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Boyhood in Norway(8)

2006-09-07 22:14

  CHILD I The Wonder Child

  A very common belief in Norway, as in many other lands, is that the seventh child of the seventh child can heal the sick by the laying on of hands. Such a child is therefore called a wonder child. Little Carina Holt was the seventh in a family of eight brothers and sisters, but she grew to be six years old before it became generally known that she was a wonder child. Then people came from afar to see her, bringing their sick with them; and morning after morning, as Mrs. Holt rolled up the shades, she found invalids, seated or standing in the snow, gazing with devout faith and anxious longing toward Carina's window.

  It seemed a pity to send them away uncomforted, when the look and the touch cost Carina so little. But there was another fear that arose in the mother's breast, and that was lest her child should be harmed by the veneration with which she was regarded, and perhaps come to believe that she was something more than a common mortal. What was more natural than that a child who was told by grown-up people that there was healing in her touch, should at last come to believe that she was something apart and extraordinary?

  It would have been a marvel, indeed, if the constant attention she attracted, and the pilgrimages that were made to her, had failed to make any impression upon her sensitive mind. Vain she was not, and it would have been unjust to say that she was spoiled. She had a tender nature, full of sympathy for sorrow and suffering. She was constantly giving away her shoes, her stockings, nay, even her hood and cloak, to poor little invalids, whose misery appealed to her merciful heart. It was of no use to scold her; you could no more prevent a stream from flowing than Carina from giving. It was a spontaneous yielding to an impulse that was too strong to be resisted.

  But to her father there was something unnatural in it; he would have preferred to have her frankly selfish, as most children are, not because he thought it lovely, but because it was childish and natural. Her unusual goodness gave him a pang more painful than ever the bad behavior of her brothers had occasioned. On the other hand, it delighted him to see her do anything that ordinary children did. He was charmed if she could be induced to take part in a noisy romp, play tag, or dress her dolls. But there followed usually after each outbreak of natural mirth a shy withdrawal into herself, a resolute and quiet retirement, as if she, were a trifle ashamed of her gayety. There was nothing morbid in these moods, no brooding sadness or repentance, but a touching solemnity, a serene, almost cheerful seriousness, which in one of her years seemed strange.

  Mr. Holt had many a struggle with himself as to how he should treat Carina's delusion; and he made up his mind, at last, that it was his duty to do everything in his power to dispel and counteract it. When he happened to overhear her talking to her dolls one day, laying her hands upon them, and curing them of imaginary diseases, he concluded it was high time for him to act.

  He called Carina to him, remonstrated kindly with her, and forbade her henceforth to see the people who came to her for the purpose of being cured. But it distressed him greatly to see how reluctantly she consented to obey him.

  When Carina awoke the morning after this promise had been extorted from her, she heard the dogs barking furiously in the yard below. Her elder sister, Agnes, was standing half dressed before the mirror, holding the end of one blond braid between her teeth, while tying the other with a pink ribbon. Seeing that Carina was awake, she gave her a nod in the glass, and, removing her braid, observed that there evidently were sick pilgrims under the window. She could sympathize with Sultan and Hector, she averred, in their dislike of pilgrims.

  "Oh, I wish they would not come!" sighed Carina. "It will be so hard for me to send them away."

  "I thought you liked curing people," exclaimed Agnes.

  "I do, sister, but papa has made me promise never to do it again."

  She arose and began to dress, her sister assisting her, chatting all the while like a gay little chirruping bird that neither gets nor expects an answer. She was too accustomed to Carina's moods to be either annoyed or astonished; but she loved her all the same, and knew that her little ears were wide open, even though she gave no sign of listening.

  Carina had just completed her simple toilet when Guro, the chamber-maid, entered, and announced that there were some sick folk below who wished to see the wonder child.

  "Tell them I cannot see them," answered Carina, with a tremulous voice; "papa does not permit me."

  "But this man, Atle Pilot, has come from so far away in this dreadful cold," pleaded Guro, "and his son is so very bad, poor thing; he's lying down in the boat, and he sighs and groans fit to move a stone."

  "Don't! Don't tell her that," interposed Agnes, motioning to the girl to begone. "Don't you see it is hard enough for her already?"

  There was something in the air, as the two sisters descended the stairs hand in hand, which foreboded calamity. The pastor had given out from the pulpit last Sunday that he would positively receive no invalids at his house; and he had solemnly charged every one to refrain from bringing their sick to his daughter. He had repeated this announcement again and again, and he was now very much annoyed at his apparent powerlessness to protect his child from further imposition. Loud and angry speech was heard in his office, and a noise as if the furniture were being knocked about. The two little girls remained standing on the stairs, each gazing at the other's frightened face. Then there was a great bang, and a stalwart, elderly sailor came tumbling head foremost out into the hall. His cap was flung after him through the crack of the door. Agnes saw for an instant her father's face, red and excited; and in his bearing there was something wild and strange, which was so different from his usual gentle and dignified appearance. The sailor stood for a while bewildered, leaning against the wall; then he stooped slowly and picked up his cap. But the moment he caught sight of Carina his embarrassment vanished, and his rough features were illuminated with an intense emotion.

  "Come, little miss, and help me," he cried, in a hoarse, imploring whisper. "Halvor, my son——he is the only one God gave me——he is sick; he is going to die, miss, unless you take pity on him."

  "Where is he?" asked Carina.

  "He's down in the boat, miss, at the pier. But I'll carry him up to you, if you like. We have been rowing half the night in the cold, and he is very low."

  "No, no; you mustn't bring him here," said Agnes, seeing by Carina's face that she was on the point of yielding. "Father would be so angry."

  "He may kill me if he likes," exclaimed the sailor, wildly. "It doesn't matter to me. But Halvor he's the only one I have, miss, and his mother died when he was born, and he is young, miss, and he will have many years to live, if you'll only have mercy on him."

  "But, you know, I shouldn't dare, on papa's account, to have you bring him here," began Carina, struggling with her tears.

  "Ah, yes! Then you will go to him. God bless you for that!" cried the poor man, with agonized eagerness. And interpreting the assent he read in Carina's eye, he caught her up in his arms, snatched a coat from a peg in the wall, and wrapping her in it, tore open the door. Carina made no outcry, and was not in the least afraid. She felt herself resting in two strong arms, warmly wrapped and borne away at a great speed over the snow. But Agnes, seeing her sister vanish in that sudden fashion, gave a scream which called her father to the door.

  "What has happened?" he asked. "Where is Carina?"

  "That dreadful Atle Pilot took her and ran away with her."

  "Ran away with her?" cried the pastor in alarm. "How? Where?"

  "Down to the pier."

  It was a few moments' work for the terrified father to burst open the door, and with his velvet skull-cap on his head, and the skirts of his dressing-gown flying wildly about him, rush down toward the beach. He saw Atle Pilot scarcely fifty feet in advance of him, and shouted to him at the top of his voice. But the sailor only redoubled his speed, and darted out upon the pier, hugging tightly to his breast the precious burden he carried. So blindly did he rush ahead that the pastor expected to see him plunge headlong into the icy waves. But, as by a miracle, he suddenly checked himself, and grasping with one hand the flag-pole, swung around it, a foot or two above the black water, and regained his foothold upon the planks. He stood for an instant irresolute, staring down into a boat which lay moored to the end of the pier. What he saw resembled a big bundle, consisting of a sheepskin coat and a couple of horse blankets.

  "Halvor," he cried, with a voice that shook with emotion, "I have brought her."

  There was presently a vague movement under the horse-blankets, and after a minute's struggle a pale yellowish face became visible. It was a young face——the face of a boy of fifteen or sixteen. But, oh, what suffering was depicted in those sunken eyes, those bloodless, cracked lips, and the shrunken yellow skin which clung in premature wrinkles about the emaciated features! An old and worn fur cap was pulled down over his ears, but from under its rim a few strands of blond hair were hanging upon his forehead.

  Atle had just disentangled Carina from her wrappings, and was about to descend the stairs to the water when a heavy hand seized him by the shoulder, and a panting voice shouted in his ear:

  "Give me back my child."

  He paused, and turned his pathetically bewildered face toward the pastor. "You wouldn't take him from me, parson," he stammered, helplessly; "no, you wouldn't. He's the only one I've got."

  "I don't take him from you," the parson thundered, wrathfully. "But what right have you to come and steal my child, because yours is ill?"

  "When life is at stake, parson," said the pilot, imploringly, "one gets muddled about right and wrong. I'll do your little girl no harm. Only let her lay her blessed hands upon my poor boy's head, and he will be well."

  "I have told you no, man, and I must put a stop to this stupid idolatry, which will ruin my child, and do you no good. Give her back to me, I say, at once."

  The pastor held out his hand to receive Carina, who stared at him with large pleading eyes out of the grizzly wolf-skin coat.

  "Be good to him, papa," she begged. "Only this once."

  "No, child; no parleying now; come instantly."

  And he seized her by main force, and tore her out of the pilot's arms. But to his dying day he remembered the figure of the heart-broken man, as he stood outlined against the dark horizon, shaking his clinched fists against the sky, and crying out, in a voice of despair:

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

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