THE SONG OF THE BLOOD-RED FLOWER
From the Finnish. Original Title: "Laulu Tulipunaisesta Kukasta" First Published in 1920.
THE FAIRY OF THE FOREST
A MOTHER'S EYES
FATHER AND SON
THE FIRST SNOWFALL
THE SONG OF THE BLOOD-RED FLOWER
WATER-SPRITE AND WATER-WITCH
THE CAMP-FIRE AT NEITOKALLIO
TO THE DREGS
BY THE ROADSIDE
THE HOUSE BUILDING
WAYS THAT MEET
THE BROKEN STRING
THE BRIDAL CHAMBER
OUT OF THE PAST
THE FAIRY OF THE FOREST
The setting sun shone on the wooded slopes of the hill. He clasped the nearest trees in a burning embrace, offered his hand to those farther off, and gave to them all a sparkling smile.
There was joy on the hillside.
The summer wind told fairy tales from the south. Told of the trees there, how tall they are, how dense the forests, and the earth, how it steams in the heat. How the people are dark as shadows, and their eyes flashing with light. And all the trees in the wood strained their ears to listen.
The cuckoo perched in the red-blossomed pine, near the reddest cluster of all. "It may be as lovely as lovely can be," cuckooed he, "but nowhere does the heart throb with delight as in Finland forests in spring, and nowhere is such music in the air."
All the hillside nodded approvingly.
In a little glade half-way down the slope some newly-felled firs lay tumbled this way and that—their red-blossomed tops were trembling still.
On one of the stems a youth was seated.
He was tall and slender, as the trees he had just felled. His hat swung on a twig, coat and waistcoat were hung on a withered branch. His strong brown chest showed behind the white of the open shirt; the upturned sleeves bared his powerful, sunburnt arms. He sat leaning forward, looking at his right arm, bending and stretching it, watching the muscles swell and the sinews tighten under the skin.
The young man laughed.
He caught up his axe, held it straight out at arm's length, and flourished it gaily.
"Twenty-five down already, and the axe as light as ever!"
The cuckoo called. The young man looked toward the top of the hill. "A wonderful spring," he thought. "Never have the trees flowered so blood-red and bright, nor the brook sung so merrily, nor the cuckoo called so near. 'T would be no surprise to see the wood-sprite herself come out from the trees."
He rested his head in his hands.
"Some say they never come nowadays, but Grandfather, he's seen them himself. They're grown shy, now that the woods are being cleared."
"Come, strawberry blossom, Come, raspberry blossom, Come, little cows, It is late."
The sound came from the other side of the hill, like a tinkle of silver bells on a lonely winter road.
The young man's heart beat faster. He started up, and turned towards the sound, holding his breath to listen. But he heard nothing more, save the heavy throbbing in his breast.
He took a few steps forward and stopped. "Will she come this way, or...."
"Come, summer star, Come, little cows, Hurry home."
It seemed quite close now, just beyond the ridge.
"Coming—she is coming this way!" He hurried on again, but, startled at his own impatience, stopped once more, stepped back, and stood with his eyes fixed on the crest of the hill.
Something golden shone through the trees, something that fluttered in the wind. Below the gold a white blouse, a slender waist, and then a blue skirt.
"The fairy of the forest!"
The girl was standing on the hilltop. She shaded her eyes, and began walking toward the farther slope. What now? He was on the point of racing after her, then jumped on to a tree stem, and put his hands to his mouth as if to shout. Suddenly he dropped his hands and stood irresolute. Then he jumped down, picked up his axe, mounted the stem again, and looked at the girl intently.
"Wait till she gets to the big fir yonder; then if she doesn't look round, I'll give one blow of the axe and see if she'll hear."
The girl walked on—the axe was raised....
"Come, summer star...."
She turned round, and caught sight of him, started, and stopped, blushing as she stood.
He sprang down and hastened toward the girl.
She too came nearer.
"You here? And never said a word! How you frightened me!"
"I was just going to call when you turned round."
They shook hands, heartily, as comrades.
"Look!" he cried eagerly; "isn't it just like a palace all round—the castle of Tapio, and I'm the lord of the castle, and you're the forest fairy, come to visit me. And your clothes smell of the pine woods, and there's a scent of birch in your hair, and you come playing on a shepherd's pipe, music sweet as honey...."
The girl looked up in astonishment. "What—what makes you talk like that?"
He stopped in some perplexity. "'Tis the forest talks so. But now you must come in—right in to the palace."
They went through to the middle of the clearing.
"And have you felled all those, all by yourself?" She cast a warm glance at his sunburnt neck and powerful shoulders. "How strong you are!"
The boy stepped on more briskly.
"There! Now we're in the palace. And here's the seat of honour—isn't it fine? And here's a bench at the side—but a guest must always have the seat of honour."
"And what about the master of the house?" asked the girl, with a laugh.
"He'll sit on the bench, of course."
They smiled at each other.
"And see, it's decked out all ready, with sprays of green and red fir blossoms."
"Yes, indeed—a real palace. It's two years now since we had a talk together, and now to meet in a palace...!"
"We've not seen much of each other, it's true," said he, with a ring of remembrance in his voice. "And we used to be together whole summers in the old days. Do you remember how you were mistress of the house, with twenty-five milch cows in the shed, and as many sheep as Jacob at the end of his last year's service?"
"Yes, yes, I remember." Her blue eyes sparkled, and the two young people's laughter echoed over the hillside.
The forest woke from his dreams, and stopped to listen to the tale of the children at play.
"And how we played snowballs on the way home from school? And your hair was all full of snow, and I took it down—do you remember?—and did it up again in the middle of the road."
"Yes, and did it all wrong; and the others laughed."
The trees winked at one another as if they had never beard such talk before.
"And the confirmation classes after!" said the girl warmly. "Oh, I shall never forget that time—the lovely summer days, and the shady birches near the church...."
The trees nodded. The house with a cross on top—all they had heard of it was the bell that rang there, and the big firs had wondered what it was. Now here were human beings themselves telling what went on inside.
"And you've grown up to a great big girl since then! It seems so strange—as if you were the same and not the same."
"And you!" The gentle warmth of a woodland summer played in the girl's blue eyes. "A tall, big woodcutter you've grown."
They were silent for a while.
The trees listened breathlessly.
A warm flood rose in the young man's breast—like a summer wave washing the sands of an untrodden shore.
The girl's kerchief had fallen from her head. He picked it up and gave it to her. Through the thin stuff their fingers touched; the youth felt a thrill in every limb. Suddenly he grasped her hands, his eyes gazing ardently into hers.
"Annikki!" he whispered. He could find no words for the tumult in his veins. "Annikki!" he gasped again, entreatingly.
A faint flush had risen to her cheeks, but her glance met his calmly and frankly. She pressed his hand in answer.
"More than anyone else in all the world?" he asked passionately.
She pressed his hand again, more warmly still.
He was filled with joy, yet somehow uneasy and confused. He wanted to say something—warm, fervent words. Or do something—throw himself at her feet and clasp her knees—anything. But he dared not.
Then his eyes fell on one of the treetops close by He slipped one hand free, and broke off a cluster of blood-red flowers.
"Take them—will you? In memory of how you came to the castle—to Tapiosborg."
"Olofsborg," she laughed.
The word broke the spell. They looked at each other, and again their laughter rang through the woods.
He drew closer to her side, and tried to fasten the red flowers at her breast. But as he bent down, his hair touched hers. He felt it first as a soft, secret caress, hardly daring to believe it, then it was like a burning current through his body, that stayed tingling like fire in his veins. His breath seemed to choke him, his heart felt as if it would burst. Passionately he threw his arms about her and held her close.
The girl blushed. She made no resistance, but hid her troubled face against his shoulder.
He pressed her closer. Through her thin blouse he could feel her blood burning against his breast. He felt his senses going, a painful weakness seemed to stifle him, as if only a violent movement could give him breath. Feverishly he clenched his left hand, that was round her waist; with his right beneath her chin he raised her head.
"Annikki!" he whispered, his lips still nearer. "Only one...."
She drew away, shaking her head, and looked at him reproachfully.
"How can you ask? You know—you know it wouldn't be right."
"Then you don't care for me, as you said!" he cried passionately, as if accusing her of faithlessness.
The girl burst into tears, her slight shoulders quivering. The cluster of flowers fell to the ground.
"My flowers ..." she cried.
A flush of shame burned in the young man's cheek. As if stricken powerless, his hands loosed their hold, and he set the girl down by his side.
She was trembling still. He gazed at her helplessly, as one who has done wrong without intent.
"Annikki!" he said imploringly. "Forgive me, Annikki. I don't know what made me do it. If you only knew how sorry I am."
The girl looked up, smiling through her tears. "I know—I know you would never try to hurt me."
"And you'll be just the same now—as if nothing had happened—will you?"
He took her hand, and his eyes sought hers. And trustingly she gave him both.
"May I put them there again?" he asked shyly, picking up the flowers from the ground.
The girl laughed; the blossom laughed.
"And then I must go—mother is waiting."
They rose to their feet, and he fastened the blossoms at her breast.
"How good you are!" he said, with a sense of unspeakable joy and thankfulness.
"And you too.... Good-bye, Olof."
He stood in the clearing, watching her as she went, till the last glimpse of her had vanished between the trees.
She turned round once, and the red flowers in her white blouse burned like the glow of the setting sun on a white cloud.
"I'll fell no more to-day," said the youth, and sat down on a fallen tree, with his head in his hands.
"My love is like a strawberry sweet, Strawberry sweet, strawberry sweet. I'll dance with her when next we meet, Next we meet, next we meet!"
The song came as a welcome from the playing-fields of the village as Olof climbed the hill; it lightened his step, forcing him to keep time.
Even the trees around seemed waving to the tune; the girls' thin summer dresses fluttered, and here and there gay ribbons in their hair.
"Come in the ring, Olof, come in the ring!"
Some of the girls broke the chain, and offered their hands.
There was Sunday merriment in the air, and all were intoxicated with spring. The stream flowed glittering through the fields, with a shimmer of heat above. The dancers quickened their pace almost to a run. The lads had pushed their hats back, the sweat stood in beads on their foreheads; the girls smiled with bright eyes, dimpled cheeks a-quiver, and heaving breast.
"My love is like a cranberry fair, A cranberry fair, a cranberry fair. For none but me she'll ever care, She'll ever care, and ever care."
"Oh, it's too hot—let's try another game!" cried one.
"Let's play last man out—that gives you time to breathe."
"Yes—yes. Here's my partner!"
The chain broke up, and the new game began.
"And I'm last man—go on. We'll soon find another. Last man out!"
They raced away on either side, the last man between. It was the very place for this game, a gentle slope every way. The last man had no easy task, for the couples agreed, and tried hard to join again.
"Full speed, that's the way!" cried the lookers-on. And the last man put on the pace, rushed towards the meeting-point like a whirlwind, and reached it in time. The girl swung round and dashed off to the left, but made too short a turn, and was caught.
The game went on, growing fast and furious. All were in high spirits, ready to laugh at the slightest thing; every little unexpected turn and twist was greeted with shouts of glee.
Olof was last man now. He stood ready in front of the row, glancing to either side.
"Last pair off'!"
The last two were ill-matched; a big broad-shouldered ditcher, and a little slender girl of barely seventeen.
The man lumbered off in a wide curve, the girl shot away like a weasel, almost straight ahead, her red bodice like a streak of flame and her short plait straight out ahead.
"That's it—that's the way!" cried the rest.
The girl ran straight ahead at first, Olof hardly gaining on her at all. Then she tried a zigzag across the grass. Olof took short cuts, increasing his pace, and was almost at her heels.
"Now, now!" cried the others behind.
The girl gave a swift glance round, saw her pursuer already stretching out his hand, and broke away suddenly to one side.
Olof slipped, and went down full length on the grass.
The girl's eyes twinkled mischievously, and a shout of laughter came from the rest.
Olof would have been furious, but he paid no heed to the laughter now, having just at that moment noticed something else. The girl's glance as she turned—heavens, what eyes! And he had never noticed her before....
He sprang up like a rocket and continued the pursuit.
The broad-shouldered partner was making hopeless efforts from the other side of the course. "Don't waste your breath!" cried the men. "He's got her now."
The big fellow stopped, and waited calmly for the end.
But it was not over yet. Olof was gaining steadily on the girl; turn which way she pleased, he would have her now.
She saw the danger, and turned to rush down the slope. But, in turning, one of her shoes came loose, and was flung high in air.
A shout of delight went up from the playground in the rear.
The girl stopped, at a loss now what to do. Olof, too, forgot the pursuit, and stood watching the shoe; then suddenly he sprang forward and caught it in the air as it fell.
A fresh burst of applause came from the lookers-on. "Bravo, bravo, that's the way!"
"Go on, go on! Never mind about the shoe!" cried some of the girls, to urge her on.
She dashed off again, Olof after her with the shoe in his hand.
The chase was worth looking at now; no ordinary game this, but a contest, with victory or defeat at stake. The spectators were wild with excitement, taking sides for one or other of the two.
The girl shot this way and that, like a shuttle in a loom, her slender body gracefully bent, her head thrown back defiantly. Her plait had come loose, and the hair streamed out behind her like a tawny mane. A glimpse of a red stocking showed now and again beneath her dress.
For Olof, too, it had ceased to be a game. She was no longer one of a couple he had to part, but a creature fie must tame—a young wild foal with sparkling eyes and golden mane.
They reached the edge of the course; only a few feet now between them.
At last! thought Olof, holding himself in readiness for her next turn up the slope.
But again she turned off downward. And as she wheeled about, Olof again was aware of something he had not marked before—the curve of her hips, her lithe, supple waist, and the splendid poise of her head. He was so close now that her hair touched his face—touched it, or was it only the air as it flew past his cheek? And from her eyes shot beams of light, challenging, beckoning, urging him on.
Gazelle! The word flashed into his mind—a picture from some book he had once read. The eyes, the lightfoot swiftness—yes, a gazelle. He shouted the word aloud, victoriously, as he raced after her like one possessed.
She sprang aside, and darted up a little hill just beyond the course.
"Look, look!" cried the rest. It was like running down a hare.
A glimpse of a red stocking up on the crest of the mound, and the hunted creature vanished on the farther side, the hunter after her.
The final heat was but short. The girl was wearying already, and had made for the shelter of the hill on purpose to avoid being caught in sight of the rest. Olof tore madly down the slope. The girl gave one glance round, turned vaguely with an instinct of defence; next moment she felt Olof's two hands grasping her waist.
"You—gazelle!" he shouted triumphantly. But the pace was too hot for a sudden stop; they lost their balance, and came down together, breast to breast and eye to eye, rolling over on the slope.
It was all like a dream to Olof—he hardly knew what had happened. Only that the girl was lying there across his breast, with her loosened hair streaming over his face. It was like a caress in payment for his exertions, and it almost stifled him. Still holding her, he looked into her flushed face, into her wonderful eyes—Gazelle! He felt like sinking off to sleep, to dream it over again, the charm and wonder of it all....
"Oh, but come! The others...."
They looked at each other in confusion, and loosed their hold, but were still so agitated they could hardly rise. Olof handed her the shoe.
"Quick—put it on, and we'll go back."
She put on her shoe, but stood still, as if unable to move.
Olof flushed angrily. He was vexed at his own confusion, and with the girl as well.
"Come!" he said commandingly, and gave her his hand. "We must run."
Shouts of applause greeted them as they appeared hand in hand in sight of the rest.
As they came up, Olof felt his senses in a whirl once more, and clenched his teeth in an effort to appear unconcerned.
"Well run, well run!" cried the others.
"Ha ha, Olof, you got the shoe, and the owner, too—but it's made you fine and red."
"Enough to make anyone red," gasped Olof shortly.
"Now, on again! Last man out...."
"No, no—don't spoil it now. We shan't get another run like that."
"Yes, that's enough for to-day." Olof's eyes shone, and he stole a glance at the gazelle.
"But we must have a dance before we go," cried the girls.
"A dance, then."
"What do they mean, the two little stars, That shine in the sky so clearly? That a boy and a girl, a youth and a maid, They love each other dearly."
"'Tis a pretty song," thought Olof, and pressed the girl's hand unconsciously, and she did not loose her hold. Then someone led Olof into the ring.
"What do they mean, the four little stars, That shine so bright in the sky? That I give my hand to my own true love, And bid the rest good-bye."
"I've never given a thought to the words before," thought Olof again, and offered his hand to Gazelle.
"What do they mean, the bright little stars, That shine and sparkle above? That hope and longing are part of life, And the rest of life is love."
"All very well," said someone, with a laugh, "but we must be getting home. Some of us have a long way to go."
"Don't break up the party. We'll all go together. One more round first—the last."
"Never shall I leave my love, Never shall we part. Rocks may fall, and trees may fall, And the dark sea come and cover all, But never shall we part."
"Well, we must part some time—you can cry if you like. Good-bye, good-bye."
And they shook hands all round.
Olof turned toward the girls, where they stood in a group, but was checked by a glance from two deep, honest blue eyes—the fairy of the forest! Her glance was clear and serene as before, but there was something in it that pierced him like a steel. He felt suddenly guilty, and turned pale. He could not move, but stood there fixed by the glance of those blue eyes.
He could not stand there like that. He raised his head to look at the fairy girl, but his glance turned aside, and met another's eyes. These two looked at him, questioning, wondering. And they sent forth such a stream of clear and sparkling light that all else seemed to vanish, and the blood rushed to his cheeks.
"Good-night." He raised his hat to the girls, and turned his back.
The party broke up, all going their several ways.
"Never shall I leave my love, Never shall we part...."
Some of the young men had crossed the stream already, and were singing as they went. Olof walked up the hill towards his home.
"Never shall we part...."
—he took up the words half aloud, and his face was set in a strange expression of resolution and eager, almost fierce, delight.
A MOTHER'S EYES
The warm, soft twilight of a spring night filled the room. And all was still.
"Oh, I have waited for you so!" whispered the girl, flinging her arms round her lover's neck. "I was so afraid you would not come—that something might have happened...."
"And what could happen, and who could keep me from coming to you? But I could not come before—I don't know what it was made mother stay up so late to-night."
"Do you think she ..." began the girl. But a passionate kiss closed her lips.
"If you only knew how I have been longing for you," said he. "All day I've been waiting for the evening to come. I've thought of nothing else since I first looked into your eyes—Gazelle!"
"Do you mean it, Olof?" She nestled closer to him as she spoke.
"And do you know what I was thinking as I walked behind the plough? I wanted you to be a tiny flower, to put in my breast, so I could see you all the time. Or a sweet apple I could keep in my pocket and fondle secretly—talk to you and play with you and no one ever to know."
"How prettily you talk, Olof!"
"If anyone had told me, I would never have believed love was like this. It's all so strange. Do you know, I want to...."
"Yes? Tell me!"
"Crush you to death—like this!"
"Oh, if I could die like that—now, now...."
"No, no—but to crush you slowly, in a long, long kiss."
The twilight quivered in the room. And all was still.
A sound, a creaking noise as of a door in the next room opening.
Two heads were raised from the pillow, two hearts stopped beating.
Again—and more distinctly now—as if someone moved.
He sat up; the girl grasped his hand in fear.
They could hear it plainly now—footsteps, coming nearer. Heavily, hesitatingly, as if not knowing whether to go on or turn back.
Olof was petrified. It was all unreal as a dream, and yet—he knew that step—would know it among a thousand.
"I must go!" He pressed the girl's hand fiercely, and reached hurriedly for his hat. He groped his way toward the door, found the handle, but had not strength to open it.
He strove to pull himself together. He must go—for the sake of the girl who lay trembling there in bed, and more for the sake of her who stood in the room beyond. The door opened and closed again.
An old woman stood there waiting. Motionless as a statue, her wrinkled features set, her eyes full of a pain and bitterness that crushed him like a burden.
For a while neither moved. The woman's face seemed to fade away into the gloom, but the look in her eyes was there still. A sudden tremor, and Olof saw no more, but felt a warm flood welling from beneath his eyelids.
Without a word she turned, and went down the steps. Olof followed her.
With bowed head, and arms hanging loosely at her side, she walked on. The last brief hour seemed to have aged her beyond all knowing.
He felt a violent impulse to run forward and throw himself on his knees in the dust before her. But he dared not, and his feet refused their service.
They came to Kankaala.
The porch seemed glowering at them like a questioning eye as they came up. Olof started, and the blood rushed to his head.
"Who comes here?" queried the porch. "'Tis the mistress of Koskela, or should be. And who is it walks behind, hanging his head? Surely not her son?"
"Ay, 'tis her son, never fear," said the broad window above, grinning all the length of the wall. "The son of the house been seeing his light-o'-love, and his mother brings him home!"
"H'm," said the porch. "'Twas not that mother's way to go seeking her sons, nor ever need of it before."
Olof's head dropped again.
Heavily the old woman trudged up Seppala hill.
"Who's this out and abroad so late?" creaked the wooden pail in its chain above the well. "Mother and son? And what's the mischief now?"
Olof felt the ground quaking beneath his feet.
They were nearly home now. Musti the house-dog came to meet them, wagging his tail in friendly wise. But suddenly it checked, and crouched anxiously in the grass.
"What's mistress all so sorrowful about? And where have you been so late at night?"
Olof turned his head aside, and walked by as if fearing to tread.
They reached the steps.
"What's this, what's this?" buzzed the vane on its pole by the fence. Olof had made it himself one day, as a boy. It said no more, only muttered again, "What's this?"
The old woman mounted the steps. She said no word, nor ever looked behind her, but Olof followed her step by step. His own room was at the side of the house, by the kitchen, but he went on after her without a thought of escape.
She passed through the front room into the next, crossed to the window, and sank down in a chair. Olof followed close behind her, and stood, hat in hand.
There was a long silence.
"I never thought to go on such an errand as this to-night," said the woman heavily. She did not look at him; her eyes seemed fixed on something far away.
The boy's knees trembled, he could hardly stand.
"Shame—ay, 'twas shame I felt for you when you were born, old as I was, and never thinking to have more. Mayhap 'twas a sign you'd bring but shame to me after and all...." The words fell heavy as lead, and brought him to his knees.
"Mother!" He could say no more, but hid his face in her lap, and cried like a child.
A great warmth rose in the mother's breast and throbbed in her veins.
"Mother, I promise—you shall never go that way again for me. And ... and...."
He broke off.
The warmth rose to her eyes, seeking an outlet there.
"And...?" she asked gently. "What then, my son?"
The young man's brow was deeply lined, as he strove to speak. Then resolutely he looked up and said, "I will marry her."
"Marry her?" An icy wave came over her, and she gasped for breath.
"Olof," she went on in a trembling voice, "look at me. Have you—has anything happened already?" Breathlessly she waited for his answer.
"No," said the boy, and looked her frankly in the eyes. "But I love her."
The mother's hands trembled, and she sighed. But for a long while she said no word, only sat looking as before out into vague distance, as if seeking what to say.
"Ay," she said at last, "'tis right to marry where you love, and no other. But a servant-girl—there's none of our race ever married that way before. And as for love—you're over young to know."
Olof flushed angrily, and he would have spoken, but the noble dignity of his mother's glance checked the thought ere it was uttered.
"Go now," she said gently. "We will talk of this another time."
FATHER AND SON
The early meal was over, and the farm hands pressed out through the door.
"You, Olof, stay behind," said the master of Koskela from his seat at the head of the table. "I've a word to say to you."
Olof felt his cheeks tingling. He knew what his father had to say—he had been waiting for this.
The three were alone now—his mother stood by the stove. "Sit down," said the father coldly, from his place.
Olof obeyed. For a while nothing was heard but the slow beat of the clock on the wall.
"I know where your mother was last night. Are you not ashamed?"
Olof bowed his head.
"'Tis a sound thrashing you should have—and don't be too sure but that you'll have it yet."
Olof did not venture to look up, but the voice told that his father was working himself into a passion.
"What's to come of you, hey, d'you think? Getting the wenches with child to begin with—and what next?"
"Father!" It was his mother's voice. Her face was anxious, as if in dread of coming disaster.
A glance of cold anger was all her husband's answer. He turned to the boy once more, and went on:
"What next, hey? Bring home the brats for us to feed, maybe? Is it that's in your mind?"
A flush of indignation spread over the young man's face. Was this his father, speaking to him thus? Or some brutal stranger that had taken his place?
And all at once a rush of feeling took possession of him, something new and fierce and strange, filling him altogether. He raised his head, as if to speak, but said no word, only rose up, as if someone had taken him by the hand, and walked towards the door.
"Where are you going—what?"
"I've my work to do."
"He! You—you...." The words were flung at him like a hand reaching for his throat. "Not a step till you've answered me, d'you hear! Was it that was in your mind?"
The young man hesitated. But a little time since he had felt himself bowed down with shame, ready to make any reparation; now, in a moment, all seemed changed, he felt he must hit back, must strike one blow for all that had been growing and seething within him in secret these last few days. He turned swiftly, and answered proudly and resolutely, with lifted head:
"No! But to marry her—that was in my mind."
The old man's features set in a scornful sneer at the word. But the look on his son's face made him hesitate, uncertain how to proceed.
"Marry her?" He bent forward in his seat, as if doubting whether he had heard aright.
"Yes!" came the answer, more firmly than before.
And having spoken, Olof felt he must avenge the insult to himself and to the girl, must strike once more with the weapon he had seen could bite so keenly and so deep.
"And marry her I will!" The words fell like the snap of a lock.
"Boy—you dare!" It was the roar of a wounded beast. Furiously the old man sprang to the door, snatching up a stick as he rose, seized the boy by the collar, and flung him to his knees on the floor, making the beams shake. It was all done in a moment. "You dare!" he cried again, raising his stick.
Then suddenly his arm dropped as if broken, and the old man was hurled across the room as a ball is thrown, to fall with a crash against the opposite wall.
It was as if a hurricane had burst upon him. A sense of horror came upon him; he felt himself deposed, like a lord of the manor declared bankrupt before his underlings. He had no power over the boy now—either as a father or as the stronger man. And there by the door stood the lad, with the lithe strength of youth in his body and a fire of defiance in his eyes.
The clock on the wall beat through the silence, as if questioning earnestly what this might mean. But no one answered.
"So—that's it, is it?" gasped the father at last. "Ay!" answered the son, his voice trembling with emotion, but threatening still.
The old man flung his stick in a corner, stepped back, and sat down heavily in his place.
"If you've a drop of my blood in your veins," he said at last, "you'll need no telling what must be the end of this."
"I know it," was the answer. "I'm going, never fear."
The mother pressed her clasped hands tighter, took a step forward and opened her lips as if to speak, but the look on the two men's faces silenced her, and she fell back in the voiceless blank of unaccomplished purpose.
Again the clock was heard.
"I'd thought to make something of you," said the old man in icy tones. "But you'd no fancy for book-learning and gentlefolks' ways, though you'd a good head enough. Rather stick to the land, you would, and flung away the books after a year of them. But a man that looks to work his land as it should be—he's books of his own, or what's the same—and that you must fling away now the same gait, it seems—to waste yourself in a common strumpet's bed!"
The young man drew himself up, and his eyes flashed fire.
"Leave it unsaid!" cried his father. "'Tis best so." Then rising from his seat, he stood a moment as if in thought, and passed through the open door to the next room, opened a cupboard there and took something out.
"No son of mine goes out from this house a beggar," said he proudly, and held out his hand.
"You can put the money back," said the boy, with no less pride.
"'Tis but poor provision for a journey, anyway, if a man can't manage for himself," he added, turning away.
His father stood still, looking at him earnestly, as if trying to read something.
"'Tis no harm to a man to manage for himself if he can," said he slowly. He spoke in no angry tone, but with a stern approval.
The boy stood thinking for a moment.
His father did not answer, but stared fixedly before him, and his eyes hardened.
His mother had seated herself on a bench beside the window, her face turned away, looking out—and warm drops fell on the sill.
The young man moved towards her slowly, as if questioning. She turned towards him, and their eyes met—then they passed out of the room together.
The old man remained seated, a sharp pain at his breast. A flush of anger rose to his cheeks, and his lips trembled, but he could not speak, and sat still, staring at the floor.
In the next room, the mother turned anxiously to her son, and grasped his hand. "Olof!"
"Mother!" The boy was trembling. And fearing to lose control of his feelings, he went on hastily: "Mother, I know, I know. Don't say any more."
But she took both his hands in hers, and looked earnestly into his eyes.
"I must say it—I couldn't before. Olof—you are your father's son, and 'tis not your way, either of you, to care much what you do—if it's building or breaking." And with intense earnestness, as if concentrating all her being in her eyes and voice, she went on: "Never deceive, Olof; stand by your promise and word to all—whatever their station."
The boy pressed her hands with emotion, almost in fear, unable to speak a word.
"God keep you safe from harm, my son." The mother's voice broke. "Don't forget this is your home. Come back when, when...."
The boy pressed her hands once more, and turned hastily away. He must go now, if he would have the strength to go at all.
The clouds raced over the night sky; the riverbanks gazed at the flowing water, at the heavy timber floating slowly over its surface. "Let it come!" cried the long stretch of wild rapids below.
Under the lee of a steep bank, just at the point where the eddy begins, flickered a small camp-fire. The lumbermen sat round it—four of them there were. The boom had just been drawn aside, the baulks from above came floating down in clean rows, needing no helping hand, and for the past two hours there had been no block in the river. The lumbermen were having an easy time to-night.
"The farmer he sleeps in a cosy cot, With a roof above his head; The lumberman lies out under the stars, With the dew to soften his bed. But we'd not change our life so free For all the farmer's gold, Let clodhoppers snore at their ease o'nights, But we be lumbermen bold!"
The river woke from its dreams.
The river-guard, seated on piles of baulks by the waterside, shifted a little.
"But we be lumbermen bold!"
cried the nearest. And the song was passed on from one point to another, from shore to shore, all down the rapids, to the gangs below.
Then all was silent again, for midnight loves not song, though it does demand a call from man to man through the dark. It loves better to listen, while the river tells of the dread sea-monster that yearly craves a human life, whether grown or child, but always a life a year.
All things solemn and still now. The moon sits quiet as if in church, and jesting dies on the roughest lips. Many call to mind things seen at such a time—a man drawn down by an invisible grasp, to rise no more, a widow wringing her hands and wailing, fatherless children crying and sobbing. Some there are who have seen the marks of the water-spirits on a drowned man's body, or maybe seen the thing itself rise up at midnight, furrowing the water with a gleam of light where it moves. Whose turn next? None can say, but the danger is never far off.
The little camp-fire flickered, the roar of the rapids grew fainter. The moon sits listening to the legends of the river, and gazing down into the water.
Suddenly a great shout is heard from below. The men start up.
"Lock in, lock in! Close the boom!" comes the cry.
A murmur of relief from the men. Wakened abruptly from the spell of the hour, they had taken the hail at first for a cry of distress. They race up, lifting their poles above their heads as a sign the fairway is blocked, and the word of command, "Lock in, lock in!" is flung from man to man along the bank.
"Lock in it is!" cries the man at the head, and runs from the camp-fire down to the waterside. The rope is slipped, the end of the boom hauled close up to the shore and made fast again.
"'Twill hold a bit," says one. "But like to be a long spell for us all—for there's none'll care to get far out on the block to-night, if it lasts. Let's go down and see."
The party made their way down the path by the edge of the bank.
As the last of the timber comes down, the guards by the rapids join them, one after another. "Where'll it be?"
"Down below somewhere, must be. If only it's not the Whirlstone again."
"Ay, if it's that.... 'Tis no light work to get loose there in the daytime, let alone by night."
The Whirlstone Rock it was; the baulks had gathered about it in an inextricable mass. The shores were dark with men gathered to watch.
"Ay, 'tis there, sure enough, and fast as nails," said the men coming in to the shore, after a vain attempt at breaking loose the block.
The Whirlstone was a point of rock, rising barely a yard above the surface of the water, at the lower end of the rapids, where the river began to widen out and clear. It lay rather to the right of the fairway, and the timber floated clear, for the most part, to the left of it. But a long stem bringing up against it broadside on would be checked, and others packing against it form a fan-shaped mass reaching from bank to bank. And it was a dangerous business to try and break it, for the point of contact was at the rock itself out in the river, and there was no time to reach the bank once the timber started to spread. The usual way was to get out a boat from below, and even then, it was a race for life to get clear before the loosened mass came roaring down.
The foreman swore aloud. "I'll have that cursed rock out of the fairway next summer, if I have to splinter it. Well, there's nothing for it now; get your coffee, lads, and wait till it's light."
"Let's have a look at it first," cried a young, brisk voice in the crowd. "Maybe we could get it clear."
"There's no clearing that in the dark," said the foreman. "Try, if you like."
The young man sprang out on to the nearest point of the block, and leaped across actively, with lifted pole, to the middle. Reaching there, he bent down to see how the jam was fixed.
"Hallo!" came a hail from the rock. "It's easy enough. There's just one stick here holding it up—a cut of the axe'll clear it."
"Ho!" cried the men ashore. "And who's to cut it loose, out there in the dark and all?"
"Get a rope and haul it clear!" shouted the foreman.
"No use—can't be done that way."
The young man came ashore. "Mind if I lose the axe?" he asked the foreman.
"Lose a dozen and welcome, if you can get it clear. Better than losing two hours' work for fifteen men."
"Right. Give me an axe, somebody."
"'Tis fooling with death," cried one in the crowd. "Don't let him go."
"How d'you reckon to get back?" asked the foreman.
"Upstream at first, and come down after, when it clears."
"'Tis a mad trick," muttered the men.
"I'm not telling him to go, but I won't forbid him," said the foreman, with emphasis. "And if 'twas any other man I'd not let him try, but when Olof says he'll do a thing it's safe enough to be done. Sure you can do it, lad?"
"Sure as can be. Where's the axe?"
He took the axe, and his pole, and balanced his way across to the rock, gliding like a shadow, up and down as the piled stems led.
"He's pluck enough," said one.
"He's mad to try it," murmured some of the others sullenly.
The shadow had reached the rock. He laid the pole down at his feet, gave one glance upstream, and stood ready. The axe-head flashed in the air, the echo of the stroke rang from the steep banks. A second blow, and a third—and then dead silence for a moment.
The men on the shore stood bending forward, straining their eyes to see.
The shadow by the rock stood up, grasping his pole, thrust the point lightly into one of the tangled baulks, and pressed with his left hand against the haft. The right hand went up once more, the axe flashed and fell. A thud as the blade came down, and a faint rushing sound....
The men on the bank held their breath and leaned forward again.
The shadow turned once more and cast a long, searching glance up the stream. The right arm swung high, the axe flashed again....
A shrill, seething roar, like that of a rocket, was heard. The mass of timber crashed and groaned, the water thundered like a beast in fury.
The shadow darted like an arrow over the shifting logs, slanting upstream and towards the shore. He was half across the fairway now, the pole swung round, the lithe body made a lightning turn, and he was borne downstream at a furious pace.
Suddenly he lost his footing, fell, and disappeared.
"Good God!" cried the men.
"What did I say?"
"I ought never to have let him go!"
The timber crashed and the water roared, the great logs rose and fell and tumbled one over another. Dark shadows hurried aimlessly hither and thither on the banks.
"Downstream, lads, down!" cried the foreman.
"Ready to give a hand if he's carried inshore. Out with the boat, quick!"
Shadows hurrying downstream....
"He's up again!" came a sudden shout from the farther shore. All stopped.
And true enough, the daring lumberman was up again, hopping like a bird from one racing log to another as they thrust and elbowed their way down the rapids, rising and falling as in a loom. Then he settled to the practised lumberman's easy poise on a log, and steered his way, with lifted pole and carefully balanced body, out of the rapids.
"Well done, well done!"
"Ay, that's the sort. More eyes in his feet than many another in his head."
They crowded thickly round the lad as he stepped ashore.
"What happened? How did you get up again?"
"'Twas easy enough. Only the bark broke away under foot, the sticks themselves held fast. I was up again in a second—and the last part was worth it all," said the boy, with a laugh.
"'Twas finely done," said the foreman. "But I don't want to see it done again. You've done enough for to-night—go off and get a rest, and to-morrow too, if you like."
"Thanks," said the young man, looked at his watch with a sly chuckle, and flung down his pole on the grass.
* * * * *
Behind white curtains in a little room lay a young girl.
It was midnight, yet she had not slept. Something had happened that evening which kept her awake.
Strange—it was like a story or a dream; she had never heard of such a thing happening to any she knew. And now—she had only to shut her eyes, and it was there all over again, to the very life.
She had seen it that way many times already, till it was grown to something like a story. She had watched it happening, standing by, as it were, a looker-on, watching what passed between the girl there and one other.
She was standing in the front room—the girl, that is—pouring the warm milk through a big strainer.
"They're giving more milk already," thinks the girl, and laughs.
Then suddenly the door opens, and a crowd of lumbermen come hurrying through the room, going out to their night's work. The girl stands with her back turned to them as they pass, answering over her shoulder the jests of the men as they go.
But the one that was last of all—he did not go on with the rest, but stayed, as if in wonder, looking at her. A tall, slender lad. His jacket was unbuttoned, his cap a trifle on one side, and a mischievous expression played about his sunburnt face.
But the girl sees nothing, thinking the men have gone. And she, the looker-on, finds it strange that the girl should not see.... What is going to happen now?
Then the young man smiles, and steals forward noiselessly—the looker-on is all excitement now, and on the point of crying out to warn her.
Two hands reach out from behind and close gently over the girl's eyes.
"Oh!" screams the girl. "Who is it? How dare you!" And with a scream she turns and sees him standing there.
"Good evening," says the young man, laughing, and raising his cap. And the looker-on notes how the girl only blushes, and makes no answer.
"Did I frighten you?" he goes on. "I meant no harm, I'm sure."
"'Tis no matter," says the girl. "I was only startled for a moment."
"And you're not angry now?"
"Nay; why should I be? For a jest?"
"That's right. I felt directly I saw you as if we were old friends—only I couldn't remember your name, so I thought I'd just stop and ask."
Oh, but 'tis a handsome lad—and such a smile, thinks the girl looking on.
"Pansy, they call me," says the other girl shyly, "but...."
"Say no more," the young man breaks in. "Pansy, they call you—'tis enough for me."
Surely then the name must be a good one, since he seems to like it so, thinks the girl looking on.
"And you...?" asks the girl. "You're a stranger, I think."
"Stranger?" cries the young man, with a laugh that echoes through the room. "Couldn't you feel it was a friend and no 'stranger' when my hands closed over your eyes?" And he looks at her with such irresistible friendliness as he speaks, that she cannot but smile—and the girl looking on smiles too.
"Olof's my name—and no stranger, if you please."
After that he seemed to be thinking for a moment, then suddenly he asks, "Are you fond of flowers, Pansy?"
"Yes, indeed. And I've two of my own—a fuchsia and a balsamine," answers the girl.
"Red flowers both! And do you keep them in your window?"
"Where else should they be?"
"And can you see them from outside?"
"Indeed you can, now they're in bloom."
"And where is your window, then?" says he, with a sly little gleam in his eyes. "Tell me, so I can see them too when I pass."
The girl opens her lips to answer, but checks herself suddenly. "Nay, I'll not tell!"
Oh, but how cunning of him, thinks the looker-on. Never was such a sly one. Anyone else would just have asked straight out where she slept. And then of course the girl would have been offended at once. But this young man—he says never a word of anything but flowers.
"In the parlour?" he asks, with a laugh.
"Up in the loft, then?"
"No, nor there."
"Then it's the little room at the back."
"No, no!" cries the girl, all confused. "Not there, indeed it's not."
The young man laughs. "I can't guess any more. But it's cruel of you not to tell."
And there again, mark the slyness of him, thinks the girl looking on. Anyone else would have laughed out loud and said, "Now, I know!" and the girl would have blushed.
"Well, we're friends now, real friends, aren't we?" says he, after a while.
"'Tis early yet, for sure. But if so, what then?"
"Why, I was but thinking—if we were friends, I'd ask you—no, I won't ask yet."
"You can ask if you like, 'twill do no harm," says the girl, curious to hear.
"Only this—if anyone has ever—ever pressed your hand."
"No," says the girl, with a blush. "I'd never let them."
There again, so neatly put, thinks the looker-on. And how nice and frank and handsome he looks.
"Now, I wonder if that's true," says he. "But I'll soon see. Give me your hand a minute."
"Oh, I can read it, and find out all sorts of things."
"Yes. Don't believe it? But you dare not try."
"Ho! Dare not, indeed!" And she gives him her hand.
Now what's going to happen, thinks the looker-on.
"H'm. It's true, by the look of things," says the young man seriously. "No one has ever pressed your hand. But down there under the window—there's more than one that's stopped to look at your flowers."
"How do you—Oh, you don't know really, you're making it all up."
"Sh! I'm telling your fortune. Listen! But what's this I see? Well, I'd never have thought...."
"What—what is it?" asks the girl anxiously.
"What it is I dare not say. Only I'd never have thought it."
"Oh—you only say that because you can't find anything proper to say at all."
"Shall I tell you what it is, then?" asks he, looking her straight in the eyes.
"Yes—if you can."
"Right. But you mustn't be angry if I do." His voice falls to a whisper. "Look—look there! He's coming—this very night!"
"He—who?" asks the girl uneasily.
"He—the one that you've been waiting for—the one that is to—press your hand."
"It's not true!" cries the girl. "I'll never let him!"
"Sh! I can only say what it says there. He will come, be sure of that. At midnight, or thereabouts. And he will not beg and pray and ask as the others do, only knock at your window three times, softly, but firmly—and then you'll know it's the right one, and no other.... But now I must go. Good-night, Pansy."
And with a wave of his cap he hurries out.
And she—the one that is looking on—marks how the girl stands all confused for a while, and then goes softly to the door, watching him till he is out of sight.
The story is ended—the girl opens her eyes.
And ended, too, the pleasant self-forgetfulness with which she had watched the scene as acted by another—in place of it come doubts and questionings out of the dark.
"What shall I do if he comes—what shall I do?"
Already she seemed to hear footsteps outside, her heart beat so violently, she pressed her hand to her breast. And it was a relief when no one came after all, and she hoped and hoped he would not come at all, to spoil the pretty fairy story.
"But then—if he should not come? If he had been only jesting, after all." That was worse still. "If he would only come—but only to the window—look in at the flowers, but not to knock three times, no...."
She went back to the beginning again—a girl stood in the front room, pouring warm milk through a big strainer....
A knocking at the window—three soft, short taps.
The girl sat up with a start, holding her breath. She raised her head, and looked anxiously toward the window. The fuchsia and the balsamine gazed at her from the sill with questioning eyes: "What is this you are doing, Pansy?"
And behind the flowers was a dark shadow, against the blind. She felt that he was looking straight through at her: "I am here, Pansy."
The shadow seemed calling her to account for something she had promised. She hid her face in the pillow, and pulled the quilt over her head. Her heart throbbed till the bed itself seemed to shake.
"And he will not beg and pray and ask, as the others do."
Slowly the girl drew herself up and remained sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands in her lap.
"If he would only knock again, and give me time to think—to think...."
The dark shadow did not move, the fuchsia and the balsamine stood breathless.
Quietly she slipped to the floor and stepped forward doubtfully a pace or two. There was a movement of the shadow; the girl trembled, and caught at the bedpost for support.
The shadow stopped at once, and stood as before, calling her to account.
With eyes cast down, she moved again towards the door—slowly, hesitatingly, as if her heart were willing, but her limbs refused. She could feel the shadow gliding round outside to the doorway. Her heart throbbed as if it would burst; her fingers grasped feverishly at the latch.
Then slowly, silently, the latch was raised; the girl fled to the corner by the stove, and stood there covering her face with her hands.
The door opened, closed again, and the latch was pressed down firmly.
"Where are you, Pansy, little friend? Is it you there in the corner?"
He crossed over to her, and took both her hands in his.
"Hiding your face, and trembling...?" He looked steadily at her.
"I will go away in a moment," he said gently, as if asking forgiveness. "I never thought you would feel it so."
"No, no!" said the girl anxiously. "It wasn't that...."
"Get into bed again and cover yourself up, or you'll be cold. And I'll sit beside you a little, just while it's dark, and then go again."
Shy and confused, she sprang into bed and drew the clothes over her.
He looked at her a moment. Then pulling up a chair beside the bed, he sat down, resting one elbow on the pillow.
"Pansy, why do you hide your eyes? Are you afraid? Is it because I am here? Give me your hand. Who was it that was to press your hand? Do you remember?
"Didn't you know I was coming? Hasn't the cuckoo been saying it all the spring? Didn't the daisies tell you he was to come this summer? And now, now that I am here, you look at me as if I were a stranger. Is it because it has come true so suddenly?"
She pressed his hand. "Oh, you are not like the others."
"And how should I be? You did not care for them. The one you have been waiting for—was he to be like them? Answer, dark-eyed Pansy-flower."
She clasped his wrist with both her hands, and drew herself closer to him.
"And I have been waiting," he whispered tenderly, "for whom, do you think? For one of the others? I have seen more than I can count—but the moment I saw you, I knew who it was you were waiting for, and who it was I sought."
The girl moved uneasily. There was a sound of footsteps outside, and shadows moved behind the curtains of the window.
"Oh!" she whispered, shrinking in fear.
"Is that some of them?" asked the young man calmly.
"Yes. Oh, hide yourself, hide somewhere—they light matches outside sometimes, and look in."
"I'll not move a step for any of them," he said resolutely, folding his arms. "Don't be afraid, little one, there's nothing to fear."
A dark shadow climbed up outside. There was a scraping sound, and a light shone into the room for a moment.
"There he is—sitting there as if he was master of the house!" The shadow sprang down again.
A low murmur was heard outside, and footsteps receding.
A moment later, the whispering voices were heard again, and steps approaching. Then something heavy was flung against the door with a crash.
"There! Sleep well, my dears!" cried a scornful voice outside. A chorus of laughter followed, the footsteps died away, and all was still.
The young man rose to his feet. "The brutes!" he muttered, trembling with anger. He sprang to the door, lifted the latch, and threw his weight against it. The door did not move. His blood boiled, and again he flung himself against the door. It creaked under the shock, but the bar outside held fast.
"I heard who it was, anyhow," he said significantly. "I'll have a word to say to some of them to-morrow."
"Oh," cried the girl, "now everyone will know—and we can't even get out now."
"Don't be afraid, dear. If one way's barred, I'll soon find another."
He walked to the window, and pressed hard against the frame. The nails gave way, and the woodwork hung loose.
"There! We can get out that way now. I'll take care of the flowers—and I'll see those fellows hold their tongues—never fear."
Self-possessed and smiling, he came back to the bedside. "You poor little thing, so easily scared! Not afraid now, are you?"
"No—not now you're here again."
"Why," said he gaily, "don't you see? It had to come like this—or else—it would have been just like—any of the others!"
They both laughed, and the girl looked up at him through her tears. A faint light of dawn showed through from without.
"And you haven't heard it all yet. I'll tell you—it's all different from anything else—right from the beginning. I came here a way you'd never dream—by way of the river, and past the jaws of death."
"What—what do you mean?"
And he told her what had passed among the rapids that night, when the floating timber jammed against the Whirlstone Rock.
"And then we get locked in here, to make it unlike anything else all through. And that's how I love you, Pansy—so that I have to come to you through the rapids at night, and stay with you behind barred doors. But are you mine, my own? You haven't said so yet."
"Am I? Oh, Olof, how can you ask!" And she twined her arms lovingly round his neck.
* * * * *
The growing flush of dawn stole through the curtains, spreading a faint gleam of rose on the girl's white arms.
"Red—red is all that is beautiful in the world," nodded the fuchsia to the balsamine.
The sun rose over the far-curving slopes on either side of the river, filled his lungs with the freshening coolness of the night, and drank his morning cup of glistening dew. A light mist still hung over the riverbed.
Olof strode down the slope with easy step, his heart swelling with joy.
Down on the shore below the rapids stood a group of men, young fellows from the village, who came down at times to earn a little extra by keeping watch over the timber at night.
Olof cast his eyes over the group, and his pleasant feeling of contentment vanished. He felt himself weighed down as by a burden. But a little while since, he had lifted the heavy beam they had set against the door of a girl's room, and carried it back to the barn, the weight seeming as nothing to him in his gladness. But now....
"A single word, a look, would be enough. But if they just go on as if nothing had happened—what can I do?"
A dark flush burned in his cheeks as he approached the group; he glanced about him guardedly under his brows.
The men made no sign.
Olof picked up his pole from the grass, and began slowly wiping off the dew, eyeing the men watchfully as he did so.
They stood about, apparently unconcerned.
He bit his lips. Was he to let it pass off like this?
He walked past them, with a burning glance.
As he did so, a low laugh was heard on the edge of the group.
Next moment came the sound of a heavy blow, and the jester measured his length on the grass.
"You—what's that for? Who d'you think you are, young devil's brat, what?" Two men came at him with a rush.
Olof gripped the first by the collar and crutch, and flung him head foremost through the air. Then, taking the other as swiftly, he lifted him high overhead, and threw him down like a crumpled rag.
"You swine—you filthy brutes!" His voice quivered with rage, his eyes burned like fire, and he raised his clenched fists threateningly. "Come on, the lot of you; I've more to settle with you yet."
There was an angry murmur from the crowd, but it died away as a calm, manly voice spoke up:
"Seems to me, young man, you've settled fairly enough already for a bit of fun and no harm meant. And if you're as good a man as I take you for, you'll see yourself 'twas not done the way you seem to take it. We've all been sort of proud of that little lass, and till now there's never one of us passed through her door, though there's many that would if they could. And when a bit of a chap from God knows where comes along, and he's found sitting in there like her lord and master...."
"And what's that to you?" Olof stepped forward threateningly.
"Quiet, lad, you've no call to shout," went on the other calmly. "I'm not meaning to quarrel with you. We've known that girl, I say, since we were youngsters together, and you're a stranger here. And it's like to do her harm. Leave her alone, I say, and don't go making her a byword in folk's mouths, for the sake of one that comes and goes so light and easy as you."
"Stranger, you say?" Olof crossed his arms defiantly. "You know who I am well enough. And you're the men to talk of a girl's honour to me—you that hang about outside her window at night—a nice lot to protect her! Mark my words, the lot of you. I go where I please, if 'twas to a princess in a palace. And I'll go the way I went last night as long as I'm here in the place. And as sure as I stand here, if one of you shows his head outside that window, or dares to say a coarse word—ay, or so much as a look to hurt her, I'll thrash him till he can't stand on his feet."
He turned and walked proudly up the hill. The men gazed after him without a word.
"The loveliest hour?" said the fuchsia warmly. "Why, now, give me the night—'tis the best of all."
"I love it too," answered the balsamine. "Whispering here as we are now, alone in the dark, only knowing the other is near, only seeing the gleam of each other's eyes. But the morning, too, is beautiful—at sunrise, when the dewdrops glisten and the leaves quiver in the wakening breeze."
"True, that is true. All times are beautiful, all life. The morning, when the cock crows, and the birds twitter, and the children newly washed come out to play in the yard. The day, too, when the sunbeams dance over the floor, and the haymakers come from the fields, with sweat on their brows, home to the midday meal. And the evening, when the shadows lengthen, and the cows come home, with their bells tinkling along the fringe of the wood. But there's nothing can compare with night—'tis at night we find ourselves, and only then."
"Find ourselves...?" echoed the balsamine. "Ah, yes, I understand...."
"Ourselves—and that faint song of the heart that is never heard in the bright fullness of day," the fuchsia went on. "All day we belong to the world, sharing all things in common, having nothing of our own. But when the night falls, then our own time is near. Softly it steals through the forest, patiently waits in a corner within doors, trembles mysteriously in the air, and wakes to life all that has slept in us through the day. It comes to us with a soft glow, in a swooning fragrance of flowers. All things else are sleeping, none are astir save those...."
A woman's arm showed faintly white through the gloom.
"All save those...?" whispered the balsamine.
"Save those who find themselves and waken into bloom."
* * * * *
"Pansy—my wonderful delight—my love! You are like the night—witching, ensnaring, all the mystery of a summer night, when the summer lightning gleams."
"I never knew till now what youth is, what love is. Great and beautiful, coming like a king in a golden chariot, beckoning, calling, leading us on."
"Why are you trembling, love? And your hands are hot, and your eyes—what are they saying?"
"I don't know—it's very hot. No, no, it's only that I'm too happy...."
"No, no. I don't know what it is. Only I wish...."
"What is it? Tell me."
"I can't—I don't know what it is. I...."
"But tell me—can't you tell me what it is?"
"I can't say it. I—I'm frightened."
"Frightened? Why—have I frightened you?"
"You?—no, how could you? Only...."
"Tell me, then. Tell me. Only a word, and I shall know."
"I'm frightened—no, I can't say it. Only—Oh, I love you, if you knew how I love you...."
* * * * *
"The loveliest hour I ever knew," whispered the balsamine again, "was when I bloomed for the first time—when my petals opened, and the sun came and kissed right into my heart."
"I know, I know," murmured the fuchsia. "And I that am blooming now for the second time—should I not know? We put forth flowers again, and it is always sweet, but never like the first time of all—nothing can ever be like that. For it is all a mystery then; the mantle of something wonderful and unknown is over us. And we feel it and thrill at what is coming, and ask ourselves—will it be to-day? Hoping and fearing—and knowing all the time that it will come. Never a thought of past or future, only for the hour that is upon us ... until at last it comes, it comes—petals that blush and unfold, and all things else seem to fade away, and we melt into a glory of warmth and light."
* * * * *
The Spirit of Joy stood quietly smiling by the bed.
The girl's loose hair flowed like black silk over the pillow; his head was resting there.
They held each other's hands and looked deep into each other's eyes. The Spirit of Joy had stood there long, but had not heard them speak a word—only seen them lying there in silence, smiling tenderly to each other.
The sun rose slowly over the ridge of hills, but once clear of the summit, its rays shot suddenly down across the intervening landscape, in through the window.
The girl looked up; the sun was laughing full in her eyes.
She sat up in bed, as if waking from a deep sleep; all things seemed strange and unexpected.
"Has the sun eyes too, I wonder?... Has it been watching me all these mornings?"...
* * * * *
After a little while she raised her head, and looked up shyly once more.
The sun was watching her with a great questioning glance—as a mother looks when she does not speak, but questions with her eyes alone.
The girl felt a shock, as if the blood had ceased to flow in her veins; she cast down her eyes, and looked up no more. Two great pearly tears quivered on her lashes.
"What is it?" asked her lover in dismay, half rising in his turn. "What is it, Pansy?" He pressed her tenderly to him. "Why are your eyes cast down?"
The teardrops trembled a moment and fell; the girl turned, and hid her face in the pillow.
"Pansy, oh, my love!" he whispered, filled with a burning desire to comfort her.
The girl's bare shoulders quivered, and her breast heaved with suppressed sobs.
It was like a cold iron through his soul—as if he had been soaring in the bluest heights, to fall now, broken-winged, among sharp rocks, hearing sounds of misery on every side.
Heavily he threw himself down beside her, and hid his face in her dark hair.
Two children of men, with shoulders heaving and faces wet with tears.... The room seemed full of their sighing.
The sun turned away and hid his darkened face.
"It is sorrow," whispered the fuchsia, and a red tear fell on the window-sill below.
* * * * *
And yet, beneath the veil of sorrow showed a warm red glow—the great secret that was between them. It was as if their eyes were opened, and they saw each other truly for the first time—no longer a youth and a maiden, but two human creatures thrilled with sorrow and joy in the pale dawn.
"Can you ever forgive me?" he asked, his voice trembling.
"Forgive...?" echoed the girl, and threw her arms round his neck.
"And you will not think of me with bitterness?" he asked again.
"How could I ever think of you with bitterness—you who have been everything to me? But why must you go away now?"
"Ay, why must we say good-bye now?" said he, with a sigh, as if hardly knowing what he said.
"If you only knew how I shall miss you...."
"And if you knew.... O Heaven! But what can I do?"
"Don't be unhappy for my sake; I know you can do nothing to change it. And how can I ask more of you, after all you have given me? If only I could see you again some time; only once, once even after many years—if I only could...."
"Perhaps I may come one day—just to see you...."
"Come, come! I shall wait for you week after week."
* * * * *
Slowly he drew out his watch, looked at it, and showed it to the girl.
"Yes, you must go now. But how can I ever let you go?"
"How can I ever go? Oh, if only it were always night, and day never to come!"
"Yes—the last, long night—and after that the Judgment. I should not fear it now. Only a minute—only a minute more. One more look—there—and now I can never forget."
"Pansy, Pansy," he murmured tenderly. But his breast heaved with distress—it was as if the latch had been torn from the door, leaving it open to all who cared. "One thing you must promise me—after this...." His voice was like that of a drowning man. "Never to care for any other but the one you choose some day, for life."
"How should I ever care for any other?" said the girl wonderingly. "And even then I shall love you just the same—even then."
"No, no, no! It would be worse than all. When you choose for life you must give all your love."
"No need to tell me that," said the girl in a low voice that thrilled him with pleasure and yet heightened his fears.
"Promise me! You don't know why I ask you, why I beg of you to promise that. It is not for my own sake," he urged.
"I promised you that long ago—the first time we ever met," said the girl, and cowered close to him.
They drew apart, and stood up.
Holding him by the hand, she followed him to the door. Then flinging her arms about his neck, she clung to him as if she would never let him go. He took her in his arms, himself on the point of swooning; he felt her hair wet with tears against his cheek, and their lips met.
The girl's head was bent back, looking, not into his eyes as before, but upward. And he saw how the look in her eyes changed, first to ineffable tenderness, then to pious prayer—until it seemed freed from all earth, gazing at some blessed vision afar off. As long as she stood thus he could not move a limb. Then her eyelids quivered, closed—and she drew her lips away.
He looked at them, saw a white, bloodless line—and he felt in that moment as if some ineradicable, eternal seal had been pressed upon his own.
"I can't leave you like this!" he cried desperately. "Look! To-night we shall be at Kirveskallio—I can come from there. And I will come every night as long as we are within reach."
The girl's face lit with a pale gleam as of autumn sunlight, but she said no word. Only looked at him strangely, as he had never seen her look before—and stood there, gazing at him still, as he passed out.
"Rowan—do you know why I call you so?" he asked, holding the girl's hand clasped in his.
"It must have been because I blushed so when you spoke to me first," she answered shyly.
"No, no! Guess again."
"I can't guess, I'm sure. I never thought why it was—only that it was a pretty name, and nice of you to call me so."
"Did you think I should give you an ugly name?" said the young man, with a laugh. "But there's much in that name, if you only knew."
"Perhaps I know." She looked at him trustingly as she spoke.
"Not altogether. But never mind—I'll tell you some of it, though. See, this last spring was all so wonderful to me, somehow, and I was happy just to be alive. But then came the summer, and autumn: the grass began to wither, and the leaves turned yellow, and it made my heart ache to see."
"You weren't happy last summer?" she asked tenderly.
"No. You see, I could not forget the spring that had been so wonderful, and I was longing for it all the time. If I'd stayed in the same place, then perhaps.... But I'm a wanderer, once and for all...."
"Why do you never stay anywhere?"
"'Tis my nature, I suppose," he answered, staring before him.
"And where were you—that time?" asked the girl timidly, watching his face.
"Oh, a long way off. Don't ask of that. I'm not thinking of that spring now any more. It was only to tell you—who it was showed me that the autumn can be lovely, too."
"Did someone show you that?"
"Yes, someone showed me—or, rather, I saw it the moment I set eyes on her."
He took the girl's hands in his, and looked into her eyes.
"It was a little cluster of rowan berries. When I saw you, you were like a young red rowan on the hillside. The birch was fading already, the ash stood solemn and dull, but you were there with the red berries, calling to me—no, not calling, but I saw you. And I stood and looked as if a miracle had come, and said to myself, should I speak to her, or just go by?"
"If you had just gone by...."
"I thought of going by—seeing I'm one that has no right ever to stay.... I couldn't see if it was right to stop and look at you."
"Now I don't quite understand."
"You can't understand it at all—'twas only something I was trying to think out myself.... But I did stop and look—and 'tis thanks to that I've had this lovely autumn, after all."
"And I, too," whispered the girl.
"Yes, thanks to you, I have learned that autumn can be beautiful as well; lovelier even than the spring—for the autumn is cooler, calmer, and gentler than the spring. And it was then I learned for the first time what it is that makes life beautiful—what it is that human beings seek."
The girl has slipped down to the ground, and sat now looking up at him, resting her arms on his knees.
"Tell me more—more about that. It's so pretty to hear, and I understand it all, though I could never say it that way myself."
"Yes, you know, and all know, that there is nothing beautiful in life but that one thing—and all of us live for that, and nothing else. Without that we have only our hands and work for them, our teeth and food for them; but, when that comes, all is changed. You have seen yourself, and felt, how it changes everything."
"Oh, have I not! How could I help it?"
"How sad faces learn to smile, and eyes to speak, and how we learn a new tongue altogether. Even the voice is changed, to a silvery ring. All the world is changed, to something lovelier—and we ourselves grow beautiful beyond words."
"Yes, yes—Olof, how wonderful of you! It is all like a beautiful dream."
"Do you remember the time when you first began to care for me?"
"I shall always remember that time—always."
"It was pretty to watch—how you blushed and paled, and blushed again, and never knew which way to turn your eyes, and your heart throbbed, and you never dared confess even to yourself what made it so. I watched you then, and I found myself wishing you might not see me at all, only that I might watch you for ever from some secret place."
"Oh, but you don't know how it hurt, all the same—how anxious I was all the time—I could not have borne it long, I know."
"Yes—I understand.... And you were more beautiful still when you opened your heart to me. I read in your eyes as in an open book, and it made life bright and beautiful again for me."
"I—I have done nothing at all ..." said the girl, blushing, and looking down. But she raised her head again, laid one hand on his knee, and looked questioningly at him.
He laughed in reply.
Slowly she drew herself up into his embrace, and put her arms about his neck.
"May I sit here like this?"
"Yes, you may—like this," said he, slipping an arm round her waist.
The girl's face drew nearer to his own, still questioning.
"No, no," he murmured, and laid one hand gently on her shoulder, as if seeking tenderly to hold her back.
"Why not?" asked the girl earnestly.
"Because it is better so. It would only hurt you more when we had to say good-bye—after."
"Oh, but that's just why!" she cried passionately.
"No, no—I ask it of you," said he. And, taking the girl's head in his two hands, he kissed her softly on the brow.
A gleam of infinite tenderness shone in her eyes, but she did not speak, only bowed her head and nestled close to his breast.
A strange joy thrilled him—he felt he had won a victory over himself. Through his thin shirt he could feel the girl's warm breath like a wave of summer sunshine, and, smiling with happiness, he stroked her hair.
It was in his mind to ask her if she did not think herself it was best as he said, when suddenly, ere he could speak, a burning gasp struck him like a flame; the girl's hot lips were pressing fiery kisses on his breast; her arms slipped from his neck and twined themselves close about his waist.
"God in heaven—be careful, child!" He took her arms and tried to draw himself away. But, ere he could loosen her hold, he felt his body thrill in answer to her passionate caress—a torrent of passion rose within him: all thought of self-restraint was whirled away.
"Love, love!" he gasped, his voice almost breaking in tears. He drew her up to him, and closed her thirsting lips with his own, crushing her body against his own till both lay breathless....
THE FIRST SNOWFALL
This year, it came later than usual—not until just before Christmas. And when it did come, it was like a rain of silver.
The children greeted it with joyful shouts and a wild throwing of snowballs; the women carried shovelfuls of snow into the rooms and spread it on the floor before sweeping; the men hung tinkling bells to their horses' harness.
Men hurried briskly along the forest tracks, and the great high road to the town was packed with an unbroken throng of pilgrims. All coming and going exchanged greetings, even with strangers—a gay wave of the hand and a few words about the snow.
* * * * *
Twilight was falling.
Olof had just come in from his work in the forest, and was sitting in his little room in the peasant's hut where he was quartered. An elderly man stepped in—a farmer from the same village.
"Evening—and greetings from the town."
"Evening," said Olof heartily. "Come in and sit down."
"I've little time to sit. I'd a message for you, that was all. Stopped at Valimaki on the way out, and someone gave me this for you."
He took out a small packet and handed it across.
Olof blushed up to the eyes, and stammered a word of thanks.
The messenger pretended not to notice his confusion, and went on, smiling:
"I asked if maybe there was any message besides, and they said no, just give it you as it was—but happen you'd like to hear how 'twas given...?"
"Go on—tell me," said the young man, still with some embarrassment.
"Well, I pulled up there, as I said, and started off again just towards dusk about. Got down just past the meadow below the house, and hears someone running after. Thought maybe I'd left something behind, and so I stopped. 'Twas a neat little maid, with red cheeks, and no kerchief on her head. 'What's wrong?' says I.
"'Nothing,' says the little maid, and looks down at her shoes. 'Only you said—didn't you say Olof was staying your way just now?'
"Well, that was right enough, and I said so. 'And what then?'
"'Why,' says she, 'I know him—and I'd a message for him.'
"'Aha,' says I, and laughed a bit.
"''Twas no more than a greeting,' says she, all of a hurry like.
"Why, then, I could carry it, 'twas an easy matter enough.
"'Can I trust you?' says the girl.
"'Why, d'you think I'd lose it on the way?' says I.
"'If you did—or if you went and told about it...'
"'Nay,' says I. 'I'm an old man, my dear, and not given to playing tricks that away.'
"'Yes, I know,' says she. 'I can trust you.' And then she gives me this.
"'That's for him?' says I. 'Give it him just as it is?'
"'Yes. You won't open it, I know. Though, to be sure, anyone can tell what's inside. But be sure no one sees you give it him. There's no message, only just that.'
"Well, I was just on the way to tell her I'd sense enough to do that without being asked—but all of a sudden she's off, racing away with her hair flying behind. Ay, that was the way of it, and now I've told you, I'll be off."
"Good-night, then," said Olof. "And many thanks."
Olof sank into a chair by the table, holding the packet in his hand. He knew well enough what was inside, but hesitated to open it. He was thinking of what had happened there—he could see it himself as in a vision. A bright-eyed girl, slight of figure, hardly more than a child, sat at one end of the room, and at the other a traveller, eating from the red-painted box in which he carried his food. The man spoke of the weather, how the first snow had come, and it was good going underfoot; where he came from, too, the woodcutters had already started work. More work than usual this season, and the gang foreman had taken on a new hand, a young fellow—Olof was his name.
And the girl all but cries his name aloud, blushes violently, and lays down her work to listen. But the traveller says no more of what she is longing to hear, only talks of this and that—all manner of trifling things. The girl is restless, uncertain what to do—but she must do something. And she watches the man's face closely as he sits smoking his pipe on the bench. "He looks honest, and kindly," she thinks to herself. "I could trust him, I know."
And then quietly she slips off to her own room, as if to fetch something, and takes something from a drawer—a little thing she has kept there long. Looks for some paper, or a bag, to put it in, searches and looks again, and finds it at last, packs it up and ties it round with string, tying the hardest knot she can manage, and cutting the ends off close, so it can't be opened without being seen—and laughs to herself.
Then she goes back to the room, with the thing in her pocket. The traveller is getting ready to go.
"'Tis time to mix the cattle food," says the girl. And from the kitchen window she can see the traveller come out to his horse and make ready to start. He drives out of the yard and down the road at a trot. "Now!" says she to herself, and races off after him.
Olof can see her as she runs—how her breast heaves as she comes up with the cart and hails the driver. How she blushes and looks down, and then, having gained her purpose, runs off again too full of joy even to thank the messenger, running a race, as it were, with her own delight. And then, once back at the house, she looks round anxiously to every side, lest any should have seen her, and goes in to her work again....
Filled with a quiet joy, Olof opens the packet.
A big, dark red apple carries her greeting.
"The very colour of the rowans!" he cries—as if the girl had chosen that very one from a great store, though he knows well enough it was likely the only one she had.
And his heart swells with joy and pride at the thought. "Was there ever such a greeting—or such a girl!"
Once more his mind goes back to that happy autumn; he turns the apple in his hand caressingly, and looks out through the window and smiles.
Then he notices that the apple seems harder to the touch in one place, as if to call his attention to something. He looks at it again, and sees that the skin on one side is raised, with a cut all round, is if done with a knife. He lifts the flap of skin, and it comes away like a lid; underneath is a folded slip of paper.
"More!" he cries, and with trembling hands, with joy at heart, he unfolds it. Only a tiny fragment, and on one side a few words awkwardly traced with pencil:
"Now I know what it is to be sad. Have you quite forgotten your Rowan? I think of you every night when I go to sleep."
The apple falls into his lap, the paper trembles in his hand, and a moisture dims his eyes.
He looks up. Great soft snowflakes are dropping slowly to the ground.
Minutes pass. The twilight deepens, till at last all is darkness, but he sits there still looking out, with the paper in his hand.
He can no longer see—but he feels how the great soft snowflakes are still falling....
The daisy bloomed on the window-sill ... in the window of a little room.
In spring and summer the daisy blooms—this one bloomed in the winter too.
"And I know, and you know why you bloom in the winter," said the girl. "'Tis to smile at him in greeting."
The daisy blooms only a few months together ... this one was in flower already when Christmas came, and flowered the rest of the winter through, more beautiful every day.
"And I know, and you know how long you will bloom. 'Twas when I set you here at first it all began ... and when he is gone, and there's none for you to smile at any more, then it will all be over.'"
The girl bent lower over the flower.
"She has but a single flower—so neat and sweet," she whispered, pressing her delicate lips to the pale posy petals just unfolded.
"She has but a single friend—so tender and dear," smiled the flower in answer, nodding slowly over toward the fields.
A tall youth on ski came gliding by, his cap at the back of his head, and a knapsack strapped at his shoulders.
"At last!" cried the girl, and jumping down, ran out through the passage to the steps in front of the house.
"Daisy!" said the newcomer. His voice was hardly audible, but his eyes spoke plainly enough, as he stepped up and set his ski and staves against the wall.
The girl answered with a nod and a radiant smile.
He hurried up the steps, and stood beside her.
"Daisy!" he said again, and pressed his cold hands playfully against her cheeks.
"No, thank you!" cried the girl merrily, grasping his wrists. "I've been waiting for you, though, ever so long. Mother's gone in to town, and the men haven't come back from the woods yet."
"And you've been left all alone, and horribly frightened, of course," laughed the young man, holding the girl's head between his hands, and pushing her before him in through the doorway.