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Boyhood in Norway(9)

2006-09-07 22:14

  CHILD II

  Six miserable days passed. The weather was stormy, and tidings of shipwreck and calamity filled the air. Scarcely a visitor came to the parsonage who had not some tale of woe to relate. The pastor, who was usually so gentle and cheerful, wore a dismal face, and it was easy to see that something was weighing on his mind.

  "May God show you the same mercy on the Judgment Day as you have shown to me!"

  These words rang constantly in his ears by night and by day. Had he not been right, according to the laws of God and man, in defending his household against the assaults of ignorance and superstition? Would he have been justified in sacrificing his own child, even if he could thereby save another's? And, moreover, was it not all a wild, heathenish delusion, which it was his duty as a servant of God to stamp out and root out at all hazards? Yes, there could be no doubt of it; he had but exercised his legal right. He had done what was demanded of him by laws human and divine. He had nothing to reproach himself for. And yet, with a haunting persistency, the image of the despairing pilot praying God for vengeance stared at him from every dark corner, and in the very church bells, as they rang out their solemn invitation to the house of God, he seemed to hear the rhythm and cadence of the heart-broken father's imprecation. In the depth of his heart there was a still small voice which told him that, say what he might, he had acted cruelly. If he put himself in Atle Pilot's place, bound as he was in the iron bonds of superstition, how different the case would look? He saw himself, in spirit, rowing in a lonely boat through the stormy winter night to his pastor, bringing his only son, who was at the point of death, and praying that the pastor's daughter might lay her hands upon him, as Christ had done to the blind, the halt, and the maimed. And his pastor received him with wrath, nay, with blows, and sent him away uncomforted. It was a hideous picture indeed, and Mr. Holt would have given years of his life to be rid of it.

  It was on the sixth day after Atle's visit that the pastor, sitting alone in his study, called Carina to him. He had scarcely seen her during the last six days, or at least talked with her. Her sweet innocent spirit would banish the shadows that darkened his soul.

  "Carina," he said, in his old affectionate way, "papa wants to see you. Come here and let me talk a little with you."

  But could he trust his eyes? Carina, who formerly had run so eagerly into his arms, stood hesitating, as if she hoped to be excused.

  "Well, my little girl," he asked, in a tone of apprehension, "don't you want to talk with papa?"

  "I would rather wait till some other time, papa," she managed to stammer, while her little face flushed with embarrassment.

  Mr. Holt closed the door silently, flung himself into a chair, and groaned. That was a blow from where he had least expected it. The child had judged him and found him wanting. His Carina, his darling, who had always been closest to his heart, no longer responded to his affection! Was the pilot's prayer being fulfilled? Was he losing his own child in return for the one he had refused to save? With a pang in his breast, which was like an aching wound, he walked up and down on the floor and marvelled at his own blindness. He had erred indeed; and there was no hope that any chance would come to him to remedy the wrong.

  The twilight had deepened into darkness while he revolved this trouble in his mind. The night was stormy, and the limbs of the trees without were continually knocking and bumping against the walls of the house. The rusty weather-vane on the roof whined and screamed, and every now and then the sleet dashed against the window-panes like a handful of shot. The wind hurled itself against the walls, so that the timbers creaked and pulled at the shutters, banged stray doors in out-of-the-way garrets, and then, having accomplished its work, whirled away over the fields with a wild and dismal howl. The pastor sat listening mournfully to this tempestuous commotion. Once he thought he heard a noise as of a door opening near by him, and softly closing; but as he saw no one, he concluded it was his overwrought fancy that had played him a trick. He seated himself again in his easy-chair before the stove, which spread a dim light from its draught-hole into the surrounding gloom.

  While he sat thus absorbed in his meditations, he was startled at the sound of something resembling a sob. He arose to strike a light, but found that his match-safe was empty. But what was that? A step without, surely, and the groping of hands for the door-knob.

  "Who is there?" cried the pastor, with a shivering uneasiness.

  He sprang forward and opened the door. A broad figure, surmounted by a sou'wester, loomed up in the dark.

  "What do you want?" asked Mr. Holt, with forced calmness.

  "I want to know," answered a gruff, hoarse voice, "if you'll come to my son now, and help him into eternity?"

  The pastor recognized Atle Pilot's voice, though it seemed harsher and hoarser than usual.

  "Sail across the fjord on a night like this?" he exclaimed.

  "That's what I ask you."

  "And the boy is dying, you say?"

  "Can't last till morning."

  "And has he asked for the sacrament?"

  The pilot stepped across the threshold and entered the room. He proceeded slowly to pull off his mittens; then looking up at the pastor's face, upon which a vague sheen fell from the stove, he broke out:

  "Will you come or will you not? You wouldn't help him to live; now will you help him to die?"

  The words, thrust forth with a slow, panting emphasis, hit the pastor like so many blows.

  "I will come," he said, with solemn resolution. "Sit down till I get ready."

  He had expected some expression of gratification or thanks, for Atle well knew what he had asked. It was his life the pastor risked, but this time in his calling as a physician, not of bodies, but of souls. It struck him, while he took leave of his wife, that there was something resentful and desperate in the pilot's manner, so different from his humble pleading at their last meeting.

  As he embraced the children one by one, and kissed them, he missed Carina, but was told that she had probably gone to the cow-stable with the dairy-maid, who was her particular friend. So he left tender messages for her, and, summoning Atle, plunged out into the storm. A servant walked before him with a lantern, and lighted the way down to the pier, where the boat lay tossing upon the waves.

  "But, man," cried the pastor, seeing that the boat was empty, "where are your boatmen?"

  "I am my own boatman," answered Atle, gloomily. "You can hold the sheet, I the tiller."

  Mr. Holt was ashamed of retiring now, when he had given his word.

  But it was with a sinking heart that he stepped into the frail skiff, which seemed scarcely more than a nutshell upon the tempestuous deep. He was on the point of asking his servant, unacquainted though he was with seamanship, to be the third man in the boat; but the latter, anticipating his intention, had made haste to betake himself away. To venture out into this roaring darkness, with no beacon to guide them, and scarcely a landmark discernible, was indeed to tempt Providence.

  But by the time he had finished this reflection, the pastor felt himself rushing along at a tremendous speed, and short, sharp commands rang in his ears, which instantly engrossed all his attention. To his eyes the sky looked black as ink, except for a dark-blue unearthly shimmer that now and then flared up from the north, trembled, and vanished. By this unsteady illumination it was possible to catch a momentary glimpse of a head, and a peak, and the outline of a mountain. The small sail was double-reefed, yet the boat careened so heavily that the water broke over the gunwale. The squalls beat down upon them with tumultuous roar and smoke, as of snow-drifts, in their wake; but the little boat, climbing the top of the waves and sinking into the dizzy black pits between them, sped fearlessly along and the pastor began to take heart. Then, with a fierce cutting distinctness, came the command out of the dark.

  "Pull out the reefs!"

  "Are you crazy, man?" shouted the pastor. "Do you want to sail straight into eternity?"

  "Pull out the reefs!" The command was repeated with wrathful emphasis.

  "Then we are dead men, both you and I."

  "So we are, parson——dead men. My son lies dead at home, though you might have saved him. So, now, parson, we are quits."

  With a fierce laugh he rose up, and still holding the tiller, stretched his hand to tear out the reefs. But at that instant, just as a quivering shimmer broke across the sky, something rose up from under the thwart and stood between them. Atle started back with a hoarse scream.

  "In Heaven's name, child!" he cried. "Oh, God, have mercy upon me!"

  And the pastor, not knowing whether he saw a child or a vision, cried out in the same moment: "Carina, my darling! Carina, how came you here?"

  It was Carina, indeed; but the storm whirled her tiny voice away over the waves, and her father, folding her with one arm to his breast, while holding the sheet with the other, did not hear what she answered to his fervent exclamation. He only knew that her dear little head rested close to his heart, and that her yellow hair blew across his face.

  "I wanted to save that poor boy, papa," were the only words that met his ears. But he needed no more to explain the mystery. It was Carina, who, repenting of her unkindness to him, had stolen into his study, while he sat in the dark, and there she had heard Atle Pilot's message. Even if this boy was sick unto death, she might perhaps cure him, and make up for her father's harshness. Thus reasoned the sage Carina; and she had gone secretly and prepared for the voyage, and battled with the storm, which again and again threw her down on her road to the pier. It was a miracle that she got safely into the boat, and stowed herself away snugly under the stern thwart.

  The clearing in the north gradually spread over the sky, and the storm abated. Soon they had the shore in view, and the lights of the fishermen's cottages gleamed along the beach of the headland. Presently they ran into smoother water; a star or two flashed forth, and wide blue expanses appeared here and there on the vault of the sky. They spied the red lanterns marking the wharf, about which a multitude of boats lay, moored to stakes, and with three skilful tacks Atle made the harbor. It was here, standing on the pier, amid the swash and swirl of surging waters, that the pilot seized Carina's tiny hand in his big and rough one.

  "Parson," he said, with a breaking voice, "I was going to run afoul of you, and wreck myself with you; but this child, God bless her! she ran us both into port, safe and sound."

  But Carina did not hear what he said, for she lay sweetly sleeping in her father's arms.

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