosely spread out, dropped on the sheet almost as colourless as itself. But she breathed regularly; that was an ascertained fact. Nils was frequently visited. He gave audible tokens as to how he was enjoying himself. The mother sat down for the fifth or sixth time, as it might be, in the great, quiet room. She did not enter upon any of her favourite branches of home industry; she thought them too noisy for the occasion. She was not a reader. She could but nod a little in her chair, and then make another round of observation.
At last, towards evening, the schoolmistress was fairly awake; and such a dish of porridge as she was obliged to consume! Such a series of inquiries she was subjected to as to her symptoms and sensations as would have done credit to a young medical practitioner examining his first patient, though the questions, in this case, were practically rather than scientifically put, and could actually be understood by the respondent.
To have quiet was all that the little schoolmistress craved, and that she was at last allowed. As for Nils, it was plain that he considered that small apartment his sleeping-car, for which his ticket had been taken for the livelong night.
The schoolmistress rose early. Her room was soon in perfect order. She was reading devoutly in the Bible: that had been an accessory in the arrangement of her room, as of all the other small dormitories, since the hostess "had her way in her own house."
Tora suddenly heard a quick repeated knock at her door. The permission to enter was hardly given when Nils burst in, his face glowing with delight.
"It's all right with me, teacher!" he exclaimed—"it's all right with me! You know that hymn I've tried to learn so many times, and couldn't make out. The first line came into my head yesterday in our troubles—'God is our stronghold and defence;' but I could not get any further."
"Perhaps that was far enough just then, Nils," said Tora. "I thought of that line too myself when I first suspected how matters stood, as I sat there with my book before me."
"But, teacher, I'm all right. This morning I thought I would read that hymn all over, and I did—twice. And then, O teacher, I'm all right, for the whole hymn just repeated itself in my mind as if I had the book before me. I asked mother to hear me, and when she saw I could say it all through without a stumble, she put her arms round my neck and cried and talked about herself dreadfully. She said she had been such a sinner to make prayers and never believe they could come true; and that she hadn't taken any comfort, either, in what the doctor had always been telling her, and that she had thought was awful. He had said that if anything remarkable could happen to me, or any great shock, or even if I had a hard blow on the head, I might come round like other boys. She had felt sure that nothing remarkable could ever happen to me; and as to anybody's giving me a hard knock on the head, she would not have let that happen when she was by. She said she had prayed and worried, and never thought of leaving it all to her heavenly Father, and now she wasn't fit to have such a blessing. I couldn't make her glad about it; but she'll come round, I'm sure, teacher, if you'll just go and talk to her."
The teacher's eyes were full of tears of joy as she took Nils by the hand and said, "You are all right, I really believe. May God bless you, and make you a good and useful man."
The mother was not to be found. She was locked into her own room. There she was pouring out thanksgiving from the depths of her heart now for the first time in her life, understanding that she had indeed a loving heavenly Father, and that even her faithlessness and ingratitude could be forgiven.
It was a happy morning at the wayside inn.
THE PERMANENT PUPIL.
The dear old schoolhouse had been swept away in the destructive flood that followed but ten minutes after the escape of the little schoolmistress with her pupils.
Intense gratitude for the happy deliverance of the children spread through the neighbourhood. A public meeting was called, where the thanks of the community were conveyed by a dignified and most complimentary spokesman, to the blushing confusion of Tora and the astonishment of Nils that he was said to have behaved so remarkably well on the memorable occasion. Of course, the newspapers throughout the country celebrated the praises of the little schoolmistress, and to the meeting in her honour came her friends from far and near. "Brother Karl" and his devoted Gunner made a point of being present, and Tora's buzzing benefactor beamed on the occasion, as if the credit were all his own.
That there must be a new schoolhouse was a self-evident fact. It was built as promptly as possible. The admirable building, with all its modern aids and appurtenances, was not placed on the old site, but crowned the summit of a green hill, where nothing more dangerous than a pouring rain could be expected to disturb its peace and safety.
When the first term in the new and most desirable quarters commenced, it was with a stranger as the teacher. Our little schoolmistress was to spend the winter in the home where she had been so tenderly cared for during the long time of bodily prostration which followed the overstraining of her nervous system at the time of her escape with the children under her care.
Busy with spinning-wheel and loom and sewing-machine, and with her diligent efforts to prepare Nils to enter with honour a higher school than that over which she had presided, the winter passed pleasantly away. Nils's examination surpassed the utmost expectations of his teacher. His sweet, grateful humility in the midst of honour was as touching as his humble submission to the great misfortune which had threatened to overshadow his whole life.
The little schoolmistress took, with the opening spring, the place of a private teacher—a position that she had been strongly urged to fill. Her first scholar was a tall fellow, who was sure he could learn from her in the higher branches much that was important for him to understand.
The second pupil, who came in later on, was a little chap. He did not understand Swedish, nor did he know much in any direction, it was said. But how could he expect a fair estimation of his abilities, when the judges were not at home in his language, nor he in theirs? He, however, improved rapidly, and was soon not only able to speak Swedish, but comprehended many matters so well that he was a great help to the younger pupils who came in by degrees to be taught. He was too, in a way, a teacher for the schoolmistress herself, and had his credentials from the very highest authority.
The class increased as years went on, and was ever a delightful source of interest to the happy instructress. The children did not call her "teacher," or "mistress," or even "Miss Tora;" they said simply "mother," which she thought the sweetest name in the world.
As to the first, the tall scholar, who was what Nils had promised to be, her permanent pupil, he was not always as obedient and submissive as he might have been. Even when he sat opposite to her at the dinner-table, in the presence of stranger guests, he would sometimes, contrary to her express command, tell the story of the great April thaw, and the escape of the little schoolmistress with her pupils. Of course he was rebuked for his misdemeanour; but he only protested against her strict government, and declared that she could never get over "the schoolma'am." Yet he acknowledged she was always teaching him something worth knowing through what she was—the very best woman and the very best Christian he had ever had the pleasure of knowing.
This was, it must be confessed, an inexcusably obstreperous scholar; but Tora would not have exchanged her husband, her Gunner, the fast friend of her promising "brother Karl," for the meekest or the wisest man in the world.
A WEEK AT KULLEBY.
The church at Kulleby was no dear, old-fashioned Swedish church, with its low white stone walls and its high black roof. The bell had no quaintly-formed tower of its own outside and quite separate from the sacred edifice, like an ecclesiastical functionary whose own soul has never entered into the Holy of holies. No; the parish of Kulleby had its pride in a great new wooden sanctuary, with nothing about its exterior, from foundation to belfry, that might not be seen in any Protestant land whatever. Crowning the top of a green hill that rose in the midst of a wide stretch of rolling meadows stood the simple building. To it came on Sunday the rustics of the parish as regularly as they went to their week-day work. Only here and there in the unfenced churchyard rose a low mound to indicate where, as it were, a chance seed had been dropped into "God's acre."
It was Sunday morning. At eight o'clock the bell had sounded out over the green slopes, and even late sleepers were called to put on their best garments, whether church-goers or not church-goers, in honour of the holy day or holiday, as it might happen to be kept in their home. Then came the second ringing, when prudent, far-away worshippers took psalm-book and pocket-handkerchief in hand and started demurely, at a Sunday pace, for the house of God. At a quarter to ten the clergyman had been seen in the dim distance, and the fact was announced by "priest-ringing." At ten came the "assembly-ringing," when talkers in the churchyard must break off in the midst of a half-made bargain, or check the but half-expressed sympathy with the joy or sorrow of some fellow-rustic with whom there had been a confidential chat.
Within, the church was all white, with here and there a gilded line like a bright, holy purpose running through a simple everyday life. There was a fresh, pure air about the place, as if even angels might have gathered there in their fair garments. The worshippers, however, on the women's side were all in black—black dresses, and black kerchiefs over the heads, like solemn, mourning penitents rather than followers of the Psalmist who could say, "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord." There were two exceptions to this sombre rule.
The seats facing each other on opposite sides of the chancel were unoccupied, save by a tall young woman and a little girl, who now hurriedly took their places, and in a formal, perfunctory manner put down their heads for a supposed private prayer for a blessing on this opportunity of public worship. They very soon rose up mechanically, and looked about them with the curious eyes of strangers.
The little girl, nipped, and it seemed almost blasted, by gales of prosperity, showed a fair, round face, full and soft, and satisfied with its worldly portion. The mouth, although it looked as if it had tasted the good things of life, was sweet and loving. Her companion was tall and strongly built, and somewhat gaily dressed in garments made in every particular according to the latest fashion. Two long ostrich feathers lazily lolled on the broad brim of her hat, as much at home as if they had never known any other abode; and her new kid gloves fitted her large hands to perfection—a fact of which it was plain she was conscious.
The clergyman was coming in, with the long black folds which were his authorized substitute for a gown hanging from the nape of his neck to the floor. In one hand he carried in full sight a white handkerchief, held in one corner like a drooping banner of peace.
There was suddenly a counter object of attention for the gay worshippers in the side pew. A little woman in black came hurrying up the aisle and entered the seat before them. She put down on the narrow shelf her prayer-book and a tumbled red handkerchief, and then bowed her head. Suddenly, in the midst of her devotions, she hastily withdrew the offending radical handkerchief, and substituted in its place a heavy linen one, so closely pressed, as if by mangling, that it lay by the psalm-book as uncompromisingly stiff as itself.
A smile passed over the features of the little girl, and she looked up into the face of her companion for sympathy. Instead of the responsive glance she expected, she saw an expression of pain which she was puzzled to understand.
The service went on. The sermon was long and tiresome, to judge from the impulsive movement of relief on the part of the little girl when all was at last over. She was well satisfied when her companion went down the aisle at an unusually rapid pace. The rustics generally lingered to hear when there was to be an auction, what letters were to be distributed, and other announcements by which a scattered congregation, rarely meeting through the week, might be made aware of matters secular and parochial which it was important for them to know.
The butterfly worshippers had, as it were, flown away when the mass of the congregation streamed out from the door. Long, narrow black lines stretched off in every direction as over the well-trodden paths the cottagers plodded away to their homes after this the periodical great event, recreation, and social gathering of their hard-working lives.
Alone the little woman in black took her way. Her goal was on the long rocky ridge that bounded the eastern horizon like a transplanted bit of the Jura. There was no path for her to follow, but she made her way over the meadows with the sure instinct of the swallow winging its flight to its winter home. He who careth for the birds would surely care for her. It was plain she was one of the humble of the earth in every sense of the word. Her black head kerchief was old and worn, and her clumsily-fitting, coarse cloth "sacque" stood out below her waist as if it were of sheet iron, while her spare skirts fell below it like a drooping flower-bell from its open calyx above. She was not thinking of her clothes. Her heart was warbling a song of thanksgiving.
AT THE PASTOR'S.
Monday morning had come, with work for the workers and pleasure for the pleasure-seekers. The curate at Kulleby was one of the workers, and yet Monday, instead of Sunday, was really his day of rest. His last sermon having been delivered, fairly given over to his hearers to be digested, the new one was not to be begun before Tuesday. There must be one day in the week in which to draw a free breath before the real labour of his life was to be recommenced. The introduction to the discourse once mastered, as the first link, he added day by day to the lengthening chain—a perpetual wearying weight to him, and, it might be supposed, to become so for his hearers.
This would be a mistake. Had the curate preached in Hebrew or Greek, the reverent faces would have been respectfully turned towards him, with the honest conviction that somehow or other the listeners were undergoing a helpful and uplifting process through what the curate was pleased to say to them. He was reverenced and beloved, as he well deserved to be, and was to his people the bearer of good tidings—the messenger of peace. He was the message to them, through what he was and what he was striving to be, and not through those painfully-produced sermons.
Now for the morning he had dropped the pastor, and was simply the family father.
The humble home of the curate was separated from the public road by a great grass plot, through which a wide walk went straight, without a curve or a compromise, from the gate to the foot of the high wooden steps that led to the ever-open door.
The Saturday evening rake-marks were on the loose sand of the path, for the family had on Sunday, though in their holiday garments, used the side gate that led to the entrance at the back of the house. The garden was large and well cared for. Now the weekly weeding was going on, the father sitting like a general at a distance from the battle, but in constant communication with the soldiers in full fight in the cause of order, fruitfulness, and prosperity. The four small boys who were working so busily were not under strict military discipline, for free conversation was allowed so long as the hands continued as busy as the tongues.
The curate sat on a roughly-made but comfortable garden sofa, and was knitting on a strong stocking in sweet composure. A gay-coloured parallelogram stared out from the grass beside him; for there, covered with a patchwork quilt, lay, in a great basket, the baby, the little girl, the pride of the household, fast asleep. So the curate could not be said to be exactly idle, though he was taking a delicious morning rest. His wife meanwhile—a large-hearted, practical woman—was making all things comfortable in the house, with the help of her efficient aide-de-camp, an orphan girl snatched from the influences of the poorhouse. Where a specially strong arm was required, the curate himself was at all times to be relied upon. He was not only a hewer of wood, but often a bearer of wood as well as of water. He was, too, an embodied guild of all mechanical trades, and might have been warranted to use skilfully at a pinch any tools whatever.
The curate gave a start as the click of the front gate was heard, and almost impatiently wondered who could be coming.
A tall young woman walked rapidly along the rake-marked walk, and dotted it at regular intervals with the distinct portrait of the soles of her strong and well-made boots.
She went up the steps decidedly, and entered the house without knocking, as any ordinary visitor might have done. In a moment more she appeared in the garden, with the curate's wife at her side. He stood up and bowed awkwardly, and then looked inquiringly at the new-comer. He recognized at once in her the stranger who had sat near the chancel the day before, though her dress was somewhat different from her Sunday attire. She wore a black sailor hat, from which she had that morning removed the uplifted wings that threatened to take the whole head-gear upward, and had left only the broad, bright band that wound round it. She wore a short, dark travelling dress that well displayed her new boots. The visitor did not wait for the curate to speak, but said quickly, "I will only detain you a moment. Can you tell me where widow Marget Erikson lives, the old woman who sat in front, on the side benches, in the church yesterday?"
"Marget Erikson? Her I know very well, but it is not so easy to tell where she lives," answered the curate, with at the same time an inquiring glance at the stranger. A look of intelligence came into his face, and he said: "It is not—it cannot be! no," and he turned to the group of small boys, now all standing, some of them weeds in hand, wonderingly regarding the stranger. "Here, Kael," said the father, singling out a fair-haired, intelligent-looking little fellow, "you can show the young lady the way to widow Marget Erikson's." Again there was a scrutinizing, questioning look on the part of the pastor.
A slight flush tinged the cheek of the stranger. She was turning away with her guide, when the boy said hastily, "Where's the basket, mamma?"
"There'll be no basket to-day," she answered, almost with a smile. "You can take Marget this instead from me," and she picked from her favourite bush a large, half-open rosebud, with a long stem and rich, shining leaves.
The boy could hardly understand the love-prompted courtesy that would not send to the widow what might to a stranger seem like alms, but which really was but the sharing of what one poor Christian had with a poorer.
The guide trotted off with his bare feet across the meadow, where a little path showed that he was not the first to find a direct way from the parsonage to the widow's cottage.
"Well, wife? well, Anna?" said the pastor, and looked inquiringly into the face of his best-beloved, as he generally did when he was in doubt or difficulty. It was a face that any one might have been pleased to look upon. It had in it the bright cheeriness of a child, and at the same time dignity and a wisdom in this world's matters, as well as "the wisdom that cometh from above." He received no answer, and so said himself: "She was in church yesterday when you were at little Fia's death-bed. I could hardly help thinking of you and the child when I was in the midst of my sermon. The miller told me afterwards that 'miss' and the little girl were with Possessionaten something, a traveller who had stopped at the inn by the cross-road."
There was a sudden end put to the conversation by a loud cry from the baby, which swept all other expressions from the face of the pastor's wife, where at once mother love was triumphant.
A STRANGE MEETING.
Across meadows, over ditches, and at last up rather a steep ascent wound the way to Widow Erikson's cottage. The path had grown rough and narrow, but the barefooted boy went over it as lightly and as unharmed as if he had been a happy bird. The boots, however, of his companion seemed a tight fit for climbing, and at last a straggling bramble that crossed the way turned up two little black points, like doors, to show the way to the untanned leather behind the bright polish. The traveller stopped, and smoothed them down in vain with her finger; the mischief was done. "This is an ugly, disagreeable path," she exclaimed, "and a long one too."
"Maybe," said the boy; "but summer and winter Widow Erikson comes down here all alone. I don't believe she'd miss the service if you'd give her a bucket of red apples." The boy had evidently named his ultimatum in the way of temptation. "There's the cottage," he added, pointing to a small, reddish-brown building far up the ascent.
"Give me the flower," said the stranger; "I will tell her who sent it. You go back now. You've shown me the way; I don't need you any longer. Thanks! Thank your mother too. Here!" and she laid in the boy's hand a bit of silver that made his face shine. He bowed in his best style, which did not disturb his backbone, but brought his chin down till it touched his breast. He had taken off his cap for the performance, and his white hair fluttered in the breeze as he watched his late companion making her way up to the cottage alone. All was right, he was sure, and down he ran as fast as his feet could carry him. The precious silver was stored in the depths of his pocket, and with it he bought in imagination all sorts of treasures before he reached home to tell the success of his errand.
The traveller moved slowly as the path grew more steep, and finally walked doubtfully on as she approached the cottage. There were three or four low steps leading to the door, and there some kind of an animal seemed making a vain attempt to go up. As the stranger drew nearer she saw that a small woman with a short, dark skirt was bowed over, evidently washing the steps, with her back towards the path and her unexpected guest. A noise near her made the figure stand upright and turn its face towards the new-comer. One sight of the visitor prompted a series of bobbing courtesies, a wondering look in the old sun-browned face, and a folding back into a triangular form of the wet sackcloth apron, which was truly not in a presentable condition. The old woman was the first to speak. "Good-day, miss—good-day!" and then there was a look of astonished inquiry.
"The pastor's wife sent you this," said the girl, holding out the beautiful rosebud she had taken from the boy.
"So like her!" said the old woman, lovingly. "She's just like that herself! God bless her! Thank her for me, please—thank her for me!" and the thin, work-distorted, wrinkled hand was hastily wiped on the apron, and then stretched out to take that of the stranger for the usual expression of gratitude. "Thank you, miss, for bringing it," continued the old woman, with another questioning look at her guest. "Do you know her—do you know the curate's wife? It's likely you don't live hereabouts." The cut of the stranger's clothes was not in vogue at Kulleby.
"Don't you know me?" said the young woman, in a low voice.
"No, miss!" was the answer, with another courtesy.
"Don't you know me, mother?" was the question that followed, while the fair face flushed with the effort those words had cost the speaker.
"It can't be my Karin!" was the exclamation. There was another period of courtesying, and a long look of almost unbelieving surprise. There was no move to take this changed daughter by the hand, nor was there any such action on the part of the girl.
"I was stopping at the inn with Possessionaten Bilberg and his little daughter, the one I have taken care of so long. I found out you were in this neighbourhood, and so I got some one to show me the way to where you were living." She did not say that she had seen her mother at church, nor would she have liked to own, even to herself, that she was now repulsed by the appearance and manners of one to whom she was bound by the strongest of ties.
"Come in," said the old woman, courtesying as to a stranger. "It's a poor place, but you are welcome."
A poor place it was indeed, and Karin with her belongings looked there like a transplanted flower from a far country. They who had once been so near to each other seemed now to have almost no common ground on which to meet.
"I did not know how you had it, mother," said Karin at last. She had been silenced by her first view of the poor room.
"It is worse than it was in Norrland, when you went away, so long ago. Your brother Erik came home, and was wild-like, as he always was. He pulled himself down, and was sick a long while, and then he died. There was the funeral, and the doctor, and all that; and there was not much left, for of course I couldn't do a turn of work while I was nursing him."
"Just like him, to take all you had!" said the daughter, indignant.
The old woman did not seem to notice the angry exclamation. A sudden light made beautiful the old face as she said: "He came round at the last, and almost like an angel. It did me good to hear him talk. I didn't mind anything when he had come round. I am sure he went to heaven when he died. He was my only boy, and I loved him!" she continued, as if she were speaking to a stranger; and then suddenly remembering who her visitor was, she added: "You would not have known him for the same. 'Tell Karin,' he said to me—'tell her she must forgive me. Tell her to remember she'll need to have her sins forgiven some time. There's only one way.' He said so!" and there was another courtesy of apology that she was talking so to that strange young lady who said she was her daughter.
"Oh dear!" said Karin, looking at her watch, "I must go now. Possessionaten and his little girl were out for a drive, and I did not leave any word at the inn where I was going. I will come soon again. Don't feel hard to me about Erik or anything. Remember I did not know how you had it. They wrote me there was a cottage somewhere you could live in free, and I thought you were getting on pretty well."
"Yes, I have the cottage free. The curate's wife comes from the north. He married up there, and they came to visit her folks. She heard about me, for she was there when Erik died. She knew about this cottage, and nothing would do but I must come down with them; and so I did. You can't think how kind they have been to me. I've done a power of knitting since I have been here. She sees that somebody buys my stockings. But you must go. Come again," said the old woman, in strange confusion between her daughter that was ten years ago and this strange young lady who had condescended to look in upon her.
They parted without even a shake of the hand. The old woman stood at the door and watched the tall girl hurrying down the path, and felt almost as if she had been in a troubled dream.
Possessionaten Bilberg was subject to transient indispositions on Sunday morning. The symptoms that had prevented his being at the church service the day before seemed to have disappeared entirely on Monday. He came home from his drive with his daughter in unusually good spirits; and as for little Elsa, she was quite delighted. She had had a nice play with some charming children, and there was a baby in the house, which she had really been allowed to carry in her own willing arms. Karin's overshadowed countenance passed unnoticed in the general stir that followed the return of the father and daughter. They had been invited to spend several days at the hospitable country home where they had been so warmly welcomed. It had been urged that while Elsa was happy with playmates of her own age, Possessionaten could see many things in the neighbourhood that might be suggestive to him, interested as he was in agriculture and manufactures. Planning and packing took all the afternoon, and towards evening the carriage was at the door, and Elsa and her father were to take their departure.
"I was afraid you would be lonely, Karin, and sorry we are going away; but you don't seem to mind it at all," said the little girl, in an injured tone.
"So you want me to be sorrowful," answered Karin, trying to be playful.
"No, no! but I thought you would miss me, and I was glad when papa said you could keep on sleeping in my nice room, and be as comfortable as anybody."
There was a little condescension in the tone, though it was affectionate; but Karin did not notice it, for she was accustomed to Elsa's airs and graces. Karin really drew a sigh of relief when the carriage drove away and she was left to herself. It was not a pleasant evening that she spent, filled with the thronging reminiscences of the past and a full realization of her own shortcomings. To-morrow she would make another visit to her mother, and try to be more frank and affectionate.
The morning came, and Karin was busy clearing all traces of a traveller's comfort from the capacious bag that Elsa had been allowed to give her for the journey. It really would hold a great deal, and filled it was to the uttermost at the country shop to which Karin easily found her way; tea, sugar, and tempting articles of diet, which she hoped her mother would enjoy. It was heavy, but Karin rather liked to feel the pain in her arm, from bearing her unusual burden. She easily found her way along the upward path, and exhilarated by the exercise and the pleasure she was about to give, she entered the cottage in a very cheerful frame of mind. All was silent within.
In the box sofa-bed of the single room there was some one lying, pale and still. "She is dead!" was the first wild thought of distress; but a sweet, broken voice murmured something about Erik and heaven. It was plain that the old woman was wandering in mind, and lost in visions of the past.
Karin unpacked her basket in a hurry. There were the preparations of the night before for the fire and the boiling of the water for the morning meal, to be simple indeed. Yet there was a packed basket, "the basket" no doubt from the parsonage. She did not unpack it, though it seemed filled with food. She made some tea in haste, and took it with a biscuit to her mother's side. She put the cup on a chair near her, and sitting down on the edge of the bed, she lifted up the old woman, passing one strong arm about the little body. There was gentleness and kindness in the touch. The old head was voluntarily drooped caressingly against the breast of her daughter; there was a long sigh, and Karin knew she was motherless. Repentant, sorrowing tears flowed fast. There was no opportunity left for reparation in this world. That loving last movement towards her was the only pleasant thought on which Karin could dwell.
How still it was in the cottage! The birches without scarcely quivered in the soft summer air, and not even the twitter of a bird was to be heard.
Karin had just gently laid the old head on the pillow, when a form, almost to her as of an angel, suddenly appeared at the door. It was the pastor's wife, her face beaming with the tender interest she was feeling for the lone dweller in the cottage. She understood the whole as she saw Karin's streaming tears, and the changed old face beside her.
"My mother is dead!" said Karin simply, but in a broken voice.
"I am glad she saw her good daughter before she died," said the pastor's wife comfortingly.
"I am no good daughter!" exclaimed Karin bitterly. It was a relief to confess her selfishness, her forgetfulness of her mother, in the midst of her own comfortable surroundings, and her cold willingness to believe that all was well with that old woman, who she had supposed was still in the far north.
The pastor's wife listened in silence. She had no words of comfort to say. Here was a case beyond her treatment. She did not kneel, but she clasped her hands and sat quite still, while she laid Karin's sorrow and penitence before the dear Lord Jesus, so ready to forgive, and to heal the broken, repentant heart. When she had closed the prayer with a fervent "Amen!" which seemed to be the sealing of her petitions to the One strong to save, she turned to Karin and said, "I will go down and send a person to watch her, and then you must go with me to our home; for I have heard that you were left at the inn. You cannot be there now." She felt that it would be best for Karin to be for a time alone. She had brought her to the heavenly Presence, and she left her there to commune with the pitiful Father in heaven.
KARIN AND ELSA.
There was a new, low mound in the churchyard. Kind young hands from the curate's had covered it with evergreen boughs, and sprinkled among them bright flowers, so that it seemed but a slight swell in the green sweep around it dotted with daisies.
Karin had begun a new phase in her life. She had something to love and respect which had no taint of this present world and the worldliness reigning therein. She had entered humbly and heartily into the simple life at the curate's home, where she had been so lovingly welcomed.
That thin man, with the angular, loosely-built figure, with a speaking expression of poverty about it; that man whose shabby Sunday coat had not a button-hole that did not publicly tell of privately-done repairs by his wife's untailor-like hand; that man whose very hair was scanty, and was changing colour—she looked up to him as if he had been a prince. And so he was; for he had a Father who was King over all the nations of the earth, who loved him as a son, and received from that son the happy, truthful affection of a true child.
That woman who went about in the simplest of garments, and shunned no form of labour that made the home more comfortable or attractive, had become to Karin a model of all that was pure and lovely and lovable. The baby, who fell much to her care, seemed to have a healing influence on her wounded, humbled, penitent heart. It had for her its artless smile, and its little arms went out to her as trustfully as if she had never strayed from the narrow path. Karin had a new standard in life, a new picture of what she wished to be, a new way of estimating her fellow-creatures.
Karin was glad that circumstances made it necessary for her to lay down in the depths of her capacious trunk the gay garments that had been her pride. There had been no dressmaking, no consulting of milliner or modiste. Like most Swedish girls, she had a black dress; she had but to put a crape band over her sailor-hat, and let the short crape veil fall over her solemnized face, and her mourning suit was for the present complete.
This time, this precious time, went away all too rapidly, but it swept from Karin the impressions of years, and strengthened in her, day by day, the new purposes and the new hopes that had sprung up in the midst of her humiliation and distress.
From the cottage in the woods the daughter had but taken away her mother's "psalm-book" in its close-fitting black cotton case, her worn Bible, and the carefully-folded white handkerchief that lay under them. In the corner of the handkerchief a large K had been embroidered by unskilful hands. Karin knew it as one of her own early trophies, that had been given to her mother in pride when she had received it as a reward for skill shown in the sewing-class at school. This little remembrance of her had been treasured and prized while she was living in selfish forgetfulness of the poor old woman far away. Repentant tears had fallen on the humble memento.
On the morning of the day when Possessionaten Bilberg and his daughter were expected, the curate's wife went with Karin to the inn.
The parting between them was full of grateful expression on the one side, and of tender interest and kind advice on the other. They were never to meet again on earth, but they had a common Father in heaven above, in whose presence they trusted one day to be united.
Karin was, of course, on the steps of the inn to receive her charge. It was not unusual for Karin to wear sometimes a black dress, and Elsa, in her pleasure at the meeting and her eagerness to tell her late experiences, did not notice anything particularly serious in the face of the maid. When, however, they were alone together, she looked up suddenly, and saw that Karin's eyes were full of tears as she was struggling to speak of what had befallen her.
"What is it? what is the matter?" asked Elsa affrightedly.
"My mother is dead! I have lost my mother!" said Karin simply.
Elsa cast her arms around Karin's neck in an unusual fit of demonstrative affection, and wept with her. "O Karin, what will you do? How you must have loved her! How sorry you must be! I have thought a great deal about a mother since I have been away. I have always missed something, and felt that I was different from other little girls, but I did not really understand what it was. I have had everything I wanted, and papa has been so kind, and you too, Karin, but there was something. Where I have been the children did so love their mamma, and she made it so charming for them, and she had such a sweet way with them;" and here the little girl sobbed, more, it must be owned, from thinking of what she had missed in her life than from sympathy for Karin, and yet they were drawn nearer together than ever before.
The stir of the arrival of Possessionaten Bilberg and his daughter had passed away from about the inn, and stillness reigned around on every side, on the wide meadows in front, and on the long, low, rocky ridge beyond them. Possessionaten Bilberg was smoking a cigar in the wide porch, and quietly thinking. Elsa had flown down to tell him of Karin's trouble, and now he greeted the trusted maid almost with respect as she came to him to ask some questions about their approaching departure.
He got up stiffly and took Karin by the hand, as he said simply, "I am sorry to hear that you have had trouble. Your mother was old, I daresay," he added, as he dropped her hand.
"Yes, old and feeble," was the reply.
Karin waited a moment, and then began to speak of the journey.
"Yes; it will be this evening," he said, and his face wore a most peculiar expression, as if some struggle was going on within him.
At last he began: "I have had time to see more of Elsa than usual, and when she was with young companions. There is something about her as if her pleasure were the most important thing to everybody, and she rather thought nobody was quite equal to herself."
It is possible that these peculiarities had become Elsa's by inheritance, as her father was not without his own tendencies in that direction—a fact of which he was naturally unconscious.
He went on: "You have been a good girl, Karin, and I am pleased with you. Elsa needs now some one who has a right to take her more steadily in hand."
There was a pause, and the tears sprang to Karin's eyes. Was she to be dismissed, when she felt almost as much at home in her master's house as his daughter herself?
"Yes, you have been a good girl, Karin, and you deserve your reward. You never ought to leave my home. What Elsa needs, though, is a mother's care. She needs one who with a mother's name will have a strong right to her respect and her affection."
He paused a moment. Karin, not knowing what else to do, dropped a courtesy, and waited for him to go on. He got up, blushed, took a few steps on the piazza, and then turned and said abruptly: "I am going to be married, and I want you to tell Elsa about it. Tell her that it is the lady whom the children called 'aunty' there in the country—their mother's sister. She is willing to marry me. I never thought to get such a good wife." And Possessionaten Bilberg looked humble, for perhaps the first time in his life.
"She is not like me in many things," he continued, as if pleased with his subject. "She is pious—something I don't quite understand, but it makes me sure she will be a good mother to Elsa. I really believe she would hardly have taken me if she had not longed to get my child under her care," said Possessionaten, with another unwonted attack of humility. "Please tell Elsa at once," he said, and sat down again, to indicate that the interview was over.
In a few moments Elsa came flying along the piazza, and surprised her father by taking a seat on his knee and putting her arms round his neck. "Papa! papa!" she said, "how could you think of doing anything that would please me so much?"
"Your own mother loved her, Elsa, and so I am sure she is the right kind of a woman, and that you will be happy together."
Possessionaten had spoken in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and Elsa went upstairs in a less ecstatic mood than when she came down, and told Karin calmly that her father seemed pleased that she liked having a new mother.
Christmas Eve had come. There had been joy in the curate's home—carols and prayer around the lighted tree, the distribution of simple gifts, and the consumption of any amount of rice porridge. Even the grave pastor had grown playful as the evening went on. This had prompted one of the boys to exclaim that he was the very best father in the world—a comprehensive assertion that was approved by all parties present. The power to cast off care and even serious thought for a time, and frolic with children, was one of the secrets of the curate's personal power. In his sacred capacity he was above and apart from all; as a father or a friend he was near and familiarly dear to all, even to the youngest in his household and the humblest of his people.
Now he gave a start, and there was a look of astonishment all round the family as there was the sound of heavy cart-wheels grinding along over the sand under the parsonage windows.
In another moment there was a steady tramping on the side steps, then through the passage to the dining-room, where the family were assembled.
Four strong men were bearing a huge box, and now entered, much embarrassed at being unable to take off their caps in the presence of the pastor, but their deep voices pronounced a "Good Yule!" and their thick, soft caps went off in a hurry when they had deposited their heavy burden. "We were to open it, pastor," they said, and they forthwith produced their tools from the slouching pockets of their strong coats. The pastor's wife disappeared instantly, thinking, as usual, of others more than of herself; for she, too, would have liked a peep into the box when the thick boards had been thrown up and the packed stores were first visible. She had, however, what pleased her better—some hot coffee, a cake of saffron bread, and the remains of the porridge on the table in the kitchen when the last nail had been drawn out. The men disappeared, grinning with satisfaction; while the wondering children superintended, with occasional wild dances and leaps of delight, the unfolding of the secrets of the wonderful box.
A prosperous "possessionat" who had learned that the chief joy of possession is the power of giving had sent household stores on a munificent scale. A happy wife, accustomed to see her own husband always dressed as for a holiday, having a full remembrance of the pastor's outer man, and of his wife's forgetfulness of herself, had sent for him a full black suit, and for his wife a handsome dark dress, as well as a warm fur cape. A little girl, who had learned to remember that there were other people beside herself to be thought of in the world, had selected books and toys for the children. The orphan girl had not been forgotten. She looked with astonishment at the substantial winter coat that had been marked with her name, and wondered who could have thought of her. There was still a beautiful, closely-woven white basket, with a firm handle, at one side of the box. It was lifted out and opened. There were all sorts of things—potted, canned, dried, and preserved, to make, with good bread and butter, a nice evening meal for an unexpected guest; a most welcome present in a family where hospitality never failed, and yet the larder was often scantily provided. At the bottom of the basket lay a card, on which was written, "From a humble friend, in remembrance of 'the basket.'"
The tears rushed to the eyes of the curate and his wife, and their hands met, while their thoughts were with the little old cottage saint now in heaven, and a prayer was sent up for the daughter that she might continue to walk in the ways of peace.
"O mamma, what a good basket to keep all your mending in!" said one of the boys.
"Just what I will do," said the mother; "I shall like to have it always near me."
"Do put on your new suit, papa," urged the children. He vanished into his room close at hand, and soon reappeared transformed into a new and complete edition of his old self, as it were, in a fine fresh binding.
The suit was not a perfect fit, but hung less loosely about him than his wonted best garments, made long, long ago.
The pastor playfully walked up and down the room with a consequential air, to the great amusement of the children. "You will wear your new suit to-morrow!" they exclaimed, one after another, as in the refrain of a song.
"On New-Year's Day, perhaps," said the father. "For to-morrow I like my old suit best; for we are to remember then how the loving Lord of all humbled Himself to be the Babe of Bethlehem."
There were a few words of prayer and thanksgiving, and then the family, with a kiss all round, parted for the night.
Perchance the angels who sang again the Christmas song, "On earth peace, good will toward men," lingered over the curate's home with a kindred feeling for him; for was he not, too, a messenger, sent "to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation"?
A FOOLISH RESOLVE.
Tall, handsome, and young; that one saw at a single glance. The age of the lad it was not easy to determine. The mind wavered between sixteen and nineteen, but sixteen it really was. It was no true Swedish face, yet such faces are often found among the fair children of the North. The boy had a clear, dark complexion, and his waving hair was intensely black. His nose was decided, but there was a weakness about the small mouth that seemed quite inconsistent with the fiery glance of the full brown eyes.
It was late, yet he was sitting looking steadily before him, while his thoughts were evidently wandering. "So they want me to promise, and so they want me to live?" he said at last. "I cannot make promises I do not mean to keep. I can do many things, but I cannot take a false position as to what I intend to be." He stood up and straightened his whole person with an admiring self-respect as he spoke.
He would not be compelled by public opinion to do that for which he was not inclined! He was old enough to choose for himself, and choose he would! He would not be confirmed! He would not assume obligations contrary to his wishes, and make professions he did not honestly mean! There seemed to him to be in this something noble, something determined, something manly, and he pleasantly reflected upon his righteous independence.
The confirmation was appointed for the morrow. He had seen the slender, swift horse that was to be his—a gift from his father. He knew a gold watch was lying in his mother's drawer, to be one of his many presents to commemorate the important occasion. The guests were invited for the splendid dinner his parents were to give in his honour. He would be expected to appear in one of the stylish new suits provided for him as now a fully-grown young gentleman. He would be toasted, complimented, and, in short, the hero of the day in that beautiful home. He knew that his mother had retired early. She was doubtless praying for him then, and would be on the morrow. She, at least, would expect him to keep his promises. She should know that he would not disgrace her by a false oath.
His pocket-book was well filled by a munificent present from his grand-uncle in America. He could go where he pleased. He took out a small, light trunk from one of his closets, and it was soon packed with his new garments and a few specially dear personal valuables. There were no books but the pocket Bible, in which his mother had so lately written his name. For her sake he would take it with him, and for her sake he would open it at least for five minutes every day.
Stealthily he crept down the staircase and through the broad halls, dropped from a low window, and was soon in the open air. There was a light still in the stable-boy's room, and he would so have help for the harnessing of the horse, and an opportunity to leave a parting message for his mother.
He moved slowly and silently. He looked in through the small panes, and could see the boy bending over a book. He tapped gently. There was a start, and the door was opened in a moment.
"I am going to town, Lars," he said, "and I want your help. Get up the spring wagon as soon as you can."
The stable-boy looked suspiciously at his young master, and at the small trunk he had set down beside him. "Where is Master Alf going?" asked the boy anxiously. "Anything dreadful happened? Won't you be here for the confirmation?"
"No; it's that that sends me away," was the answer. "I can't even seem to make promises I don't intend to keep. I mean to be an honourable gentleman, and I shall not begin that way. Come, hurry!"
"But stop, Master Alf! Why don't you make the promises and try to keep them?" said the stable-boy.
"I suppose that is what you mean to do—eh?" said the young gentleman scornfully.
"It would be my duty any way to live right," was the answer. "I can't see that the promises make any difference. I ought to live right, I know, and I mean to try. It won't be easy. That's all I understand about it." The round, dull face of the boy expressed clear determination, and he looked his young master full in the eyes as he spoke. "Perhaps you've made up your mind to go wrong!" he added, with a doubtful look at his companion.
"Do as I bid you, and get up the horse at once!" said Alf, in a commanding tone. "Tell my mother what I have said to you, and tell her, too, I have taken with me the Bible she gave me, and I'll read in it a bit every day for her sake. I believe in keeping promises. As for you, you'll find the team at the usual stable; you must go in early to-morrow for it."
"Where are you going, Master Alf?" urged the boy. "I'm afraid it's clean out to the bad!"
"That's none of your business! You don't know how a gentleman feels about a promise," was the answer.
"My father is here for the confirmation. He talked to me about that matter last night," persisted Lars. "He said when people were married they promised they would be good to each other, but that was their duty any way, if they were man and wife, promise or no promise. About confirmation, he said that was a good old custom that it was well to follow, but any way when boys get to our age they've got to make up their minds what sort of men they mean to be, and start clear and determined on the right track, or else they'll be sure, as the world is, to go to the bad. He said, too, we'd better be in a hurry, and have that fixed, for there was no saying how long even young folks would live. Young folks might be broken off right sudden, like a green branch in a high wind. I do wish you, Master Alf, could hear my father talk about this thing."
"I've heard you talk; that's quite enough of the family for me!" said Alf impatiently. "Attend to your business at once, will you, or I shall have to harness the horse myself."
"I wish my father was here, I do!" murmured Lars to himself, as he most unwillingly obeyed.
"That's for your sermon," said Alf, as he took the reins in his hand, and tossed a bit of silver to the serious, stolid-faced boy who was looking so sorrowfully at him.
As Alf said his last words to Lars, he wished in his heart that he had the stable-boy's full, simple determination to do right whatever it might cost him. The veil of self-contentment had fallen from Alf's eyes. His motives for what he was now doing stood out plainly before him. It was true that he did not wish to pledge himself openly to a life he did not intend to lead, but it was also true that it had long been his cherished wish to be free from the restraints of home, and able to yield to any and all the temptations that assailed him. He was voluntarily giving himself up to an evil, reckless life, and he knew it.
AFTER THIRTY YEARS.
The slender birches were sunning their mottled stems in the warm spring air; the evergreen woods rose dark and mysterious; while the glad little spruces that skirted the thickets were nourishing soft buds on every twig, little caring that they would in time be as gloomy and solemn as the grand old veterans of the forest behind them.