BY MARIE CORELLI
THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN.
"Dream by dream shot through her eyes, and each Outshone the last that lighted." SWINBURNE.
Midnight,—without darkness, without stars! Midnight—and the unwearied sun stood, yet visible in the heavens, like a victorious king throned on a dais of royal purple bordered with gold. The sky above him,—his canopy,—gleamed with a cold yet lustrous blue, while across it slowly flitted a few wandering clouds of palest amber, deepening, as they sailed along, to a tawny orange. A broad stream of light falling, as it were, from the centre of the magnificent orb, shot lengthwise across the Altenfjord, turning its waters to a mass of quivering and shifting color that alternated from bronze to copper,—from copper to silver and azure. The surrounding hills glowed with a warm, deep violet tint, flecked here and there with touches of bright red, as though fairies were lighting tiny bonfires on their summits. Away in the distance a huge mass of rock stood out to view, its rugged lines transfigured into ethereal loveliness by a misty veil of tender rose pink,—a hue curiously suggestive of some other and smaller sun that might have just set. Absolute silence prevailed. Not even the cry of a sea-mew or kittiwake broke the almost deathlike stillness,—no breath of wind stirred a ripple on the glassy water. The whole scene might well have been the fantastic dream of some imaginative painter, whose ambition soared beyond the limits of human skill. Yet it was only one of those million wonderful effects of sky and sea which are common in Norway, especially on the Altenfjord, where, though beyond the Arctic circle, the climate in summer is that of another Italy, and the landscape a living poem fairer than the visions of Endymion.
There was one solitary watcher of the splendid spectacle. This was a man of refined features and aristocratic appearance, who, reclining on a large rug of skins which he had thrown down on the shore for that purpose, was gazing at the pageant of the midnight sun and all its stately surroundings, with an earnest and rapt expression in his clear hazel eyes.
"Glorious! beyond all expectation, glorious!" he murmured half aloud, as he consulted his watch and saw that the hands marked exactly twelve on the dial. "I believe I'm having the best of it, after all. Even if those fellows get the Eulalie into good position they will see nothing finer than this."
As he spoke he raised his field-glass and swept the horizon in search of a vessel, his own pleasure yacht,—which had taken three of his friends, at their special desire, to the opposite island of Seiland,—Seiland, rising in weird majesty three thousand feet above the sea, and boasting as its chief glory the great peak of Jedke, the most northern glacier in all the wild Norwegian land. There was no sign of a returning sail, and he resumed his study of the sumptuous sky, the colors of which were now deepening and burning with increasing lustre, while an array of clouds of the deepest purple hue, swept gorgeously together beneath the sun as though to form his footstool.
"One might imagine that the trump of the Resurrection had sounded, and that all this aerial pomp,—this strange silence,—was just the pause, the supreme moment before the angels descended," he mused, with a half-smile at his own fancy, for though something of a poet at heart, he was much more of a cynic. He was too deeply imbued with modern fashionable atheism to think seriously about angels or Resurrection trumps, but there was a certain love of mysticism and romance in his nature, which not even his Oxford experiences and the chilly dullness of English materialism had been able to eradicate. And there was something impressive in the sight of the majestic orb holding such imperial revel at midnight,—something almost unearthly in the light and life of the heavens, as compared with the referential and seemingly worshipping silence of the earth,—that, for a few moments, awed him into a sense of the spiritual and unseen. Mythical passages from the poets he loved came into his memory, and stray fragments of old songs and ballads he had known in his childhood returned to him with haunting persistence. It was, for him, one of those sudden halts in life which we all experience,—an instant,—when time and the world seem to stand still, as though to permit us easy breathing; a brief space,—in which we are allowed to stop and wonder awhile at the strange unaccountable force within us, that enables us to stand with such calm, smiling audacity, on our small pin's point of the present, between the wide dark gaps of past and future; a small hush,—in which the gigantic engines of the universe appear to revolve no more, and the immortal Soul of man itself is subjected and over-ruled by supreme and eternal Thought. Drifting away on those delicate imperceptible lines that lie between reality and dreamland, the watcher of the midnight sun gave himself up to the half painful, half delicious sense of being drawn in, absorbed, and lost in infinite imaginings, when the intense stillness around him was broken by the sound of a voice singing, a full, rich contralto, that rang through the air with the clearness of a golden bell. The sweet liquid notes were those of an old Norwegian mountain melody, one of those wildly pathetic folk-songs that seem to hold all the sorrow, wonder, wistfulness, and indescribable yearning of a heart too full for other speech than music. He started to his feet and looked around him for the singer. There was no one visible. The amber streaks in the sky were leaping into crimson flame; the Fjord glowed like the burning lake of Dante's vision; one solitary sea-gull winged its graceful, noiseless flight far above, its white pinions shimmering like jewels as it crossed the radiance of the heavens. Other sign of animal life there was none. Still the hidden voice rippled on in a stream of melody, and the listener stood amazed and enchanted at the roundness and distinctness of every note that fell from the lips of the unseen vocalist.
"A woman's voice," he thought; "but where is the woman?"
Puzzled, he looked to the right and left, then out to the shining Fjord, half expecting to see some fisher-maiden rowing along, and singing as she rowed, but there was no sign of any living creature. While he waited, the voice suddenly ceased, and the song was replaced by the sharp grating of a keel on the beach. Turning in the direction of this sound, he perceived a boat being pushed out by invisible hands towards the water's edge from a rocky cave, that jutted upon the Fjord, and, full of curiosity, he stepped towards the arched entrance, when,—all suddenly and unexpectedly,—a girl sprang out from the dark interior, and standing erect in her boat, faced the intruder. A girl of about nineteen, she seemed, taller than most women,—with a magnificent uncovered mass of hair, the color of the midnight sunshine, tumbled over her shoulders, and flashing against her flushed cheeks and dazzlingly fair skin. Her deep blue eyes had an astonished and certainly indignant expression in them, while he, utterly unprepared for such a vision of loveliness at such a time and in such a place, was for a moment taken aback and at a loss for words. Recovering his habitual self-possession quickly, however, he raised his hat, and, pointing to the boat, which was more than half way out of the cavern, said simply—
"May I assist you?"
She was silent, eyeing him with a keen glance which had something in it of disfavor and suspicion.
"I suppose she doesn't understand English," he thought, "and I can't speak a word of Norwegian. I must talk by signs."
And forthwith he went through a labored pantomime of gesture, sufficiently ludicrous in itself, yet at the same time expressive of his meaning. The girl broke into a laugh—a laugh of sweet amusement which brought a thousand new sparkles of light into her lovely eyes.
"That is very well done," she observed graciously, speaking English with something of a foreign accent. "Even the Lapps would understand you, and they are very stupid, poor things!"
Half vexed by her laughter, and feeling that he was somehow an object of ridicule to this tall, bright-haired maiden, he ceased his pantomimic gestures abruptly and stood looking at her with a slight flush of embarrassment on his features.
"I know your language," she resumed quietly, after a brief pause, in which she had apparently considered the stranger's appearance and general bearing. "It was rude of me not to have answered you at once. You can help me if you will. The keel has caught among the pebbles, but we can easily move it between us." And, jumping lightly out of her boat, she grasped its edge firmly with her strong white hands, exclaiming gaily, as she did so, "Push!"
Thus adjured, he lost no time in complying with her request, and, using his great strength and muscular force to good purpose, the light little craft was soon well in the water, swaying to and fro as though with impatience to be gone. The girl sprang to her seat, discarding his eagerly proffered assistance, and, taking both oars, laid them in their respective rowlocks, and seemed about to start, when she paused and asked abruptly—
"Are you a sailor?"
He smiled. "Not I! Do I remind you of one?"
"You are strong, and you manage a boat as though you were accustomed to the work. Also you look as if you had been at sea."
"Rightly guessed!" he replied, still smiling; "I certainly have been at sea; I have been coasting all about your lovely land. My yacht went across to Seiland this afternoon."
She regarded him more intently, and observed, with the critical eye of a woman, the refined taste displayed in his dress, from the very cut of his loose travelling coat, to the luxurious rug of fine fox-shins, that lay so carelessly cast on the shore at a little distance from him. Then she gave a gesture of hauteur and half-contempt.
"You have a yacht? Oh! then you are a gentleman. You do nothing for your living?"
"Nothing, indeed!" and he shrugged his shoulders with a mingled air of weariness and self-pity, "except one thing—I live!"
"Is that hard work?" she inquired wonderingly.
They were silent then, and the girl's face grew serious as she rested on her oars, and still surveyed him with a straight, candid gaze, that, though earnest and penetrating, had nothing of boldness in it. It was the look of one in whose past there were no secrets—the look of a child who is satisfied with the present and takes no thought for the future. Few women look so after they have entered their teens. Social artifice, affectation, and the insatiate vanity that modern life encourages in the feminine nature—all these things soon do away with the pellucid clearness and steadfastness of the eye—the beautiful, true, untamed expression, which, though so rare, is, when seen infinitely more bewitching than all the bright arrows of coquetry and sparkling invitation that flash from the glances of well-bred society dames, who have taken care to educate their eyes if not their hearts. This girl was evidently not trained properly; had she been so, she would have dropped a curtain over those wide, bright windows of her soul; she would have remembered that she was alone with a strange man at midnight—at midnight, though the sun shone; she would have simpered and feigned embarrassment, even if she could not feel it. As it happened, she did nothing of the kind, only her expression softened and became more wistful and earnest, and when she spoke again her voice was mellow with a suave gentleness, that had something in it of compassion.
"If you do not love life itself," she said, "you love the beautiful things of life, do you not? See yonder! There is what we call the meeting of night and morning. One is glad to be alive at such a moment. Look quickly! The light soon fades."
She pointed towards the east. Her companion gazed in that direction, and uttered an exclamation,—almost a shout,—of wonder and admiration. Within the space of the past few minutes the aspect of the heavens had completely changed. The burning scarlet and violet hues had all melted into a transparent yet brilliant shade of pale mauve,—as delicate as the inner tint of a lilac blossom,—and across this stretched two wing-shaped gossamer clouds of watery green, fringed with soft primrose. Between these cloud-wings, as opaline in lustre as those of a dragon-fly, the face of the sun shone like a shield of polished gold, while his rays, piercing spear-like through the varied tints of emerald, brought an unearthly radiance over the landscape—a lustre as though the moon were, in some strange way, battling with the sun for mastery over the visible universe though, looking southward, she could dimly be perceived, the ghost of herself—a poor, fainting, pallid goddess,—a perishing Diana.
Bringing his glance down from the skies, the young man turned it to the face of the maiden near him, and was startled at her marvellous beauty—beauty now heightened by the effect of the changeful colors that played around her. The very boat in which she sat glittered with a bronze-like, metallic brightness as it heaved gently to and fro on the silvery green water; the midnight sunshine bathed the falling glory of her long hair, till each thick tress, each clustering curl, appeared to emit an amber spark of light. The strange, weird effect of the sky seemed to have stolen into her eyes, making them shine with witch-like brilliancy,—the varied radiance flashing about her brought into strong relief the pureness of her profile, drawing as with a fine pencil the outlines of her noble forehead, sweet mouth, and rounded chin. It touched the scarlet of her bodice, and brightened the quaint old silver clasps she wore at her waist and throat, till she seemed no longer an earthly being, but more like some fair wondering sprite from the legendary Norse kingdom of Alfheim, the "abode of the Luminous Genii."
She was gazing upwards,—heavenwards,—and her expression was one of rapt and almost devotional intensity. Thus she remained for some moments, motionless as the picture of an expectant angel painted by Raffaele or Correggio; then reluctantly and with a deep sigh she turned her eyes towards earth again. In so doing she met the fixed and too visibly admiring gaze of her companion. She started, and a wave of vivid color flushed her cheeks. Quickly recovering her serenity, however, she saluted him slightly, and, moving her oars in unison, was on the point of departure.
Stirred by an impulse he could not resist, he laid one hand detainingly on the rim of her boat.
"Are you going now?" he asked.
She raised her eyebrows in some little surprise and smiled.
"Going?" she repeated. "Why, yes. I shall be late in getting home as it is."
"Stop a moment," he said eagerly, feeling that he could not let this beautiful creature leave him as utterly as a midsummer night's dream without some clue as to her origin and destination. "Will you not tell me your name?"
She drew herself erect with a look of indignation.
"Sir, I do not know you. The maidens of Norway do not give their names to strangers."
"Pardon me," he replied, somewhat abashed. "I mean no offense. We have watched the midnight sun together, and—and—I thought—"
He paused, feeling very foolish, and unable to conclude his sentence.
She looked at him demurely from under her long, curling lashes.
"You will often find a peasant girl on the shores of the Altenfjord watching the midnight sun at the same time as yourself," she said, and there was a suspicion of laughter in her voice. "It is not unusual. It is not even necessary that you should remember so little a thing."
"Necessary or not, I shall never forget it," he said with sudden impetuosity. "You are no peasant! Come; if I give you my name will you still deny me yours?"
Her delicate brows drew together in a frown of haughty and decided refusal. "No names please my ears save those that are familiar," she said, with intense coldness. "We shall not meet again. Farewell!"
And without further word or look, she leaned gracefully to the oars, and pulling with a long, steady, resolute stroke, the little boat darted away as lightly and swiftly as a skimming swallow out on the shimmering water, he stood gazing after it till it became a distant speck sparkling like a diamond in the light of sky and wave, and when he could no more watch it with unassisted eyes, he took up his field glass and followed its course attentively. He saw it cutting along as straightly as an arrow, then suddenly it dipped round to the westward, apparently making straight for some shelving rocks, that projected far into the Fjord. It reached them; it grew less and less—it disappeared. At the same time the lustre of the heavens gave way to a pale pearl-like uniform grey tint, that stretched far and wide, folding up as in a mantle all the regal luxury of the Sun-king's palace. The subtle odor and delicate chill of the coming dawn stole freshly across the water. A light haze rose and obscured the opposite islands. Something of the tender melancholy of autumn, though it was late June, toned down the aspect of the before brilliant landscape. A lark rose swiftly from its nest in an adjacent meadow, and, soaring higher and higher, poured from its tiny throat a cascade of delicious melody. The midnight sun no longer shone at midnight; his face smiled with a sobered serenity through the faint early mists of approaching morning.
"Viens donc—je te chanterai des chansons que les esprits des cimetieres m'ont apprises!" MATURIN.
"Baffled!" he exclaimed, with a slight vexed laugh, as the boat vanished from his sight. "By a woman, too! Who would have thought it?"
Who would have thought it, indeed! Sir Philip Bruce-Errington, Baronet, the wealthy and desirable parti for whom many match-making mothers had stood knee-deep in the chilly though sparkling waters of society, ardently plying rod and line with patient persistence, vainly hoping to secure him as a husband for one of their highly proper and passionless daughters,—he, the admired, long-sought-after "eligible," was suddenly rebuffed, flouted—by whom? A stray princess, or a peasant. He vaguely wondered, as he lit a cigar and strolled up and down on the shore, meditating, with a puzzled, almost annoyed expression on his handsome features. He was not accustomed to slights of any kind, however trifling; his position being commanding and enviable enough to attract flattery and friendship from most people. He was the only son of a baronet as renowned for eccentricity as for wealth. He had been the spoilt darling of his mother; and now, both his parents being dead, he was alone in the world, heir to his father's revenues, and entire master of his own actions. And as part of the penalty he had to pay for being rich and good-looking to boot, he was so much run after by women that he found it hard to understand the haughty indifference with which he had just been treated by one of the most fair, if not the fairest of her sex. He was piqued, and his amour propre was wounded.
"I'm sure my question was harmless enough," he mused, half crossly, "She might have answered it."
He glanced out impatiently over the Fjord. There was no sign of his returning yacht as yet.
"What a time those fellows are!" he said to himself. "If the pilot were not on board, I should begin to think they had run the Eulalie aground."
He finished his cigar and threw the end of it into the water; then he stood moodily watching the ripples as they rolled softly up and caressed the shining brown shore at his feet, thinking all the while of that strange girl, so wonderfully lovely in face and form, so graceful and proud of bearing, with her great blue eyes and masses of dusky gold hair.
His meeting with her was a sort of adventure in its way—the first of the kind he had had for some time. He was subject to fits of weariness or caprice, and it was in one of these that he had suddenly left London in the height of the season, and had started for Norway on a yachting cruise with three chosen companions, one of whom, George Lorimer, once an Oxford fellow-student, was now his "chum"—the Pythias to his Damon, the fidus Achates of his closest confidence. Through the unexpected wakening up of energy in the latter young gentleman, who was usually of a most sleepy and indolent disposition, he happened to be quite alone on this particular occasion, though, as a general rule, he was accompanied in his rambles by one if not all three of his friends. Utter solitude was with him a rare occurrence, and his present experience of it had chanced in this wise. Lorimer the languid, Lorimer the lazy, Lorimer who had remained blandly unmoved and drowsy through all the magnificent panorama of the Norwegian coast, including the Sogne Fjord and the toppling peaks of the Justedal glaciers; Lorimer who had slept peacefully in a hammock on deck, even while the yacht was passing under the looming splendors of Melsnipa; Lorimer, now that he had arrived at the Alton Fjord, then at its loveliest in the full glory of the continuous sunshine, developed a new turn of mind, and began to show sudden and abnormal interest in the scenery. In this humor he expressed his desire to "take a sight" of the midnight sun from the island of Seiland, and also declared his resolve to try the nearly impossible ascent of the great Jedke glacier.
Errington laughed at the idea. "Don't tell me," he said, "that you are going in for climbing. And do you suppose I believe that you are interested—you of all people—in the heavenly bodies?"
"Why not?" asked Lorimer, with a candid smile. "I'm not in the least interested in earthly bodies, except my own. The sun's a jolly fellow. I sympathize with him in his present condition. He's in his cups—that's what's the matter—and he can't be persuaded to go to bed. I know his feelings perfectly; and I want to survey his gloriously inebriated face from another point of view. Don't laugh, Phil; I'm in earnest! And I really have quite a curiosity to try my skill in amateur mountaineering. Jedke's the very place for a first effort. It offers difficulties, and"—this with a slight yawn—"I like to surmount difficulties; it's rather amusing."
His mind was so evidently set upon the excursion, that Sir Philip made no attempt to dissuade him from it, but excused himself from accompanying the party on the plea that he wanted to finish a sketch he had recently begun. So that when the Eulalie got up her steam, weighed anchor, and swept gracefully away towards the coast of the adjacent islands, her owner was left, at his desire, to the seclusion of a quiet nook on the shore of the Altenfjord, where he succeeded in making a bold and vivid picture of the scene before him. The colors of the sky had, however, defied his palette, and after one or two futile attempts to transfer to his canvas a few of the gorgeous tints that illumed the landscape, he gave up the task in despair, and resigned himself to the dolce far niente of absolute enjoyment. From his half pleasing, half melancholy reverie the voice of the unknown maiden had startled him, and now,—now she had left him to resume it if he chose,—left him, in chill displeasure, with a cold yet brilliant flash of something like scorn in her wonderful eyes.
Since her departure the scenery, in some unaccountable way, seemed less attractive to him, the songs of the birds, who were all awake, fell on inattentive ears; he was haunted by her face and voice, and he was, moreover, a little out of humor with himself for having been such a blunderer as to give her offense and thus leave an unfavorable impression on her mind.
"I suppose I was rude," he considered after a while. "She seemed to think so, at any rate. By Jove! what a crushing look she gave me! A peasant? Not she! If she had said she was an empress I shouldn't have been much surprised. But a mere common peasant, with that regal figure and those white hands! I don't believe it. Perhaps our pilot, Valdemar, knows who she is; I must ask him."
All at once he bethought himself of the cave whence she had emerged. It was close at hand—a natural grotto, arched and apparently lofty. He resolved to explore it. Glancing at his watch he saw it was not yet one o'clock in the morning, yet the voice of the cuckoo called shrilly from the neighboring hills, and a circling group of swallows flitted around him, their lovely wings glistening like jewels in the warm light of the ever-wakeful sun. Going to the entrance of the cave, he looked in. It was formed of rough rock, hewn out by the silent work of the water, and its floor was strewn thick with loose pebbles and polished stones. Entering it, he was able to walk upright for some few paces, then suddenly it seemed to shrink in size and to become darker. The light from the opening gradually narrowed into a slender stream too small for him to see clearly where he was going, thereupon he struck a fusee. At first he could observe no sign of human habitation, not even a rope, or chain, or hook, to intimate that it was a customary shelter for a boat. The fusee went out quickly, and he lit another. Looking more carefully and closely about him, he perceived on a projecting shelf of rock, a small antique lamp, Etruscan in shape, made of iron and wrought with curious letters. There was oil in it, and a half-burnt wick; it had evidently been recently used. He availed himself at once of this useful adjunct to his explorations, and lighting it, was able by the clear and steady flame it emitted, to see everything very distinctly. Right before him was an uneven flight of steps leading down to a closed door.
He paused and listened attentively. There was no sound but the slow lapping of the water near the entrance; within, the thickness of the cavern walls shut out the gay carolling of the birds, and all the cheerful noises of awakening nature. Silence, chillness, and partial obscurity are depressing influences, and the warm blood flowing through his veins, ran a trifle more slowly and coldly as he felt the sort of uncomfortable eerie sensation which is experienced by the jolliest and most careless traveller, when he first goes down to the catacombs in Rome. A sort of damp, earthy shudder creeps through the system, and a dreary feeling of general hopelessness benumbs the faculties; a morbid state of body and mind which is only to be remedied by a speedy return to the warm sunlight, and a draught of generous wine.
Sir Philip, however, held the antique lamp aloft, and descended the clumsy steps cautiously, counting twenty steps in all, at the bottom of which he found himself face to face with the closed door. It was made of hard wood, so hard as to be almost like iron. It was black with age, and covered with quaint carvings and inscriptions; but in the middle, standing out in bold relief among the numberless Runic figures and devices, was written in large well-cut letters the word—
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "I have it! The girl's name, of course! This is some private retreat of hers, I suppose,—a kind of boudoir like my Lady Winsleigh's, only with rather a difference."
And he laughed aloud, thinking of the dainty gold-satin hangings of a certain room in a certain great mansion in Park Lane, where an aristocratic and handsome lady-leader of fashion had as nearly made love to him as it was possible for her to do without losing her social dignity. His laugh was echoed back with a weird and hollow sound, as though a hidden demon of the cave were mocking him, a demon whose merriment was intense but also horrible. He heard the unpleasant jeering repetition with a kind of careless admiration.
"That echo would make a fortune in Faust, if it could be persuaded to back up Mephistopheles with that truly fiendish, 'Ha Ha!'" he said, resuming his examination of the name on the door. Then an odd fancy seized him, and he called loudly—
"Thelma!" shouted the echo.
"Is that her name?"
"Her name!" replied the echo.
"I thought so!" And Philip laughed again, while the echo laughed wildly in answer. "Just the sort of name to suit a Norwegian nymph or goddess. Thelma is quaint and appropriate, and as far as I can remember there's no rhyme to it in the English language. Thelma!" And he lingered on the pronunciation of the strange word with a curious sensation of pleasure. "There is something mysteriously suggestive about the sound of it; like a chord of music played softly in the distance. Now, can I get through this door, I wonder?"
He pushed it gently. It yielded very slightly, and he tried again and yet again. Finally, he put down the lamp and set his shoulder against the wooden barrier with all his force. A dull creaking sound rewarded his efforts, and inch by inch the huge door opened into what at first appeared immeasurable darkness. Holding up the light he looked in, and uttered a smothered exclamation. A sudden gust of wind rushed from the sea through the passage and extinguished the lamp, leaving him in profound gloom. Nothing daunted he sought his fusee case; there was just one left in it. This he hastily struck, and shielding the glow carefully with one hand, relit his lamp, and stepped boldly into the mysterious grotto.
The murmur of the wind and waves, like spirit-voices in unison, followed him as he entered. He found himself in a spacious winding corridor, that had evidently been hollowed out in the rocks and fashioned by human hands. Its construction was after the ancient Gothic method; but the wonder of the place consisted in the walls, which were entirely covered with shells,—shells of every shape and hue,—some delicate as rose-leaves, some rough and prickly, others polished as ivory, some gleaming with a thousand irridescent colors, others pure white as the foam on high billows. Many of them were turned artistically in such a position as to show their inner sides glistening with soft tints like the shades of fine silk or satin,—others glittered with the opaline sheen of mother-o'-pearl. All were arranged in exquisite patterns, evidently copied from fixed mathematical designs,—there were stars, crescents, roses, sunflowers, hearts, crossed daggers, ships and implements of war, all faithfully depicted with extraordinary neatness and care, as though each particular emblem had served some special purpose.
Sir Philip walked along very slowly, delighted with his discovery, and,—pausing to examine each panel as he passed,—amused himself with speculations as to the meaning of this beautiful cavern, so fancifully yet skillfully decorated.
"Some old place of worship, I suppose," he thought. "There must be many such hidden in different parts of Norway. It has nothing to do with the Christian faith, for among all these devices I don't perceive a single cross."
He was right. There were no crosses; but there were many designs of the sun—the sun rising, the sun setting, the sun in full glory, with all his rays embroidered round him in tiny shells, some of them no bigger than a pin's head. "What a waste of time and labor," he mused. "Who would undertake such a thing nowadays? Fancy the patience and delicacy of finger required to fit all these shells in their places! and they are embedded in strong mortar too, as if the work were meant to be indestructible."
Pull of pleased interest, he pursued his way, winding in and out through different arches, all more or less richly ornamented, till he came to a tall, round column, which seemingly supported the whole gallery, for all the arches converged towards it. It was garlanded from top to bottom with their roses and their leaves, all worked in pink and lilac shells, interspersed with small pieces of shining amber and polished malachite. The flicker of the lamp he carried, made it glisten like a mass of jewel-work, and, absorbed in his close examination of this unique specimen of ancient art, Sir Philip did not at once perceive that another light beside his own glimmered from out the furthest archway a little beyond him,—an opening that led into some recess he had not as yet explored. A peculiar lustre sparkling on one side of the shell-work however, at last attracted his attention, and, glancing up quickly, he saw, to his surprise, the reflection of a strange radiance, rosily tinted and brilliant.
Turning in its direction, he paused, irresolute. Could there be some one living in that furthest chamber to which the long passage he had followed evidently led? some one who would perhaps resent his intrusion as an impertinence? some eccentric artist or hermit who had made the cave his home? Or was it perhaps a refuge for smugglers? He listened anxiously. There was no sound. He waited a minute or two, then boldly advanced, determined to solve the mystery.
This last archway was lower than any of those he had passed through, and he was forced to take off his hat and stoop as he went under it. When he raised his head he remained uncovered, for he saw at a glance that the place was sacred. He was in the presence, not of Life, but Death. The chamber in which he stood was square in form, and more richly ornamented with shell-designs than any other portion of the grotto he had seen, and facing the east was an altar hewn out of the solid rock and studded thickly with amber, malachite and mother-o'-pearl. It was covered With the incomprehensible emblems of a bygone creed worked in most exquisite shell-patterns, but on it,—as though in solemn protest against the past,—stood a crucifix of ebony and carved ivory, before which burned steadily a red lamp.
The meaning of the mysterious light was thus explained, but what chiefly interested Errington was the central object of the place,—a coffin,—of rather a plain granite sarcophagus which was placed on the floor lying from north to south. Upon it,—in strange contrast to the sombre coldness of the stone,—reposed a large wreath of poppies freshly gathered. The vivid scarlet of the flowers, the gleam of the shining shells on the walls, the mournful figure of the ivory Christ stretched on the cross among all those pagan emblems,—the intense silence broken only by the slow drip, drip of water trickling somewhere behind the cavern,—and more than these outward things,—his own impressive conviction that he was with the imperial Dead—imperial because past the sway of empire—all made a powerful impression on his mind. Overcoming by degrees his first sensations of awe, he approached the sarcophagus and examined it. It was solidly closed and mortared all round, so that it might have been one compact coffin-shaped block of stone so far as its outward appearance testified. Stooping more closely, however, to look at the brilliant poppy-wreath, he started back with a slight exclamation. Cut deeply in the hard granite he read for the second time that odd name—
It belonged to some one dead, then—not to the lovely living woman who had so lately confronted him in the burning glow of the midnight sun? He felt dismayed at his unthinking precipitation,—he had, in his fancy, actually associated her, so full of radiant health and beauty, with what was probably a mouldering corpse in that hermetically sealed tenement of stone! This idea was unpleasant, and jarred upon his feelings. Surely she, that golden-haired nymph of the Fjord, had nothing to do with death! He had evidently found his way into some ancient tomb. "Thelma" might be the name or title of some long-departed queen or princess of Norway, yet, if so, how came the crucifix there,—the red lamp, the flowers?
He lingered, looking curiously about him, as if he fancied the shell-embroidered walls might whisper some answer to his thoughts. The silence offered no suggestions. The plaintive figure of the tortured Christ suspended on the cross maintained an immovable watch over all things, and there was a subtle, faint odor floating about as of crushed spices or herbs. While he still stood there absorbed in perplexed conjectures, he became oppressed by want of air. The red hue of the poppy-wreath mingled with the softer glow of the lamp on the altar,—the moist glitter of the shells and polished pebbles, seemed to dazzle and confuse his eyes. He felt dizzy and faint—and hastily made his way out of that close death-chamber into the passage, where he leaned for a few minutes against the great central column to recover himself. A brisk breath of wind from the Fjord came careering through the gallery, and blew coldly upon his forehead. Refreshed by it, he rapidly overcame the sensation of giddiness, and began to retrace his steps through the winding arches, thinking with some satisfaction as he went, what a romantic incident he would have to relate to Lorimer and his other friends, when a sudden glare of light illumined the passage, and he was brought to an abrupt standstill by the sound of a wild "Halloo!" The light vanished; it reappeared. It vanished again, and again appeared, flinging a strong flare upon the shell-worked walls as it approached. Again the fierce "Halloo!" resounded through the hollow cavities of the subterranean temple, and he remained motionless, waiting for an explanation of this unlooked-for turn to the events of the morning.
He had plenty of physical courage, and the idea of any addition to his adventure rather pleased him than otherwise. Still, with all his bravery, he recoiled a little when he first caught sight of the extraordinary being that emerged from the darkness—a wild, distorted figure that ran towards him with its head downwards, bearing aloft in one skinny hand a smoking pine-torch, from which the sparks flew like so many fireflies. This uncanny personage, wearing the semblance of man, came within two paces of Errington before perceiving him; then, stopping short in his headlong career, the creature flourished his torch and uttered a defiant yell.
Philip surveyed him coolly and without alarm, though so weird an object might well have aroused a pardonable distrust, and even timidity. He saw a misshapen dwarf, not quite four feet high, with large, ungainly limbs out of all proportion to his head, which was small and compact. His features were of almost feminine fineness, and from under his shaggy brows gleamed a restless pair of large, full, wild blue eyes. His thick, rough flaxen hair was long and curly, and hung in disordered profusion over his deformed shoulders. His dress was of reindeer skin, very fancifully cut, and ornamented with beads of different colors,—and twisted about him as though in an effort to be artistic, was a long strip of bright scarlet woollen material, which showed up the extreme pallor and ill-health of the meagre countenance, and the brilliancy of the eyes that now sparkled with rage as they met those of Errington. He, from his superior height, glanced down with pity on the unfortunate creature, whom he at once took to be the actual owner of the cave he had explored. Uncertain what to do, whether to speak or remain silent, he moved slightly as though to pass on; but the shock-headed dwarf leaped lightly in his way, and, planting himself firmly before him, shrieked some unintelligible threat, of which Errington could only make out the last words, "Nifleheim" and "Nastrond."
"I believe he is commending me to the old Norwegian inferno," thought the young baronet with a smile, amused at the little man's evident excitement. "Very polite of him, I'm sure! But, after all, I had no business here. I'd better apologize." And forthwith he began to speak in the simplest English words he could choose, taking care to pronounce them very slowly and distinctly.
"I cannot understand you, my good sir; but I see you are angry. I came here by accident. I am going away now at once."
His explanation had a strange effect. The dwarf drew nearer, twirled himself rapidly round three times as though waltzing; then, holding his torch a little to one side, turned up his thin, pale countenance, and, fixing his gaze on Sir Philip, studied every feature of his face with absorbing interest. Then he burst into a violent fit of laughter.
"At last—at last?" he cried in fluent English. "Going now? Going, you say? Never! never! You will never go away any more. No, not without something stolen! The dead have summoned you here! Their white bony fingers have dragged you across the deep! Did you not hear their voices, cold and hollow as the winter wind, calling, calling you, and saying, 'Come, come, proud robber, from over the far seas; come and gather the beautiful rose of the northern forest'? Yes, Yes! You have obeyed the dead—the dead who feign sleep, but are ever wakeful;—you have come as a thief in the golden midnight, and the thing you seek is the life of Sigurd! Yes—yes! it is true. The spirit cannot lie. You must kill, you must steal! See how the blood drips, drop by drop, from the heart of Sigurd! And the jewel you steal—ah, what a jewel!—you shall not find such another in Norway!"
His excited voice sank by degrees to a plaintive and forlorn whisper, and dropping his torch with a gesture of despair on the ground, he looked at it burning, with an air of mournful and utter desolation. Profoundly touched, as he immediately understood the condition of his companion's wandering wits, Errington spoke to him soothingly.
"You mistake me," he said in gentle accents; "I would not steal anything from you, nor have I come to kill you. See," and he held out his hand, "I wouldn't harm you for the world. I didn't know this cave belonged to you. Forgive me for having entered it. I am going to rejoin my friends. Good-bye!"
The strange, half-crazy creature touched his outstretched hand timidly, and with a sort of appeal.
"Good-bye, good-bye!" he muttered. "That is what they all say,—even the dead,—good-bye; but they never go—never, never! You cannot be different to the rest. And you do not wish to hurt poor Sigurd?"
"Certainly not, if you are Sigurd," said Philip, half laughing; "I should be very sorry to hurt you."
"You are sure?" he persisted, with a sort of obstinate eagerness. "You have eyes which tell truths; but there are other things which are truer than eyes—things in the air, in the grass, in the waves, and they talk very strangely of you. I know you, of course! I knew you ages ago—long before I saw you dead on the field of battle, and the black-haired Valkyrie galloped with you to Valhalla! Yes; I knew you long before that, and you knew me; for I was your King, and you were my vassal, wild and rebellious—not the proud, rich Englishman you are to-day."
Errington startled. How could this Sigurd, as he called himself, be aware of either his wealth or nationality?
The dwarf observed his movement of surprise with a cunning smile.
"Sigurd is wise,—Sigurd is brave! Who shall deceive him? He knows you well; he will always know you. The old gods teach Sigurd all his wisdom—the gods of the sea and the wind—the sleepy gods that lie in the hearts of the flowers—the small spirits that sit in shells and sing all day and all night." He paused, and his eyes filled with a wistful look of attention. He drew closer.
"Come," he said earnestly, "come, you must listen to my music; perhaps you can tell me what it means."
He picked up his smouldering torch and held it aloft again; then, beckoning Errington to follow him, he led the way to a small grotto, cut deeply into the wall of the cavern. Here there were no shell patterns. Little green ferns grew thickly out of the stone crevices, and a minute runlet of water trickled slowly down from above, freshening the delicate frondage as it fell. With quick, agile fingers he removed a loose stone from this aperture, and as he did so, a low shuddering wail resounded through the arches—a melancholy moan that rose and sank, and rose again in weird, sorrowful minor echoes.
"Hear her," murmured Sigurd plaintively. "She is always complaining; it is a pity she cannot rest! She is a spirit, you know. I have often asked her what troubles her, but she will not tell me; she only weeps!"
His companion looked at him compassionately. The sound that so affected his disordered imagination was nothing but the wind blowing through the narrow hole formed by the removal of the stone; but it was useless to explain this simple fact to one in his condition.
"Tell me," and Sir Philip spoke very gently, "is this your home?"
The dwarf surveyed him almost scornfully. "My home!" he echoed. "My home is everywhere—on the mountains, in the forests, on the black rocks and barren shores! My soul lives between the sun and the sea; my heart is with Thelma!"
Thelma! Here was perhaps a clue to the mystery.
"Who is Thelma?" asked Errington somewhat hurriedly.
Sigurd broke into violent and derisive laughter. "Do you think I will tell you?" he cried loudly. "You,—one of that strong, cruel race who must conquer all they see; who covet everything fair under heaven, and will buy it, even at the cost of blood and tears! Do you think I will unlock the door of my treasure to you? No, no; besides," and his voice sank lower, "what should you do with Thelma? She is dead!"
And, as if possessed by a sudden access of frenzy, he brandished his pine-torch wildly above his head till it showered a rain of bright sparks above him, and exclaimed furiously—"Away, away, and trouble me not! The days are not yet fulfilled,—the time is not yet ripe. Why seek to hasten my end? Away, away, I tell you! Leave me in peace! I will die when Thelma bids me; but not till then!"
And he rushed down the long gallery and disappeared in the furthest chamber, where he gave vent to a sort of long, sobbing cry, which rang dolefully through the cavern and then subsided into utter silence.
Feeling as if he were in a chaotic dream, Errington pursued his interrupted course through the winding passages with a bewildered and wondering mind. What strange place had he inadvertently lighted on? and who were the still stranger beings in connection with it? First the beautiful girl herself; next the mysterious coffin, hidden in its fanciful shell temple; and now this deformed madman, with the pale face and fine eyes; whose utterances, though incoherent, savored somewhat of poesy and prophecy. And what spell was attached to that name of Thelma? The more he thought of his morning's adventure, the more puzzled he became. As a rule, he believed more in the commonplace than in the romantic—most people do. But truth to tell, romance is far more common than the commonplace. There are few who have not, at one time or other of their lives, had some strange or tragic episode woven into the tissue of their every-day existence; and it would be difficult to find one person even among humdrum individuals, who, from birth to death, has experienced nothing out of the common.
Errington generally dismissed all tales of adventure as mere exaggerations of heated fancy; and, had he read in some book, of a respectable nineteenth-century yachtsman having such an interview with a madman in a sea-cavern, he would have laughed at the affair as an utter improbability, though he could not have explained why he considered it improbable. But now it had occurred to himself, he was both surprised and amused at the whole circumstance; moreover, he was sufficiently interested and carious to be desirous of sifting the matter to its foundation.
It was, however, somewhat of a relief to him when he again readied the outer cavern. He replaced the lamp on the shelf where he had found it, and stepped once more into the brilliant light of the very early dawn, which then had all the splendor of full morning. There was a deliciously balmy wind, the blue sky was musical with a chorus of larks, and every breath of air that waved aside the long grass sent forth a thousand odors from hidden beds of wild thyme and bog-myrtle.
He perceived the Eulalie at anchor in her old place on the Fjord; she had returned while he was absent on his explorations. Gathering together his rug and painting materials, he blew a whistle sharply three times; he was answered from the yacht, and presently a boat, manned by a couple of sailors, came skimming over the water towards him. It soon reached the shore, and, entering it, he was speedily rowed away from the scene of his morning's experience back to his floating palace, where, as yet, none of his friends were stirring.
"How about Jedke?" he inquired of one of his men. "Did they climb it?"
A slow grin overspread the sailor's brown face.
"Lord bless you, no, sir! Mr. Lorimer, he just looked at it and sat down in the shade; the other gentleman played pitch-and-toss with pebbles. They was main hungry too, and ate a mighty sight of 'am and pickles. Then they came on board and all turned in at once."
Errington laughed. He was amused at the utter failure of Lorimer's recent sudden energy, but not surprised. His thoughts were, however, busied with something else, and he next asked—"Where's our pilot?"
"Valdemar Svensen, sir? He went down to his bunk as soon as we anchored, for a snooze, he said."
"All right. If he comes on deck before I do, just tell him not to go ashore for anything till I see him. I want to speak to him after breakfast."
"Ay, ay, sir."
Whereupon Sir Philip descended to his private cabin. He drew the blind at the port-hole to shut out the dazzling sunlight, for it was nearly three o'clock in the morning, and quickly undressing, he flung himself into his berth with a slight, not altogether unpleasant, feeling of exhaustion. To the last, as his eyes closed drowsily, he seemed to hear the slow drip, drip of the water behind the rocky cavern, and the desolate cry of the incomprehensible Sigurd, while through these sounds that mingled with the gurgle of little waves lapping against the sides of the Eulalie, the name of "Thelma" murmured itself in his ears till slumber drowned his senses in oblivion.
"Hast any mortal name, Fit appellation for this dazzling frame, Or friends or kinsfolk on the citied earth?" KEATS.
"This is positively absurd," murmured Lorimer, in mildly injured tones, seven hours later, as he sat on the edge of his berth, surveying Errington, who, fully dressed, and in the highest spirits, had burst in to upbraid him for his laziness while he was yet but scantily attired. "I tell you, my good fellow, there are some things which the utmost stretch of friendship will not stand. Here am I in shirt and trousers with only one sock on, and you dare to say you have had an adventure! Why, if you had cut a piece out of the sun, you ought to wait till a man is shaved before mentioning it."
"Don't be snappish, old boy!" laughed Errington gaily. "Put on that other sock and listen. I don't want to tell those other fellows just yet, they might go making inquiries about her—"
"Oh, there is a 'her' in the case, is there?" said Lorimer, opening his eyes rather widely. "Well, Phil! I thought you had had enough, and something too much, of women."
"This is not a woman!" declared Philip with heat and eagerness, "at least not the sort of woman I have ever known! This is a forest-empress, sea-goddess, or sun-angel! I don't know what she is, upon my life!"
Lorimer regarded him with an air of reproachful offense.
"Don't go on—please don't!" he implored. "I can't stand it—I really can't! Incipient verse-mania is too much for me. Forest-empress, sea-goddess, sun-angel—by Jove! what next? You are evidently in a very bad way. If I remember rightly, you had a flask of that old green Chartreuse with you. Ah! that accounts for it! Nice stuff, but a little too strong."
Errington laughed, and, unabashed by his friend's raillery, proceeded to relate with much vivacity and graphic fervor the occurrences of the morning. Lorimer listened patiently with a forbearing smile on his open, ruddy countenance. When he had heard everything he looked up and inquired calmly—
"This is not a yarn, is it?"
"A yarn!" exclaimed Philip. "Do you think I would invent such a thing?"
"Can't say," returned Lorimer imperturbably. "You are quite capable of it. It's a very creditable crammer, due to Chartreuse. Might have been designed by Victor Hugo; it's in his style. Scene, Norway—midnight. Mysterious maiden steals out of a cave and glides away in a boat over the water; man, the hero, goes into cave, finds a stone coffin, says—'Qu'est-ce que c'est? Dieu! C'est la mort!' Spectacle affreux! Staggers back perspiring; meets mad dwarf with torch; mad dwarf talks a good deal—mad people always do,—then yells and runs away. Man comes out of cave and—and—goes home to astonish his friends; one of them won't be astonished,—that's me!"
"I don't care," said Errington. "It's a true story for all that. Only, I say, don't talk of it before the others; let's keep our own counsel—"
"No poachers allowed on the Sun-Angel Manor!" interrupted Lorimer gravely. Philip went on without heeding him.
"I'll question Valdemar Svensen after breakfast. He knows everybody about here. Come and have a smoke on deck when I give you the sign, and we'll cross-examine him."
Lorimer still looked incredulous. "What's the good of it?" he inquired languidly. "Even if it's all true you had much better leave this goddess, or whatever you call her, alone, especially if she has any mad connections. What do you want with her?"
"Nothing!" declared Errington, though hiss color heightened. "Nothing, I assure you! It's just a matter of curiosity with me. I should like to know who she is—that's all! The affair won't go any further."
"How do you know?" and Lorimer began to brush his stiff curly hair with a sort of vicious vigor. "How can you tell? I'm not a spiritualist, nor any sort of a humbug at all, I hope, but I sometimes indulge in presentiments. Before we started on this cruise, I was haunted by that dismal old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens—"
'The King's daughter of Norroway 'Tis thou maun bring her hame!'
"And here you have found her, or so it appears. What's to come of it, I wonder?"
"Nothing's to come of it; nothing will come of it!" laughed Philip. "As I told you, she said she was a peasant. There's the breakfast-bell! Make haste, old boy, I'm as hungry as a hunter!"
And he left his friend to finish dressing, and entered the saloon, where he greeted his two other companions, Alec, or, as he was oftener called, Sandy Macfarlane, and Pierre Duprez; the former an Oxford student,—the latter a young fellow whose acquaintance he had made in Paris, and with whom he had kept up a constant and friendly intercourse. A greater contrast than these two presented could scarcely be imagined. Macfarlane was tall and ungainly, with large loose joints that seemed to protrude angularly out of him in every direction,—Duprez was short, slight and wiry, with a dapper and by no means ungraceful figure. The one had formal gauche manners, a never-to-be-eradicated Glasgow accent, and a slow, infinitely tedious method of expressing himself,—the other was full of restless movement and pantomimic gesture, and being proud of his English, plunged into that language recklessly, making it curiously light and flippant, though picturesque, as he went. Macfarlane was destined to become a shining light of the established Church of Scotland, and therefore took life very seriously,—Duprez was the spoilt only child of an eminent French banker, and had very little to do but enjoy himself, and that he did most thoroughly, without any calculation or care for the future. On all points of taste and opinion they differed widely; but there was no doubt about their both being good-hearted fellows, without any affectation of abnormal vice or virtue.
"So you did not climb Jedke after all!" remarked Errington laughingly, as they seated themselves at the breakfast table.
"My friend, what would you!" cried Duprez. "I have not said that I will climb it; no! I never say that I will do anything, because I'm not sure of myself. How can I be? It is that cher enfant, Lorimer, that said such brave words! See! . . . we arrive; we behold the shore—all black, great, vast! . . . rocks like needles, and, higher than all, this most fierce Jedke—bah! what a name!—straight as the spire of a cathedral. One must be a fly to crawl up it, and we, we are not flies—ma foi! no! Lorimer, he laugh, he yawn—so! He say, 'not for me to-day; I very much thank you!' And then, we watch the sun. Ah! that was grand, glorious, beautiful!" And Duprez kissed the tips of his fingers in ecstacy.
"What did you think about it, Sandy?" asked Sir Philip.
"I didna think much," responded Macfarlane, shortly. "It's no sae grand a sight as a sunset in Skye. And it's an uncanny business to see the sun losin' a' his poonctooality, and remainin' stock still, as it were, when it's his plain duty to set below the horizon. Mysel', I think it's been fair over-rated. It's unnatural an' oot o' the common, say what ye like."
"Of course it is," agreed Lorimer, who just then sauntered in from his cabin. "Nature is most unnatural. I always thought so. Tea for me, Phil, please; coffee wakes me up too suddenly. I say, what's the programme to-day?"
"Fishing in the Alten," answered Errington promptly.
"That suits me perfectly," said Lorimer, as he leisurely sipped his tea. "I'm an excellent fisher. I hold the line and generally forget to bait it. Then,—while it trails harmlessly in the water, I doze; thus both the fish and I are happy."
"And this evening," went on Errington, "we must return the minister's call. He's been to the yacht twice. We're bound to go out of common politeness."
"Spare us, good Lord!" groaned Lorimer.
"What a delightfully fat man is that good religious!" cried Duprez. "A living proof of the healthiness of Norway!"
"He's not a native," put in Macfarlane; "he's frae Yorkshire. He's only been a matter of three months here, filling the place o' the settled meenister who's awa' for a change of air."
"He's a precious specimen of a humbug, anyhow," sighed Lorimer drearily. "However, I'll be civil to him as long as he doesn't ask me to hear him preach. At that suggestion I'll fight him. He's soft enough to bruise easily."
"Ye're just too lazy to fight onybody," declared Macfarlane.
Lorimer smiled sweetly. "Thanks, awfully! I dare say you're right. I've never found it worth while as yet to exert myself in any particular direction. No one has asked me to exert myself; no one wants me to exert myself; therefore, why should I?"
"Don't ye want to get on in the world?" asked Macfarlane, almost brusquely.
"Dear me, no! What an exhausting idea! Get on in the world—what for? I have five hundred a year, and when my mother goes over to the majority (long distant be that day, for I'm very fond of the dear old lady), I shall have five thousand—more than enough to satisfy any sane man who doesn't want to speculate on the Stock Exchange. Your case, my good Mac, is different. You will be a celebrated Scotch divine. You will preach to a crowd of pious numskulls about predestination, and so forth. You will be stump-orator for the securing of seats in paradise. Now, now, keep calm!—don't mind me. It's only a figure of speech! And the numskulls will call you a 'rare powerful rousin' preacher'—isn't that the way they go on? and when you die—for die you must, most unfortunately—they will give you a three-cornered block of granite (if they can make up their minds to part with the necessary bawbees) with your name prettily engraved thereon. That's all very nice; it suits some people. It wouldn't suit me."
"What would suit you?" queried Errington. "You find everything more or less of a bore."
"Ah, my good little boy!" broke in Duprez. "Paris is the place for you. You should live in Paris. Of that you would never fatigue yourself."
"Too much absinthe, secret murder and suicidal mania," returned Lorimer, meditatively. "That was a neat idea about the coffins though. I never hoped to dine off a coffin."
"Ah! you mean the Taverne de l'Enfer?" exclaimed Duprez. "Yes; the divine waitresses wore winding sheets, and the wine was served in imitation skulls. Excellent! I remember; the tables were shaped like coffins."
"Gude Lord Almighty!" piously murmured Macfarlane. "What a fearsome sicht!"
As he pronounced these words with an unusually marked accent, Duprez looked inquiring.
"What does our Macfarlane say?"
"He says it must have been a 'fearsome sicht,'" repeated Lorimer, with even a stronger accent than Sanby's own, "which, mon cher Pierre, means all the horrors in your language; affreux, epouvantable, navrant—anything you like, that is sufficiently terrible."
"Mais, point du tout!" cried Duprez energetically. "It was charming! It made us laugh at death—so much better than to cry! And there was a delicious child in a winding-sheet; brown curls, laughing eyes and little mouth; ha ha! but she was well worth kissing!"
"I'd rather follow ma own funeral, than kiss a lass in a winding-sheet," said Sandy, in solemn and horrified tones. "It's just awfu' to think on."
"But, see, my friend," persisted Duprez, "you would not be permitted to follow your own funeral, not possible,—voila! You are permitted to kiss the pretty one in the winding-sheet. It is possible. Behold the difference!"
"Never mind the Taverne de l'Enfer just now," said Errington, who had finished his breakfast hurriedly. "It's time for you fellows to get your fishing toggery on. I'm off to speak to the pilot."
And away he went, followed more slowly by Lorimer, who, though he pretended indifference, was rather curious to know more, if possible, concerning his friend's adventure of the morning. They found the pilot, Valdemar Svensen, leaning at his ease against the idle wheel, with his face turned towards the eastern sky. He was a stalwart specimen of Norse manhood, tall and strongly built, with thoughtful, dignified features, and keen, clear hazel eyes. His chestnut hair, plentifully sprinkled with gray, clustered thickly over a broad brow, that was deeply furrowed with many a line of anxious and speculative thought, and the forcible brown hand that rested lightly on the spokes of the wheel, told its own tale of hard and honest labor. Neither wife nor child, nor living relative had Valdemar; the one passion of his heart was the sea. Sir Philip Errington had engaged him at Christiansund, hearing of him there as a man to whom the intricacies of the Fjords, and the dangers of rock-bound coasts, were more familiar than a straight road on dry lake, and since then the management of the Eulalie had been entirely entrusted to him. Though an eminently practical sailor, he was half a mystic, and believed in the wildest legends of his land with more implicit faith than many so-called Christians believe in their sacred doctrines. He doffed his red cap respectfully now as Errington and Lorimer approached, smilingly wishing them "a fair day." Sir Philip offered him a cigar, and, coming to the point at once, asked abruptly—
"I say, Svensen, are there any pretty girls in Bosekop?"
The pilot drew the newly lit cigar from his mouth, and passed his rough hand across his forehead in a sort of grave perplexity.
"It is a matter in which I am foolish," he said at last, "for my ways have always gone far from the ways of women. Girls there are plenty, I suppose, but—" he mused with pondering patience for awhile. Then a broad smile broke like sunshine over his embrowned countenance, as he continued, "Now, gentlemen, I do remember well; it is said that at Bosekop yonder, are to be found some of the homeliest wenches in all Norway."
Errington's face fell at this reply. Lorimer turned away to hide the mischievous smile that came on his lips at his friend's discomfiture.
"I know it was that Chartreuse," he thought to himself. "That and the midnight sun-effects. Nothing else!"
"What!" went on Philip. "No good-looking girls at all about here, eh?"
Svensen shook his head, still smilingly.
"Not at Bosekop, sir, that I ever heard of."
"I say!" broke in Lorimer, "are there any old tombs or sea-caves, or places of that sort close by, worth exploring?"
Valdemar Svensen answered this question readily, almost eagerly.
"No, sir! There are no antiquities of any sort; and as for eaves, there are plenty, but only the natural formations of the sea, and none of these are curious or beautiful on this side of the Fjord."
Lorimer poked his friend secretly in the ribs.
"You've been dreaming, old fellow!" he whispered slyly. "I knew it was a crammer!"
Errington shook him off good-humoredly.
"Can you tell me," he said, addressing Valdemar again in distinct accents, "whether there is any place, person, or thing near here called Thelma?"
The pilot started; a look of astonishment and fear came into his eyes; his hand went instinctively to his red cap, as though in deference to the name.
"The Froeken Thelma!" he exclaimed, in low tones. "Is it possible that you have seen her?"
"Ah, George, what do you say now?" cried Errington delightedly. "Yes, yes, Valdemar; the Froeken Thelma, as you call her. Who is she? . . . What is she?—and how can there be no pretty girls in Bosekop if such a beautiful creature as she lives there?"
Valdemar looked troubled and vexed.
"Truly, I thought not of the maiden," he said gravely. "'Tis not for me to speak of the daughter of Olaf," here his voice sank a little, and his face grew more and more sombre. "Pardon me, sir, but how did you meet her?"
"By accident," replied Errington promptly, not caring to relate his morning's adventure for the pilot's benefit. "Is she some great personage here?"
Svensen sighed, and smiled somewhat dubiously.
"Great? Oh, no; not what you would call great. Her father, Olaf Gueldmar, is a bonde,—that is, a farmer in his own right. He has a goodly house, and a few fair acres well planted and tilled,—also he pays his men freely,—but those that work for him are all he sees,—neither he nor his daughter ever visit the town. They dwell apart, and have nothing in common with their neighbors."
"And where do they live?" asked Lorimer, becoming as interested as he had formerly been incredulous.
The pilot leaned lightly over the rail of the deck and pointed towards the west.
"You see that great rock shaped like a giant's helmet, and behind it a high green knoll, clustered thick with birch and pine?"
They nodded assent.
"At the side of the knoll is the bonde's house, a good eight-mile walk from the outskirts of Bosekop. Should you ever seek to rest there, gentlemen," and Svensen spoke with quiet resolution, "I doubt whether you will receive a pleasant welcome."
And he looked at them both with an inquisitive air, as though seeking to discover their intentions.
"Is that so?" drawled Lorimer lazily, giving his friend an expressive nudge. "Ah! We shan't trouble them! Thanks for your information, Valdemar! We don't intend to hunt up the—what d'ye call him?—the bonde, if he's at all surly. Hospitality that gives you greeting and a dinner for nothing,—that's what suits me."
"Our people are not without hospitality," said the pilot, with a touch of wistful and appealing dignity. "All along your journey, gentlemen, you have been welcomed gladly, as you know. But Olaf Gueldmar is not like the rest of us; he has the pride and fierceness of olden days; his manners and customs are different; and few like him. He is much feared."
"You know him then?" inquired Errington carelessly.
"I know him," returned Valdemar quietly. "And his daughter is fair as the sun and the sea. But it is not my place to speak of them—." He broke off, and after a slightly embarrassed pause, asked, "Will the Herren wish to sail to-day?"
"No Valdemar," answered Errington indifferently. "Not till to-morrow, when we'll visit the Kaa Fjord if the weather keeps fair."
"Very good, sir," and the pilot, tacitly avoiding any further converse with his employer respecting the mysterious Thelma and her equally mysterious father, turned to examine the wheel and compass as though something there needed his earnest attention. Errington and Lorimer strolled up and down the polished white deck arm-in-arm, talking in low tones.
"You didn't ask him about the coffin and the dwarf," said Lorimer.
"No; because I believe he knows nothing of either, and it would be news to him which I'm not bound to give. If I can manage to see the girl again the mystery of the cave may explain itself."
"Well, what are you going to do?"
Errington looked meditative. "Nothing at present We'll go fishing with the others. But, I tell you what, if you're up to it, we'll leave Duprez and Macfarlane at the minister's house this evening and tell them to wait for us there,—once they all begin to chatter they never know how time goes. Meanwhile you and I will take the boat and row over in search of this farmer's abode. I believe there's a short cut to it by water; at any rate I know the way she went."
"'I know the way she went home with her maiden posy!'" quoted Lorimer, with a laugh. "You are hit Phil, 'a very palpable hit'! Who would have thought it! Clara Winsleigh needn't poison her husband after all in-order to marry you, for nothing but a sun-empress will suit you now."
"Don't be a fool, George," said Errington, half vexedly, as the hot color mounted to his face in spite of himself. "It is all idle curiosity, nothing else. After what Svensen told us, I'm quite as anxious to see this gruff old bonde as his daughter."
Lorimer held up a reproachful finger. "Now, Phil, don't stoop to duplicity—not with me, at any rate. Why disguise your feelings? Why, as the tragedians say, endeavor to crush the noblest and best emotions that ever warm the boo-zum of man? Chivalrous sentiment and admiration for beauty,—chivalrous desire to pursue it and catch it and call it your own,—I understand it all, my dear boy! But my prophetic soul tells me you will have to strangle the excellent Olaf Gueldmar—heavens! what a name!—before you will be allowed to make love to his fair chee-ild. Then don't forget the madman with the torch,—he may turn up in the most unexpected fashion and give you no end of trouble. But, by Jove, it is a romantic affair, positively quite stagey! Something will come of it, serious or comic. I wonder which?"
Errington laughed, but said nothing in reply, as their two companions ascended from the cabin at that moment, in full attire for the fishing expedition, followed by the steward bearing a large basket of provisions for luncheon,—and all private conversation came to an end. Hastening the rest of their preparations, within twenty minutes they were skimming across the Fjord in a long boat manned by four sailors, who rowed with a will and sent the light craft scudding through the water with the swiftness of an arrow. Landing, they climbed the dewy hills spangled thick with forget-me-nots and late violets, till they reached a shady and secluded part of the river, where, surrounded by the songs of hundreds of sweet-throated birds, they commenced their sport, which kept them, well employed till a late hour in the afternoon.
"Thou art violently carried away from grace; there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of a fat old man,—a tun of man is thy companion." SHAKESPEARE.
The Reverend Charles Dyceworthy sat alone in the small dining-room of his house at Bosekop, finishing a late tea, and disposing of round after round of hot buttered toast with that suave alacrity he always displayed in the consumption of succulent eatables. He was a largely made man, very much on the wrong side of fifty, with accumulations of unwholesome fat on every available portion of his body. His round face was cleanly shaven and shiny, as though its flabby surface were frequently polished with some sort of luminous grease instead of the customary soap. His mouth was absurdly small and pursy for so broad a countenance,—his nose seemed endeavoring to retreat behind his puffy cheeks as though painfully aware of its own insignificance,—and he had little, sharp, ferret-like eyes of a dull mahogany brown, which were utterly destitute of even the faintest attempt at any actual expression. They were more like glass beads than eyes, and glittered under their scanty fringe of pale-colored lashes with a sort of shallow cunning which might mean malice or good-humor,—no one looking at them could precisely determine which. His hair was of an indefinite shade, neither light nor dark, somewhat of the tinge of a dusty potato before it is washed clean. It was neatly brushed and parted in the middle with mathematical precision, while from the back of his head it was brought forward in two projections, one on each side, like budding wings behind his ears. It was impossible for the most fastidious critic to find fault with the Reverend Mr. Dyceworthy's hands. He had beautiful hands, white, soft, plump and well-shaped,—his delicate filbert nails were trimmed with punctilious care, and shone with a pink lustre that was positively charming. He was evidently an amiable man, for he smiled to himself over his tea,—he had a trick of smiling,—ill-natured people said he did it on purpose, in order to widen his mouth and make it more in pro-portion to the size of his face. Such remarks, however, emanated only from the spiteful and envious who could not succeed in winning the social popularity that everywhere attended Mr. Dyceworthy's movements. For he was undoubtedly popular,—no one could deny that. In the small Yorkshire town where he usually had his abode, he came little short of being adored by the women of his own particular sect, who crowded to listen to his fervent discourses, and came away from them on the verge of hysteria, so profoundly moved were their sensitive souls by his damnatory doctrines. The men were more reluctant in their admiration, yet even they were always ready to admit "that he was an excellent fellow, with his heart in the right place."
He had a convenient way of getting ill at the proper seasons, and of requiring immediate change of air, whereupon his grateful flock were ready and willing to subscribe the money necessary for their beloved preacher to take repose and relaxation in any part of the world he chose. This year, however, they had not been asked to furnish the usual funds for travelling expenses, for the resident minister of Bosekop, a frail, gentle old man, had been seriously prostrated during the past winter with an affection of the lungs, which necessitated his going to a different climate for change and rest. Knowing Dyceworthy as a zealous member of the Lutheran persuasion, and, moreover, as one who had in his youth lived for some years in Christiania,—thereby gaining a knowledge of the Norwegian tongue,—he invited him to take his place for his enforced time of absence, offering him his house, his servants, his pony-carriage and an agreeable pecuniary douceur in exchange for his services,—proposals which the Reverend Charles eagerly accepted. Though Norway was not exactly new to him, the region of the Alten Fjord was, and he at once felt, though he knew not why, that the air there would be the very thing to benefit his delicate constitution. Besides, it looked well for at least one occasion, to go away for the summer without asking his congregation to pay for his trip. It was generous on his part, almost noble.
The ladies of his flock wept at his departure and made him socks, comforters, slippers, and other consoling gear of the like description to recall their sweet memories to his saintly mind during his absence from their society. But, truth to tell, Mr. Dyceworthy gave little thought to these fond and regretful fair ones; he was much too comfortable at Bosekop to look back with any emotional yearning to the ugly, precise little provincial town he had left behind him. The minister's quaint, pretty house suited him perfectly; the minister's servants were most punctual in their services: the minister's phaeton conveniently held his cumbrous person, and the minister's pony was a quiet beast, that trotted good-temperedly wherever it was guided, and shied at nothing. Yes, he was thoroughly comfortable,—as comfortable as a truly pious fat man deserves to be, and all the work he had to do was to preach twice on Sundays, to a quiet, primitive, decently ordered congregation, who listened to his words respectfully though without displaying any emotional rapture. Their stolidity, however, did not affect him,—he preached to please himself,—loving above all things to hear the sound of his own voice, and never so happy as when thundering fierce denunciations against the Church of Rome. His thoughts seemed tending in that direction now, as he poured himself out his third cup of tea and smilingly shook his head over it, while he stirred the cream and sugar in,—for he took from his waistcoat pocket a small glittering object and laid it before him on the table, still shaking his head and smiling with a patient, yet reproachful air of superior wisdom. It was a crucifix of mother-o'-pearl and silver, the symbol of the Christian faith. But it seemed to carry no sacred suggestions to the soul of Mr. Dyceworthy. On the contrary, he looked at it with an expression of meek ridicule,—ridicule that bordered on contempt.
"A Roman," he murmured placidly to himself, between two large bites of toast. "The girl is a Roman, and thereby hopelessly damned."
And he smiled again,—more sweetly than before, as though the idea of hopeless damnation suggested some peculiarly agreeable reflections. Unfolding his fine cologne-scented cambric handkerchief, he carefully wiped his fat white fingers free from the greasy marks of the toast, and, taking up the objectionable cross gingerly, as though it were red-hot, he examined it closely on all sides. There were some words engraved on the back of it, and after some trouble Mr. Dyceworthy spelt them out. They were "Passio Christi, conforta me. Thelma."
He shook his head with a sort of resigned cheerfulness.
"Hopelessly damned," he murmured again gently, "unless—"
What alternative suggested itself to his mind was not precisely apparent, for his thoughts suddenly turned in a more frivolous direction. Rising from the now exhausted tea-table, he drew out a small pocket-mirror and surveyed himself therein with a mild approval. With the extreme end of his handkerchief he tenderly removed two sacrilegious crumbs that presumed to linger in the corners of his piously pursed mouth. In the same way he detached a morsel of congealed butter that clung pertinaciously to the end of his bashfully retreating nose. This done, he again looked at himself with increased satisfaction, and, putting by his pocket-mirror, rang the bell. It was answered at once by a tall, strongly built woman, with a colorless, stolid countenance,—that might have been carved out of wood for any expression it had in it.
"Ulrika," said Mr. Dyceworthy blandly, "you can clear the table."
Ulrika, without answering, began to pack the tea-things together in a methodical way, without clattering so much as a plate or spoon, and, piling them compactly on a tray, was about to leave the room, when Mr. Dyceworthy called to her, "Ulrika!"
"Did you ever see a thing like this before?" and he held up the crucifix to her gaze.
The woman shuddered, and her dull eyes lit up with a sudden terror.
"It is the witch's charm!" she muttered thickly, while her pale face grew yet paler. "Burn it, sir!—burn it, and the power will leave her."
Mr. Dyceworthy laughed indulgently. "My good woman, you mistake," he said suavely. "Your zeal for the true gospel leads you into error. There are thousands of misguided persons who worship such a thing as this. It is often all of our dear Lord they know. Sad, very sad! But still, though they, alas! are not of the elect, and are plainly doomed to perdition,—they are not precisely what are termed witches, Ulrika."
"She is," replied the woman with a sort of ferocity; "and, if I had my way, I would tell her so to her face, and see what would happen to her then!"
"Tut, tut!" remarked Mr. Dyceworthy amiably. "The days of witchcraft are past. You show some little ignorance, Ulrika. You are not acquainted with the great advancement of recent learning."
"Maybe, maybe," and Ulrika turned to go; but she muttered sullenly as she went, "There be them that know and could tell, and them that will have her yet."
She shut the door behind her with a sharp clang, and, left to himself, Mr. Dyceworthy again smiled—such a benignant, fatherly smile! He then walked to the window and looked out. It was past seven o'clock, an hour that elsewhere would have been considered evening, but in Bosekop at that season it still seemed afternoon.
The sun was shining brilliantly, and in the minister's front garden the roses were all wide awake. A soft moisture glittered on every tiny leaf and blade of grass. The penetrating and delicious odor of sweet violets scented each puff of wind, and now and then the call of the cuckoo pierced the air with a subdued, far-off shrillness.
From his position Mr. Dyceworthy could catch a glimpse through the trees of the principal thoroughfare of Bosekop—a small, primitive street enough, of little low houses, which, though unpretending from without, were roomy and comfortable within. The distant, cool sparkle of the waters of the Fjord, the refreshing breeze, the perfume of the flowers, and the satisfied impression left on his mind by recent tea and toast—all these things combined had a soothing effect on Mr. Dyceworthy, and with a sigh of absolute comfort he settled his large person in a deep easy chair and composed himself for pious meditation.