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Boyhood in Norway(25)

2006-09-07 22:19

  BEAR II

  There was an odd clause in Lars Moe's will besides the codicil relating to the bear. It read:

  "I hereby give and bequeath to my daughter Unna, or, in case of her decease, to her oldest living issue, my bay mare Stella, as a token that I have forgiven her the sorrow she caused me by her marriage."

  It seemed incredible that Lars Moe should wish to play a practical joke (and a bad one at that) on his only child, his daughter Unna, because she had displeased him by her marriage. Yet that was the common opinion in the valley when this singular clause became known. Unna had married Thorkel Tomlevold, a poor tenant's son, and had refused her cousin, the great lumber-dealer, Morten Janson, whom her father had selected for a son-in-law.

  She dwelt now in a tenant's cottage, northward in the parish; and her husband, who was a sturdy and fine-looking fellow, eked out a living by hunting and fishing. But they surely had no accommodations for a broken-down, wounded, trotting mare, which could not even draw a plough. It is true Unna, in the days of her girlhood, had been very fond of the mare, and it is only charitable to suppose that the clause, which was in the body of the will, was written while Stella was in her prime, and before she had suffered at the paws of the Gausdale Bruin. But even granting that, one could scarcely help suspecting malice aforethought in the curious provision. To Unna the gift was meant to say, as plainly as possible, "There, you see what you have lost by disobeying your father! If you had married according to his wishes, you would have been able to accept the gift, while now you are obliged to decline it like a beggar."

  But if it was Lars Moe's intention to convey such a message to his daughter, he failed to take into account his daughter's spirit. She appeared plainly but decently dressed at the reading of the will, and carried her head not a whit less haughtily than was her wont in her maiden days. She exhibited no chagrin when she found that Janson was her father's heir and that she was disinherited. She even listened with perfect composure to the reading of the clause which bequeathed to her the broken-down mare.

  It at once became a matter of pride with her to accept her girlhood's favorite, and accept it she did! And having borrowed a side-saddle, she rode home, apparently quite contented. A little shed, or lean-to, was built in the rear of the house, and Stella became a member of Thorkel Tomlevold's family. Odd as it may seem, the fortunes of the family took a turn for the better from the day she arrived; Thorkel rarely came home without big game, and in his traps he caught more than any three other men in all the parish.

  "The mare has brought us luck," he said to his wife. "If she can't plough, she can at all events pull the sleigh to church; and you have as good a right as any one to put on airs, if you choose."

  "Yes, she has brought us blessing," replied Unna, quietly; "and we are going to keep her till she dies of old age."

  To the children Stella became a pet, as much as if she had been a dog or a cat. The little boy Lars climbed all over her, and kissed her regularly good-morning when she put her handsome head in through the kitchen-door to get her lump of sugar. She was as gentle as a lamb and as intelligent as a dog. Her great brown eyes, with their soft, liquid look, spoke as plainly as words could speak, expressing pleasure when she was patted; and the low neighing with which she greeted the little boy, when she heard his footsteps in the door, was to him like the voice of a friend.

  He grew to love this handsome and noble animal as he had loved nothing on earth except his father and mother.

  As a matter of course he heard a hundred times the story of Stella's adventure with the terrible Gausdale bear. It was a story that never lost its interest, that seemed to grow more exciting the oftener it was told. The deep scars of the bear's claws in Stella's thigh were curiously examined, and each time gave rise to new questions. The mare became quite a heroic character, and the suggestion was frequently discussed between Lars and his little sister Marit, whether Stella might not be an enchanted princess who was waiting for some one to cut off her head, so that she might show herself in her glory. Marit thought the experiment well worth trying, but Lars had his doubts, and was unwilling to take the risk; yet if she brought luck, as his mother said, then she certainly must be something more than an ordinary horse.

  Stella had dragged little Lars out of the river when he fell overboard from the pier; and that, too, showed more sense than he had ever known a horse to have.

  There could be no doubt in his mind that Stella was an enchanted princess. And instantly the thought occurred to him that the dreadful enchanted bear with the evil eye was the sorcerer, and that, when he was killed, Stella would resume her human guise. It soon became clear to him that he was the boy to accomplish this heroic deed; and it was equally plain to him that he must keep his purpose secret from all except Marit, as his mother would surely discourage him from engaging in so perilous an enterprise. First of all, he had to learn how to shoot; and his father, who was the best shot in the valley, was very willing to teach him. It seemed quite natural to Thorkel that a hunter's son should take readily to the rifle; and it gave him great satisfaction to see how true his boy's aim was, and how steady his hand.

  "Father," said Lars one day, "you shoot so well, why haven't you ever tried to kill the Gausdale Bruin that hurt Stella so badly?"

  "Hush, child! you don't know what you are talking about," answered his father; "no leaden bullet will harm that wicked beast."

  "Why not?"

  "I don't like to talk about it——but it is well known that he is enchanted."

  "But will he then live for ever? Is there no sort of bullet that will kill him?" asked the boy.

  "I don't know. I don't want to have anything to do with witchcraft," said Thorkel.

  The word "witchcraft" set the boy to thinking, and he suddenly remembered that he had been warned not to speak to an old woman named Martha Pladsen, because she was a witch. Now, she was probably the very one who could tell him what he wanted to know. Her cottage lay close up under the mountain-side, about two miles from his home. He did not deliberate long before going to seek this mysterious person, about whom the most remarkable stories were told in the valley. To his astonishment, she received him kindly, gave him a cup of coffee with rock candy, and declared that she had long expected him. The bullet which was to slay the enchanted bear had long been in her possession; and she would give it to him if he would promise to give her the beast's heart.

  He did not have to be asked twice for that; and off he started gayly with his prize in his pocket. It was rather an odd-looking bullet, made of silver, marked with a cross on one side and with a lot of queer illegible figures on the other. It seemed to burn in his pocket, so anxious was he to start out at once to release the beloved Stella from the cruel enchantment. But Martha had said that the bear could only be killed when the moon was full; and until the moon was full he accordingly had to bridle his impatience.

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