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Boyhood in Norway(14)

2006-09-07 22:16

  MASQUERADE Paul Jespersen's Masquerade

  There was great excitement in the little Norse town, Bumlebro, because there was going to be a masquerade. Everybody was busy inventing the character which he was to represent, and the costume in which he was to represent it.

  Miss Amelia Norbeck, the apothecary's daughter, had intended to be Marie Antoinette, but had to give it up because the silk stockings were too dear, although she had already procured the beauty-patches and the powdered wig.

  Miss Arctander, the judge's daughter, was to be Night, in black tulle, spangled with silver stars, and Miss Hanna Broby was to be Morning, in white tulle and pink roses.

  There had never BEEN a masquerade in Bumlebro, and there would not have been one now, if it had not been for the enterprise of young Arctander and young Norbeck, who had just returned from the military academy in the capital, and were anxious to exhibit themselves to the young girls in their glory.

  Of course, they could not afford to be exclusive, for there were but twenty or thirty families in the town that laid any claims to gentility, and they had all to be invited in order to fill the hall and pay the bills. Thus it came to pass that Paul Jespersen, the book-keeper in the fish-exporting firm of Broby & Larsen, received a card, although, to be sure, there had been a long debate in the committee as to where the line should be drawn.

  Paul Jespersen was uncommonly elated when he read the invitation, which was written on a gilt-edged card, requesting the pleasure of Mr. Jespersen's company at a bal masque Tuesday, January 3d, in the Association Hall.

  "The pleasure of his company!"

  Think of it! He felt so flattered that he blushed to the tips of his ears. It must have been Miss Clara Broby who had induced them to be so polite to him, for those insolent cadets, who only nodded patronizingly to him in response to his deferential greeting, would never have asked for "the pleasure of his company."

  Having satisfied himself on this point, Paul went to call upon Miss Clara in the evening, in order to pay her some compliment and consult her in regard to his costume; but Miss Clara, as it happened, was much more interested in her own costume than in that of Mr. Jespersen, and offered no useful suggestions.

  "What character would you advise me to select, Mr. Jespersen?" she inquired, sweetly. "My sister Hanna, you know, is going to be Morning, so I can't be that, and it seems to me Morning would have suited me just lovely."

  "Go as Beauty," suggested Mr. Jespersen, blushing at the thought of his audacity.

  "So I will, Mr. Jespersen," she answered, laughing, "if you will go as the Beast."

  Paul, being a simple-hearted fellow, failed to see any sarcasm in this, but interpreted it rather as a hint that Miss Clara desired his escort, as Beauty, of course, only would be recognizable in her proper character by the presence of the Beast.

  "I shall be delighted, Miss Clara," he said, beaming with pleasure. "If you will be my Beauty, I'll be your Beast."

  Miss Clara did not know exactly how to take this, and was rather absent-minded during the rest of the interview. She had been chaffing Mr. Jespersen, of course, but she did not wish to be absolutely rude to him, because he was her father's employee, and, as she often heard her father say, a very valuable and trustworthy young man.

  When Paul got home he began at once to ponder upon his character as Beast, and particularly as Miss Clara's Beast. It occurred to him that his uncle, the furrier, had an enormous bear-skin, with head, eyes, claws, and all that was necessary, and without delay he went to try it on.

  His uncle, feeling that this event was somehow to redound to the credit of the family, agreed to make the necessary alterations at a trifling cost, and when the night of the masquerade arrived, Paul was so startled at his appearance that he would have run away from himself if such a thing had been possible. He had never imagined that he would make such a successful Beast.

  By an ingenious contrivance with a string, which he pulled with his hand, he was able to move his lower jaw, which, with its red tongue and terrible teeth, presented an awful appearance. By patching the skin a little behind, his head was made to fit comfortably into the bear's head, and his mild blue eyes looked out of the holes from which the bear's eyes had been removed. The skin was laced with thin leather thongs from the neck down, but the long, shaggy fur made the lacing invisible.

  Paul Jespersen practiced ursine behavior before the looking-glass for about half an hour. Then, being uncomfortably warm, he started down-stairs, and determined to walk to the Association Hall. He chuckled to himself at the thought of the sensation he would make, if he should happen to meet anybody on the road.

  Having never attended a masquerade before, he did not know that dressing-rooms were provided for the maskers, and, being averse to needless expenditure, he would as soon have thought of flying as of taking a carriage. There was, in fact, but one carriage on runners in the town, and that was already engaged by half a dozen parties.

  The moon was shining faintly upon the snow, and there was a sharp frost in the air when Paul Jespersen put his hairy head out of the street-door and reconnoitred the territory.

  There was not a soul to be seen, except an old beggar woman who was hobbling along, supporting herself with two sticks. Paul darted, as quickly as his unwieldly bulk would allow, into the middle of the street. He enjoyed intensely the fun of walking abroad in such a monstrous guise. He contemplated with boyish satisfaction his shadow which stretched, long and black and horrible, across the snow.

  It was a bit slippery, and he had to manoeuvre carefully in order to keep right side up. Presently he caught up with the beggar woman.

  "Good-evening!" he said.

  The old woman turned about, stared at him horror-stricken; then, as soon as she had collected her senses, took to her heels, yelling at the top of her voice. A big mastiff, who had just been let loose for the night, began to bark angrily in a back yard, and a dozen comrades responded from other yards, and came bounding into the street.

  "Hello!" thought Paul Jespersen. "Now look out for trouble."

  He felt anything but hilarious when he saw the pack of angry dogs dancing and leaping about him, barking in a wildly discordant chorus.

  "Why, Hector, you fool, don't you know me?" he said, coaxingly, to the judge's mastiff. "And you, Sultan, old man! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Here, Caro, that's a good fellow! Come, now, don't excite yourself!"

  But Hector, Sultan, and Caro were all proof against such blandishments, and as for Bismarck, the apothecary's collie, he grew every moment more furious, and showed his teeth in a very uncomfortable fashion.

  To defend one's self was not to be thought of, for what defence is possible to a sham bear against a dozen genuine dogs? Paul could use neither his teeth nor his claws to any purpose, while the dogs could use theirs, as he presently discovered, with excellent effect.

  He had just concluded to seek safety in flight, when suddenly he felt a bite in his left calf, and saw the brute Bismarck tug away at his leg as if it had been a mutton-chop. He had scarcely recovered from this surprise when he heard a sharp report, and a bullet whizzed away over his head, after having neatly put a hole through the right ear. Paul concluded, with reason, that things were getting serious.

  If he could only get hold of that blockhead, the judge's groom, who was violating the law about fire-arms, he would give him an exhibition in athletics which he would not soon forget; but, being for the moment deprived of this pleasure, he knew of nothing better to do than to dodge through the nearest street-door, and implore the protection of the very first individual he might meet.

  It so happened that Paul selected the house of two middle-aged milliners for this experiment.

  Jemina and Malla Hansen were just seated at the table drinking tea with their one constant visitor, the post-office clerk, Mathias, when, all of a sudden, they heard a tremendous racket in the hall, and the furious barking of dogs.

  With a scream of fright, the two old maids jumyed up, dropping their precious tea-cups, and old Mathias, who had tipped his chair a little backward, lost his balance, and pointed his heels toward the ceiling. Before he had time to pick himself up the door was burst open and a great hairy monster sprang into the room.

  "Mercy upon us!" cried Jemina. "It is the devil!"

  But now came the worst of it all. The bear put his paw on his heart, and with the politest bow in the world, remarked:

  "Pardon me, ladies, if I intrude."

  He had meant to say more, but his audience had vanished; only the flying tails of Mathias's coat were seen, as he slammed the door on them, in his precipitate flight.

  "Police! police!" someone shouted out of the window of the adjoining room.

  Police! Now, with all due respect for the officers of the law, Paul Jespersen had no desire to meet them at the present moment. To be hauled up at the station-house and fined for street disorder——nay, perhaps be locked up for the night, if, as was more than likely, the captain of police was at the masquerade, was not at all to Paul's taste. Anything rather than that! He would be the laughing stock of the whole town if, after his elaborate efforts, he were to pass the night in a cell, instead of dancing with Miss Clara Broby.

  Hearing the cry for police repeated, Paul looked about him for some means of escape. It occurred to him that he had seen a ladder in the hall leading up to the loft. There he could easily hide himself until the crowd had dispersed.

  Without further reflection, he rushed out through the door by which he had entered, climbed the ladder, thrust open a trap-door, and, to his astonishment, found himself under the wintry sky.

  The roof sloped steeply, and he had to balance carefully in order to avoid sliding down into the midst of the noisy mob of dogs and street-boys who were laying siege to the door.

  With the utmost caution he crawled along the roof-tree, trembling lest he should be discovered by some lynx-eyed villain in the throng of his pursuers. Happily, the broad brick chimney afforded him some shelter, of which he was quick to take advantage. Rolling himself up into the smallest possible compass, he sat for a long time crouching behind the chimney; while the police were rummaging under the beds and in the closets of the house, in the hope of finding him.

  He had, of course, carefully closed the trap-door by which he had reached the comparative safety of his present position; and he could not help chuckling to himself at the thought of having outwitted the officers of the law.

  The crowd outside, after having made night hideous by their whoops and yells, began, at the end of an hour, to grow weary; and the dogs being denied entrance to the house, concluded that they had no further business there, and slunk off to their respective kennels.

  The people, too, scattered, and only a few patient loiterers hung about the street door, hoping for fresh developments. It seemed useless to Paul to wait until these provoking fellows should take themselves away. They were obviously prepared to make a night of it, and time was no object to them.

  It was then that Paul, in his despair, resolved upon a daring stratagem. Mr. Broby's house was in the same block as that of the Misses Hansen, only it was at the other end of the block. By creeping along the roof-trees of the houses, which, happily, differed but slightly in height, he could reach the Broby house, where, no doubt, Miss Clara was now waiting for him, full of impatience.

  He did not deliberate long before testing the practicability of this plan. The tanner Thoresen's house was reached without accident, although he barely escaped being detected by a small boy who was amusing himself throwing snow-balls at the chimney. It was a slow and wearisome mode of locomotion——pushing himself forward on his belly; but, as long as the streets were deserted, it was a pretty safe one.

  He gave a start whenever he heard a dog bark; for the echoes of the ear-splitting concert they had given him were yet ringing in his brain.

  It was no joke being a bear, he thought, and if he had suspected that it was such a serious business, he would not so rashly have undertaken it. But now there was no way of getting out of it; for he had nothing on but his underclothes under the bear-skin.

  At last he reached the Broby house, and drew a sigh of relief at the thought that he was now at the end of his journey.

  He looked about him for a trap-door by which he could descend into the interior, but could find none. There was an inch of snow on the roof, glazed with frost: and if there was a trap-door, it was securely hidden.

  To jump or slide down was out of the question, for he would, in that case, risk breaking his neck. If he cried for help, the groom, who was always ready with his gun, might take a fancy to shoot at him; and that would be still more unpleasant. It was a most embarrassing situation.

  Paul's eyes fell upon a chimney; and the thought flashed through his head that there was the solution of the difficulty. He observed that no smoke was coming out of it, so that he would run no risk of being converted into smoked ham during the descent.

  He looked down through the long, black tunnel. It was a great, spacious, old-fashioned chimney, and abundantly wide enough for his purpose.

  A pleasant sound of laughter and merry voices came to him from the kitchen below. It was evident the girls were having a frolic. So, without further ado, Paul Jespersen stuffed his great hairy bulk into the chimney and proceeded to let himself down.

  There were notches and iron rings in the brick wall, evidently put there for the convenience of the chimney-sweeps; and he found his task easier than he had anticipated. The soot, to be sure, blinded his eyes, but where there was nothing to be seen, that was no serious disadvantage.

  In fact, everything was going as smoothly as possible, when suddenly he heard a girl's voice cry out:

  "Gracious goodness! what is that in the chimney?"

  "Probably the chimney-sweep," a man's voice answered.

  "Chimney-sweep at this time of night!"

  Paul, bracing himself against the walls, looked down and saw a cluster of anxious faces all gazing up toward him. A candle which one of the girls held in her hand showed him that the distance down to the hearth was but short; so, to make an end of their uncertainty, he dropped himself down——quietly, as he thought, but by the force of his fall blowing the ashes about in all directions.

  A chorus of terrified screams greeted him. One girl fainted, one leaped up on a table, and the rest made for the door.

  And there sat poor Paul, in the ashes on the hearth, utterly bewildered by the consternation he had occasioned. He picked himself up by and by, rubbed the soot out of his eyes with the backs of his paws, and crawled out upon the floor.

  He had just managed to raise himself upon his hind-legs, when an awful apparition became visible in the door, holding a candle. It was now Paul's turn to be frightened. The person who stood before him bore a close resemblance to the devil.

  "What is all this racket about?" he cried, in a tone of authority.

  Paul felt instantly relieved, for the voice was that of his revered chief, Mr. Broby, who, he now recollected, was to figure at the masquerade as Mephistopheles. Behind him peeped forth the faces of his two daughters, one as Morning and the other as Spring.

  "May I ask what is the cause of this unseemly noise?" repeated Mr. Broby, advancing to the middle of the room. The light of his candle now fell upon the huge bear whom, after a slight start, he recognized as a masker.

  "Excuse me, Mr. Broby," said Paul, "but Miss Clara did me the honor——"

  "Oh yes, papa," Miss Clara interrupted him, stepping forth in all her glory of tulle and flowers; "it is Paul Jespersen, who was going to be my Beast."

  "And it is you who have frightened my servants half out of their wits, Jespersen?" said Mr. Broby, laughing.

  "He tumbled down through the chimney, sir," declared the cook, who had half-recovered from her fright.

  "Well," said Mr. Broby, with another laugh, "I admit that was a trifle unconventional. Next time you call, Jespersen, you must come through the door."

  He thought Jespersen had chosen to play a practical joke on the servants, and, though he did not exactly like it, he was in no mood for scolding. After having been carefully brushed and rolled in the snow, Paul offered his escort to Miss Clara; and she had not the heart to tell him that she was not at all Beauty, but Spring. And Paul was not enough of an expert to know the difference.

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