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Boyhood in Norway(11)

2006-09-07 22:15


  Witch Martha lived in a small lonely cottage down by the river. Very few people ever went to see her in the day-time; but at night she often had visitors. Mothers who suspected that their children were changelings, whom the Trolds had put in the cradle, taking the human infants away; girls who wanted to "turn the hearts" of their lovers, and lovers who wanted to turn the hearts of the girls; peasants who had lost money or valuables and wanted help to trace the thief——these and many others sought secret counsel with Witch-Martha, and rarely went away uncomforted. She was an old weather-beaten woman with a deeply wrinkled, smoky-brown face, and small shrewd black eyes. The floor in her cottage was strewn with sand and fresh juniper twigs; from the rafters under the ceiling hung bunches of strange herbs; and in the windows were flower-pots with blooming plants in them.

  Martha was stooping at the hearth, blowing and puffing at the fire under her coffee-pot, when the Sons of the Vikings knocked at the door. Wolf-in-the-Temple was the man who took the lead; and when Witch-Martha opened the upper half of the door (she never opened both at the same time) she was not a little astonished to see the Captain's son, Frithjof Ronning, staring up at her with an anxious face.

  "What cost thou want, lad?" she asked, gruffly; "thou hast gone astray surely, and I'll show thee the way home."

  "I am Wolf-in-the-Temple," began Frithjof, thrusting out his chest, and raising his head proudly.

  "Dear me, you don't say so!" exclaimed Martha.

  "My comrade and foster-brother Skull-Splitter has been wounded; and I want thee, old crone, to stanch his blood before he bleeds to death."

  "Dear, dear me, how very strange!" ejaculated the Witch, and shook her aged head.

  She had been accustomed to extraordinary requests; but the language of this boy struck her as being something of the queerest she had yet heard.

  "Where is thy Skull-Splitter, lad?" she asked, looking at him dubiously.

  "Right here in the underbrush," Wolf-in-the-Temple retorted, gallantly; "stir thy aged stumps now, and thou shalt be right royally rewarded."

  He had learned from Walter Scott's romances that this was the proper way to address inferiors, and he prided himself not a little on his jaunty condescension. Imagine then his surprise when the "old crone" suddenly turned on him with an angry scowl and said:

  "If thou canst not keep a civil tongue in thy head, I'll bring a thousand plagues upon thee, thou umnannerly boy."

  By this threat Wolf-in-the-Temple's courage was sadly shaken. He knew Martha's reputation as a witch, and had no desire to test in his own person whether rumor belied her.

  "Please, mum, I beg of you," he said, with a sudden change of tone; "my friend Hakon Vang is bleeding to death; won't you please help him?"

  "Thy friend Hakon Vang!" cried Martha, to whom that name was very familiar; "bring him in, as quick as thou canst, and I'll do what I can for him."

  Wolf-in- the-Temple put two fingers into his mouth and gave a loud shrill whistle, which was answered from the woods, and presently the small procession moved up to the door, carrying their wounded comrade between them. The poor Skull-Splitter was now as white as a sheet, and the drowsiness of his eyes and the laxness of his features showed that help came none too early. Martha, in hot haste, grabbed a bag of herbs, thrust it into a pot of warm water, and clapped it on the wound. Then she began to wag her head slowly to and fro, and crooned, to a soft and plaintive tune, words which sounded to the ears of the boys shudderingly strange:

  "I conjure in water, I conjure in lead,I conjure with herbs that grew o'er the dead;I conjure with flowers that I plucked, without shoon,When the ghosts were abroad, in the wane of the moon. I conjure with spirits of earth and air That make the wind sigh and cry in despair;I conjure by him within sevenfold rings That sits and broods at the roots of things. I conjure by him who healeth strife,Who plants and waters the germs of life. I conjure, I conjure, I bid thee be still,Thou ruddy stream, thou hast flowed thy fill!

  Return to thy channel and nurture his life Till his destined measure of years be rife."

  She sang the last two lines with sudden energy; and when she removed her hand from the wound, the blood had ceased to flow. The poor Skull-Splitter was sleeping soundly; and his friends, shivering a little with mysterious fears, marched up and down whispering to one another. They set a guard of honor at the leafy couch of their wounded comrade; intercepted the green worms and other insects that kept dropping down upon him from the alder branches overhead, and brushed away the flies that would fain disturb his slumbers. They were all steeped to the core in old Norse heroism; and they enjoyed the situation hugely. All the life about them was half blotted out; they saw it but dimly. That light of youthful romance, which never was on sea or land, transformed all the common things that met their vision into something strange and wonderful. They strained their ears to catch the meaning of the song of the birds, so that they might learn from them the secrets of the future, as Sigurd the Volsung did, after he had slain the dragon, Fafnir. The woods round about them were filled with dragons and fabulous beasts, whose tracks they detected with the eyes of faith; and they started out every morning, during the all too brief vacation, on imaginary expeditions against imaginary monsters.

  When at the end of an hour the Skull-Splitter woke from his slumber, much refreshed, Witch-Martha bandaged his arm carefully, and Wolf-in-the Temple (having no golden arm-rings) tossed her, with magnificent superciliousness, his purse, which contained six cents. But she flung it back at him with such force that he had to dodge with more adroitness than dignity.

  "I'll get my claws into thee some day, thou foolish lad," she said, lifting her lean vulture-like hand with a threatening gesture.

  "No, please don't, Martha, I didn't mean anything," cried the boy, in great alarm; "you'll forgive me, won't you, Martha?"

  "I'll bid thee begone, and take thy foolish tongue along with thee," she answered, in a mollified tone.

  And the Sons of the Vikings, taking the hint, shouldered the litter once more, and reached Skull-Splitter's home in time for supper.

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