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Boyhood in Norway(23)

2006-09-07 22:19

  LUCK II

  Inga sat crouching on the hearth, hugging little Hans to her bosom. She shook and trembled with fear, let her eyes wander around the walls, and now and then moaned at the thought that now they would take little Hans away from her.

  "Why don't you open the door for papa?" asked little Hans, wonderingly.

  Ah, he too was against her! All the world was against her! And her husband was in league with her enemies!

  "Open, I say!" cried Nils, vehemently. "What do you mean by locking the door when decent people come to call upon us?"

  Should she open the door or should she not? Holding little Hans in her arms, she rose hesitatingly, and stretched out her hand toward the bolt. But all of a sudden, in a paroxysm of fear, she withdrew her hand, turned about, and fled with the child through the back door. The alder bushes grew close up to the walls of the cottage, and by stooping a little she managed to remain unobserved. Her greatest difficulty was to keep little Hans from shouting to his father, and she had to put her hand over his mouth to keep him quiet; for the boy, who had heard the voices without, could not understand why he should not be permitted to go out and converse with his friends the lumbermen. The wild eyes and agitated face of his mother distressed him, and the little showers of last night's rain which the trees shook down upon him made him shiver.

  "Why do you run so, mamma?" he asked, when she removed her hand from his mouth.

  "Because the bad men want to take you away from me, Hans," she answered, panting.

  "Those were not bad men, mamma," the boy ejaculated. "That was Stubby Mons and Stuttering Peter and Lars Skin-breeches. They don't, want to hurt me."

  He expected that his mamma would be much relieved at receiving this valuable information, and return home without delay. But she still pressed on, flushed and panting, and cast the same anxious glances behind her.

  In the meanwhile Nils and his guests had entirely lost their patience. Finding his persuasions of no avail, the former began to thump at the door with the handle of his axe, and receiving no response, he climbed up to the window and looked in. To his amazement there was no one in the room. Thinking that Inga might have gone to the cow-stable, he ran to the rear of the cottage, and called her name. Still no answer.

  "Hans," he cried, "where are you?"

  But Hans, too, was as if spirited away. It scarcely occurred to Nils, until he had searched the cow- stable and the house in vain, that his wife had fled from the harmless lumbermen. Then the thought shot through his brain that possibly she was not quite right in her head; that this fixed idea that everybody wanted to take her child away from her had unsettled her reason. Nils grew hot and cold in the same moment as this dreadful apprehension took lodgement in his mind. Might she not, in her confused effort to save little Hans, do him harm? In the blind and feverish terror which possessed her might she not rush into the water, or leap over a precipice? Visions of little Hans drowning, or whirled into the abyss in his mother's arms, crowded his fancy as he walked back to the lumbermen, and told them that neither his wife nor child was anywhere to be found.

  "I would ask ye this, lads," he said, finally: "if you would help me search for them. For Inga——I reckon she is a little touched in the upper story——she has gone off with the boy, and I can't get on without little Hans any more than you can."

  The men understood the situation at a glance, and promised their aid. They had all looked upon Inga as "high-strung" and "queer," and it did not surprise them to hear that she had been frightened out of her wits at their request for the loan of little Hans. Forming a line, with a space of twenty feet between each man, they began to beat the bush, climbing the steep slope toward the mountains. Inga, pausing for an instant, and peering out between the tree trunks, saw the alder bushes wave as they broke through the underbrush. She knew now that she was pursued. Tired she was, too, and the boy grew heavier for every step that she advanced. And yet if she made him walk, he might run away from her. If he heard his father's voice, he would be certain to answer. Much perplexed, she looked about her for a hiding-place.

  For, as the men would be sure to overtake her, her only safety was in hiding. With tottering knees she stumbled along, carrying the heavy child, grabbing hold of the saplings for support, and yet scarcely keeping from falling. The cold perspiration broke from her brow and a strange faintness overcame her.

  "You will have to walk, little Hans," she said, at last. "But if you run away from me, dear, I shall lie down here and die."

  Little Hans promised that he would not run away, and for five minutes they walked up a stony path which looked like the abandoned bed of a brook.

  "You hurt my hand, mamma," whimpered the boy, "you squeeze so hard."

  She would have answered, but just then she heard the voices of the lumbermen scarcely fifty paces away. With a choking sensation and a stitch in her side she pressed on, crying out in spirit for the hills to hide her and the mountains to open their gates and receive her. Suddenly she stood before a rocky wall some eighty or a hundred feet high. She could go no farther. Her strength was utterly exhausted. There was a big boulder lying at the base of the rock, and a spreading juniper half covered it. Knowing that in another minute she would be discovered, she flung herself down behind the boulder, though the juniper needles scratched her face, and pulled little Hans down at her side. But, strange to say, little Hans fell farther than she had calculated, and utterly-vanished from sight. She heard a muffled cry, and reaching her hand in the direction where he had fallen, caught hold of his arm. A strong, wild smell beat against her, and little Hans, as he was pulled out, was enveloped in a most unpleasant odor. But odor or no odor, here was the very hiding-place she had been seeking. A deserted wolf's den, it was, probably——at least she hoped it was deserted; for if it was not, she might be confronted with even uglier customers than the lumbermen. But she had no time for debating the question, for she saw the head of Stubby Mons emerging from the leaves, and immediately behind him came Stuttering Peter, with his long boat- hook. Quick as a flash she slipped into the hole, and dragged Hans after her. The juniper-bush entirely covered the entrance. She could see everyone who approached, without being seen. Unhappily, the boy too caught sight of Stubby Mons, and called him by name. The lumberman stopped and pricked up his ears.

  "Did you hear anybody call?" he asked his companion.

  "N-n-n-n-aw, I d-d-d-d-didn't," answered Stuttering Peter. "There b-be lots of qu-qu-qu-qu-eer n-noises in the w-w-w-woods."

  Little Hans heard every word that they spoke, and he would have cried out again, if it hadn't appeared such great fun to be playing hide-and-go-seek with the lumbermen. He had a delicious sense of being well hidden, and had forgotten everything except the zest of the game. Most exciting it became when Stubby Mons drew the juniper-bush aside and peered eagerly behind the boulder. Inga's heart stuck in her throat; she felt sure that in the next instant they would be discovered. And as ill-luck would have it, there was something alive scrambling about her feet and tugging at her skirts. Suddenly she felt a sharp bite, but clinched her teeth, and uttered no sound. When her vision again cleared, the juniper branch had rebounded into its place, and the face of Stubby Mons was gone. She drew a deep breath of relief, but yet did not dare to emerge from the den. For one, two, three tremulous minutes she remained motionless, feeling all the while that uncomfortable sensation of living things about her.

  At last she could endure it no longer. Thrusting little Hans before her, she crawled out of the hole, and looked back into the small cavern. As soon as her eyes grew accustomed to the twilight she uttered a cry of amazement, for out from her skirts jumped a little gray furry object, and two frisky little customers of the same sort were darting about among the stones and tree-roots. The truth dawned upon her, and it chilled her to the marrow of her bones. The wolf's den was not deserted. The old folks were only out hunting, and the shouting and commotion of the searching party had probably prevented them from returning in time to look after their family. She seized little Hans by the hand, and once more dragged him away over the rough path. He soon became tired and fretful, and in spite of all her entreaties began to shout lustily for his father. But the men were now so far away that they could not hear him. He complained of hunger; and when presently they came to a blueberry patch, she flung herself down on the heather and allowed him to pick berries. She heard cow-bells and sheep-bells tinkling round about her, and concluded that she could not be far from the saeters, or mountain dairies. That was fortunate, indeed, for she would not have liked to sleep in the woods with wolves and bears prowling about her.

  She was just making an effort to rise from the stone upon which she was sitting, when the big, good-natured face of a cow broke through the leaves and stared at her. There was again help in need. She approached the cow, patted it, and calling little Hans, bade him sit down in the heather and open his mouth. He obeyed rather wonderingly, but perceived his mother's intent when she knelt at his side and began to milk into his mouth. It seemed to him that he had never tasted anything so delicious as this fresh rich milk, fragrant with the odor of the woods and the succulent mountain grass. When his hunger was satisfied, he fell again to picking berries, while Inga refreshed herself with milk in the same simple fashion. After having rested a full hour, she felt strong enough to continue her journey; and hearing the loor, or Alpine horn, re-echoing among the mountains, she determined to follow the sound. It was singular what luck attended her in the midst of her misfortune. Perhaps it was, after all, no idle tale that little Hans was a child of luck; and she had done the lumbermen injustice in deriding their faith in him. Perhaps there was some guiding Providence in all that had happened, destined in the end to lead little Hans to fortune and glory. Much encouraged by this thought, she stooped over him and kissed him; then took his hand and trudged along over logs and stones, through juniper and bramble bushes.

  "Mamma," said little Hans, "where are you going?"

  "I am going to the saeter," she answered; "where you have wanted so often to go."

  "Then why don't you follow the cows? They are going there too."

  Surely that child had a marvellous mind! She smiled down upon him and nodded. By following the cows they arrived in twenty minutes at a neat little log cabin, from which the smoke curled up gayly into the clear air.

  The dairy-maids who spent the summer there tending the cattle both fell victims to the charms of little Hans, and offered him and his mother their simple hospitality. They told of the lumbermen who had passed the saeter huts, and inquired for her; but otherwise they respected her silence, and made no attempt to pry into her secrets. The next morning she started, after a refreshing sleep, westward toward the coast, where she hoped in some way to find a passage to America. For if little Hans was really born under a lucky star——which fact she now could scarcely doubt——then America was the place for him. There he might rise to become President, or a judge, or a parson, or something or other; while in Norway he would never be anything but a lumberman like his father. Inga had a well-to-do sister, who was a widow, in the nearest town, and she would borrow enough money from her to pay their passage to New York.

  It was early in July when little Hans and his mother arrived in New York. The latter had repented bitterly of her rashness in stealing her child from his father, and under a blind impulse traversing half the globe in a wild-goose chase after fortune. The world was so much bigger than she in her quiet valley had imagined; and, what was worse, it wore such a cold and repellent look, and was so bewildering and noisy. Inga had been very sea-sick during the voyage; and after she stepped ashore from the tug that brought her to Castle Garden, the ground kept heaving and swelling under her feet, and made her dizzy and miserable. She had been very wicked, she was beginning to think, and deserved punishment; and if it had not been for a vague and adventurous faith in the great future that was in store for her son, she would have been content to return home, do penance for her folly, and beg her husband's forgiveness. But, in the first place, she had no money to pay for a return ticket; and, secondly, it would be a great pity to deprive little Hans of the Presidency and all the grandeur that his lucky star might here bring him.

  Inga was just contemplating this bright vision of Hans's future, when she found herself passing through a gate, at which a clerk was seated.

  "What is your name?" he asked, through an interpreter.

  "Inga Olsdatter Pladsen."

  "Age?"

  "Twenty-eight a week after Michaelmas."

  "Single or married?"

  "Married."

  "Where is your husband?"

  "In Norway."

  "Are you divorced from him?"

  "Divorced——I! Why, no! Who ever heard of such a thing?"

  Inga grew quite indignant at the thought of her being divorced. A dozen other questions were asked, at each of which her embarrassment increased. When, finally, she declared that she had no money, no definite destination, and no relatives or friends in the country, the examination was cut short, and after an hour's delay and a wearisome cross-questioning by different officials, she was put on board the tug, and returned to the steamer in which she had crossed the ocean. Four dreary days passed; then there was a tremendous commotion on deck: blowing of whistles, roaring of steam, playing of bands, bumping of trunks and boxes, and finally the steady pulsation of the engines as the big ship stood out to sea. After nine days of discomfort in the stuffy steerage and thirty-six hours of downright misery while crossing the stormy North Sea, Inga found herself once more in the land of her birth. Full of humiliation and shame she met her husband at the railroad station, and prepared herself for a deluge of harsh words and reproaches. But instead of that he patted her gently on the head, and clasped little Hans in his arms and kissed him. They said very little to each other as they rode homeward in the cars; but little Hans had a thousand things to tell, and his father was delighted to hear them. In the evening, when they had reached their native valley, and the boy was asleep, Inga plucked up courage and said, "Nils, it is all a mistake about little Hans's luck."

  "Mistake! Why, no," cried Nils. "What greater luck could he have than to be brought safely home to his father?"

  Inga had indeed hoped for more; but she said nothing. Nevertheless, fate still had strange things in store for little Hans. The story of his mother's flight to and return from America was picked up by some enterprising journalist, who made a most touching romance of it. Hundreds of inquiries regarding little Hans poured in upon the pastor and the postmaster; and offers to adopt him, educate him, and I know not what else, were made to his parents. But Nils would hear of no adoption; nor would he consent to any plan that separated him from the boy. When, however, he was given a position as superintendent of a lumber yard in the town, and prosperity began to smile upon him, he sent little Hans to school, and as Hans was a clever boy, he made the most of his opportunities.

  And now little Hans is indeed a very big Hans, but a child of luck he is yet; for I saw him referred to the other day in the newspapers as one of the greatest lumber dealers, and one of the noblest, most generous, and public-spirited men in Norway.

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