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Boyhood in Norway(22)

2006-09-07 22:19

  LUCK I The Child of Luck

  A sunny-tempered little fellow was Hans, and his father declared that he had brought luck with him when he came into the world.

  "He was such a handsome baby when he was born," said Inga, his mother; "but you would scarcely believe it now, running about as he does in forest and field, tearing his clothes and scratching his face."

  Now, it was true, as Hans's mother said, that he did often tear his clothes; and as he had an indomitable curiosity, and had to investigate everything that came in his way, it was also no uncommon thing for him to come home with his face stung or scratched.

  "Why must you drag that child with you wherever you go, Nils?" the mother complained to Hans's father, when the little boy was brought to her in such a disreputable condition. "Why can't you leave him at home? What other man do you know who carries a six-year-old little fellow about with him in rain and shine, storm and quiet?

  "Well," Nils invariably answered, "I like him and he likes me. He brings me luck."

  This was a standing dispute between Nils and Inga, his wife, and they never came to an agreement. She knew as well as her husband that before little Hans was born there was want and misery in their cottage. But from the hour the child lifted up its tiny voice, announcing its arrival, there had been prosperity and contentment. Their luck had turned, Nils said, and it was the child that had turned it. They had been married for four years, and though they had no one to provide for but themselves, they scarcely managed to keep body and soul together. All sorts of untoward things happened. Now a tree which he was cutting down fell upon Nils and laid him up for a month; now he got water on his knee from a blow he received while rolling logs into the chute; now the pig died which was to have provided them with salt pork for the winter, and the hens took to the bush, and laid their eggs where nobody except the rats and the weasels could find them. But since little Hans had come and put an end to all these disasters, his father had a superstitious feeling that he could not bear to have him away from him. Therefore every morning when he started out for the forest or the river he carried Hans on his shoulder. And the little boy sat there, smiling proudly and waving his hand to his mother, who stood in the door looking longingly after him.

  "Hello, little chap!" cried the lumbermen, when they saw him. "Good-morning to you and good luck!"

  They always cheered up, however bad the weather was, when they saw little Hans, for nobody could look at his sunny little face without feeling something like a ray of sunlight stealing into his heart. Hans had a smile and a wave of his hand for everybody. He knew all the lumbermen by name, and they knew him.

  They sang as they swung the axe or the boat-hook, and the work went merrily when little Hans sat on the top of the log pile and shouted to them. But if by chance he was absent for a day or two they missed him. No songs were heard, but harsh words, and not infrequently quarrels. Now, nobody believed, of course, that little Hans was such a wizard that he could make people feel and behave any better than it was in their nature to do; but sure it was——at least the lumbermen insisted that it was so——there was joy and good-tempered mirth wherever that child went, and life seemed a little sadder and poorer to those who knew him when he was away.

  No one will wonder that Nils sometimes boasted of his little son.

  He told not once, but a hundred times, as they sat about the camp-fire eating their dinner, that little Hans was a child of luck, and that no misfortune could happen while he was near. Lumbermen are naturally superstitious, and though perhaps at first they may have had their doubts, they gradually came to accept the statement without question. They came to regard it as a kind of right to have little Hans sit on the top of the log pile when they worked, or running along the chute, while the wild-cat strings of logs shot down the steep slide with lightning speed. They were not in the least afraid lest the logs should jump the chute, as they had often done before, killing or maiming the unhappy man that came too near. For was not little Hans's life charmed, so that no harm could befall him?

  Now, it happened that Inga, little Hans's mother, came one day to the river to see how he was getting on. Nils was then standing on a raft hooking the floating logs with his boat-hook, while the boy was watching him from the shore, shouting to him, throwing chips into the water, and amusing himself as best he could. It was early in May, and the river was swollen from recent thaws. Below the cataract where the lumbermen worked, the broad, brown current moved slowly along with sluggish whirls and eddies; but the raft was moored by chains to the shore, so that it was in no danger of getting adrift. It was capital fun to see the logs come rushing down the slide, plunging with a tremendous splash into the river, and then bob up like live things after having bumped against the bottom. Little Hans clapped his hands and yelled with delight when a string of three or four came tearing along in that way, and dived, one after the other, headlong into the water.

  "Catch that one, papa!" he cried; "that is a good big fellow. He dived like a man, he did. He has washed the dirt off his snout now; that was the reason he took such a big plunge."

  Nils never failed to reach his boat-hook after the log little Hans indicated, for he liked to humor him, and little Hans liked to be humored. He had an idea that he was directing his father's work, and Nils invented all sorts of innocent devices to flatter little Hans's dignity, and make him think himself indispensable. It was of no use, therefore, for poor Inga to beg little Hans to go home with her. He had so much to do, he said, that he couldn't. He even tried to tear himself away from his mother when she took him by the arm and remonstrated with him. And then and there the conviction stole upon Inga that her child did not love her. She was nothing to him compared to what his father was. And was it right for Nils thus to rob her of the boy's affection? Little Hans could scarcely be blamed for loving his father better; for love is largely dependent upon habit, and Nils had been his constant companion since he was a year old. A bitter sense of loneliness and loss overcame the poor wife as she stood on the river-bank pleading with her child, and finding that she annoyed instead of moving him.

  "Won't you come home with mamma, little Hans?" she asked, tearfully. "The kitten misses you very much; it has been mewing for you all the morning."

  "No," said little Hans, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and turning about with a manly stride; "we are going to have the lumber inspector here to-day? and then papa's big raft is going down the river."

  "But this dreadful noise, dear; how can you stand it? And the logs shooting down that slide and making such a racket. And these great piles of lumber, Hans——think, if they should tumble down and kill you!"

  "Oh, I'm not afraid, mamma," cried Hans, proudly; and, to show his fearlessness, he climbed up the log pile, and soon stood on the top of it, waving his cap and shouting.

  "Oh, do come down, child——do come down!" begged Inga, anxiously.

  She had scarcely uttered the words when she heard a warning shout from the slope above, and had just time to lift her eyes, when she saw a big black object dart past her, strike the log pile, and break with a deafening crash. A long confused rumble of rolling logs followed, terrified voices rent the air, and, above it all, the deep and steady roar of the cataract. She saw, as through a fog, little Hans, serene and smiling as ever, borne down on the top of the rolling lumber, now rising up and skipping from log to log, now clapping his hands and screaming with pleasure, and then suddenly vanishing in the brown writhing river. His laughter was still ringing in her ears; the poor child, he did not realize his danger. The rumbling of falling logs continued with terrifying persistence. Splash! splash! splash! they went, diving by twos, by fours, and by dozens at the very spot where her child had vanished. But where was little Hans? Oh, where was he? It was all so misty, so unreal and confused. She could not tell whether little Hans was among the living or among the dead. But there, all of a sudden, his head popped up in the middle of the river; and there was another head close to his——it was that of his father! And round about them other heads bobbed up; for all the lumbermen who were on the raft had plunged into the water with Nils when they saw that little Hans was in danger. A dozen more were running down the slope as fast as their legs could carry them; and they gave a tremendous cheer when they saw little Hans's face above the water. He looked a trifle pale and shivery, and he gave a funny little snort, so that the water spurted from his nose. He had lost his hat, but he did not seem to be hurt. His little arms clung tightly about his father's neck, while Nils, dodging the bobbing logs, struck out with all his might for the shore. And when he felt firm bottom under his feet, and came stumbling up through the shallow water, looking like a drowned rat, what a welcome he received from the lumbermen! They all wanted to touch little Hans and pat his cheek, just to make sure that it was really he.

  "It was wonderful indeed," they said, "that he ever came up out of that horrible jumble of pitching and diving logs. He is a child of luck, if ever there was one."

  Not one of them thought of the boy's mother, and little Hans himself scarcely thought of her, elated as he was at the welcome he received from the lumbermen. Poor Inga stood dazed, struggling with a horrible feeling, seeing her child passed from one to the other, while she herself claimed no share in him. Somehow the thought stung her. A sudden clearness burst upon her; she rushed forward, with a piercing scream, snatched little Hans from his father's arms, and hugging his wet little shivering form to her breast, fled like a deer through the underbrush.

  From that day little Hans was not permitted to go to the river. It was in vain that Nils pleaded and threatened. His wife acted so unreasonably when that question was broached that he saw it was useless to discuss it. She seized little Hans as a tigress might seize her young, and held him tightly clasped, as if daring anybody to take him away from her. Nils knew it would require force to get his son back again, and that he was not ready to employ. But all joy seemed to have gone out of his life since he had lost the daily companionship of little Hans. His work became drudgery; and all the little annoyances of life, which formerly he had brushed away as one brushes a fly from his nose, became burdens and calamities. The raft upon which he had expended so much labor went to pieces during a sudden rise of the river the night after little Hans's adventure, and three days later Thorkel Fossen was killed outright by a string of logs that jumped the chute.

  "It isn't the same sort of place since you took little Hans away," the lumbermen would often say to Nils. "There's no sort of luck in anything."

  Sometimes they taunted him with want of courage, and called him a "night-cap" and a "hen-pecked coon," all of which made Nils uncomfortable. He made two or three attempts to persuade his wife to change her mind in regard to little Hans, but the last time she got so frightened that she ran out of the house and hid in the cow stable with the boy, crouching in an empty stall, and crying as if her heart would break, when little Hans escaped and betrayed her hiding-place. The boy, in fact, sympathized with his father, and found his confinement at home irksome. The companionship of the cat had no more charm for him; and even the brindled calf, which had caused such an excitement when he first arrived, had become an old story. Little Halls fretted, was mischievous for want of better employment, and gave his mother no end of trouble. He longed for the gay and animated life at the river, and he would have run away if he had not been watched. He could not imagine how the lumbermen could be getting on without him. It seemed to him that all work must come to a stop when he was no longer sitting on the top of the log piles, or standing on the bank throwing chips into the water.

  Now, as a matter of fact, they were not getting on very well at the river without little Hans. The luck had deserted them, the lumbermen said; and whatever mishaps they had, they attributed to the absence of little Hans. They came to look with ill-suppressed hostility at Nils, whom they regarded as responsible for their misfortunes. For they could scarcely believe that he was quite in earnest in his desire for the boy's return, otherwise they could not comprehend how his wife could dare to oppose him. The weather was stormy, and the mountain brook which ran along the slide concluded to waste no more labor in carving out a bed for itself in the rock, when it might as well be using the slide which it found ready made. And one fine day it broke into the slide and half filled it, so that the logs, when they were started down the steep incline, sent the water flying, turned somersaults, stood on end, and played no end of dangerous tricks which no one could foresee. Several men were badly hurt by beams shooting like rockets through the air, and old Mads Furubakken was knocked senseless and carried home for dead. Then the lumbermen held a council, and made up their minds to get little Hans by fair means or foul. They thought first of sending a delegation of four or five men that very morning, but finally determined to march up to Nils's cottage in a body and demand the boy. There were twenty of them at the very least, and the tops of their long boat-hooks, which they carried on their shoulders, were seen against the green forest before they were themselves visible.

  Nils, who was just out of bed, was sitting on the threshold smoking his pipe and pitching a ball to little Hans, who laughed with delight whenever he caught it. Inga was bustling about inside the house, preparing breakfast, which was to consist of porridge, salt herring, and baked potatoes. It had rained during the night, and the sky was yet overcast, but the sun was struggling to break through the cloud-banks. A couple of thrushes in the alder-bushes about the cottage were rejoicing at the change in the weather, and Nils was listening to their song and to his son's merry prattle, when he caught sight of the twenty lumbermen marching up the hillside. He rose, with some astonishment, and went to meet them. Inga, hearing their voices, came to the door, and seeing the many men, snatched up little Hans, and with a wildly palpitating heart ran into the cottage, bolting the door behind her. She had a vague foreboding that this unusual visit meant something hostile to herself, and she guessed that Nils had been only the spokesman of his comrades in demanding so eagerly the return of the boy to the river. She believed all their talk about his luck to be idle nonsense; but she knew that Nils had unwittingly spread this belief, and that the lumbermen were convinced that little Hans was their good genius, whose presence averted disaster. Distracted with fear and anxiety, she stood pressing her ear against the crack in the door, and sometimes peeping out to see what measures she must take for the child's safety. Would Nils stand by her, or would he desert her? But surely——what was Nils thinking about? He was extending his hand to each of the men, and receiving them kindly.

  Next he would be inviting them to come in and take little Hans. She saw one of the men——Stubby Mons by name——step forward, and she plainly heard him say:

  "We miss the little chap down at the river, Nils. The luck has been against us since he left."

  "Well, Mons," Nils answered, "I miss the little chap as much as any of you; perhaps more. But my wife——she's got a sort of crooked notion that the boy won't come home alive if she lets him go to the river. She got a bad scare last time, and it isn't any use arguing with her."

  "But won't you let us talk to her, Nils?" one of the lumbermen proposed. "It is a tangled skein, and I don't pretend to say that I can straighten it out. But two men have been killed and one crippled since the little chap was taken away. And in the three years he was with us no untoward thing happened. Now that speaks for itself, Nils, doesn't it?"

  "It does, indeed," said Nils, with an air of conviction.

  "And you'll let us talk to your wife, and see if we can't make her listen to reason," the man urged.

  "You are welcome to talk to her as much as you like," Nils replied, knocking out his pipe on the heel of his boot; "but I warn you that she's mighty cantankerous."

  He rose slowly, and tried to open the door. It was locked. "Open, Inga," he said, a trifle impatiently; "there are some men here who want to see you."

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